Nutritionists fish around, find good news on seafood

October 20, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

Go ahead and savor that flounder fillet, those shrimp, those crabs at your favorite seafood restaurant. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the watchdog agency most noted for nipping at the nation's food conscience, says seafood is OK.

"We found more healthy, low-fat choices at seafood restaurants than at any other restaurants we've tested," said Jayne Hurley, the center's senior nutritionist in a statement released yesterday. The only caveat was reserved for fried seafood, which the group said contained significantly more fat than broiled, steamed, grilled, baked or blackened versions.

The center studied samples of 14 popular seafood dishes from 32 restaurants in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and Washington.

While it's no surprise to most in the food industry that fish and seafood offer diners more healthful, low-fat choices, the positive tone of the report surprised some people who recall the center's more strident attacks over the past few years on the food at Mexican, Italian and Chinese restaurants, and on the popcorn at movie theaters.

"It's nice to be the bearer of good news for a change," said center director Michael Jacobson. "What makes this especially good is that you can get a meal that's low in fat, but also low in sodium.

"Every restaurant has baked or broiled or grilled fish that are inherently low in fat and sodium," Mr. Jacobson said. In addition, he said, the side dishes served at seafood restaurants tend to be lower in fat and sodium. The center found that a meal of flounder, cod, sole, haddock, scallops, shrimp, crabs or clams, plus a baked potato with a tablespoon of sour cream, a salad with a tablespoon of reduced-calorie dressing and two dinner rolls with a half-pat of butter each had 723 calories and 18 grams of fat.

Even lower-fat dishes in Chinese or Italian restaurants tend to be high in sodium, Mr. Jacobson said. "We've been surprised in the past by how salty everything was" when food was tested.

The report highlights advice that nutrition specialists have advocated for years. "It's what we've been saying all along -- seafood is good for you," said Susan Thom, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

More unexpected was the report's tone, which "was a little bit different this time," she said, because it began with positive aspects of the studied cuisine. Previous surveys by the center have branded items with headline-getting phrases: fettuccine Alfredo was called "a heart attack on a plate," and popcorn high in saturated fat was called "the Godzilla of snacks."

"It does get people's attention," said Ms. Thom. "But it makes it a little bit more difficult for us as dietitians" to get out the message that foods are not "good" or "bad."

"All foods have value and can be worked into a diet over a day or over a week," she said. Instead of shunning certain foods, she said, people should concentrate on balance, variety and moderation.

For crab-crazy Baltimore, the report is a welcome one.

"We've always figured out that seafood is the healthiest food," said Richard Cernak, owner of Obrycki's restaurant in East Baltimore. "We serve a full complement of fish. Lobster has cholesterol, but if you like it, what are you going to do? Part of the enjoyment of life is good food."

Nancy Longo, chef-owner of Pierpoint in Fells Point, while agreeing that seafood can provide a low-fat option for diners, questioned how many restaurants are serving fish plain, without sauces or other fat-adding enhancement.

Bel Air restaurateur Eddie Parvizian, of Fisherman's Pride, challenged the notion that blackened fish, which traditionally is cooked in butter, is significantly low in fat. "Even frying, if you use clean, crisp oil, vegetable oil, it's not going to be that bad for you."

For the seafood study, the center created composite samples of restaurant dishes that were then analyzed at independent laboratories for calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. The fried foods were also tested for trans-fatty acids.

The whole idea of the study was challenged by the National Restaurant Association, a trade group based in Washington, which called it "junk science" and suggested that the center's previous condemnation of Chinese, Mexican and Italian restaurant food caused the group to be regarded as "nutritional terrorists."

The restaurant association called yesterday's report "repositioning." "They decided to give us a relatively positive study of seafood in which low-fat items get as much attention as high-fat items. They could have treated Chinese, Italian or Mexican food that way, but apparently they didn't feel the need," said an association statement released yesterday.

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