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EATING FOR LIFE | Tasty swordfish has health benefits

Eat more fish.

The American Heart Association recommends Americans aim for two servings of fish per week. Studies have shown eating fish may reduce the risk of death from heart disease.

It’s a simple health message, but knowing which types of fish get the green light requires wading into murky waters rife with controversy. A variety of concerned environmental and culinary groups have issued guides to help consumers choose their fish and seafood wisely, including the popular Seafood Watch, a wallet-size list from the Monterey Bay Aquarium offering “best choices,” “good alternatives” and those to “avoid.”

Unfortunately, the various recommendations can be confusing, sometimes even contradictory. For instance, swordfish imported from other countries is on the Seafood Watch list for consumers to avoid. But in recent years, strict government quotas have helped to replenish swordfish stocks, says Dick Jones, national seafood manager of Whole Foods Markets.

Fast Fish (10-Speed Press, $19.95), a recently published cookbook by Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison, includes East Coast swordfish in the endangered species category, while those caught off the California coast or the Pacific waters near Hawaii are OK. Jones says he has fish coming in year-round, from around the world.

Then come the health concerns posed by mercury levels found in swordfish. Mercury is a pollutant from power plants that burn fossil fuels, especially coal. The air pollutant is carried to the ocean as methylmercury in runoff. Small fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed on aquatic organisms. These smaller fish are eaten by the bigger fish, such as swordfish, that can weigh up to 1,000 pounds.

Because high levels of methylmercury may pose a risk to an unborn baby or a young child’s developing nervous system, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency advise pregnant women, nursing mothers, women of childbearing age and young children to avoid eating fish with elevated levels of mercury.

For most people, however, methylmercury appears to carry few health risks if eaten no more than once a week. In fact, swordfish has plenty of health benefits: It’s a lean source of protein that’s low in calories; it’s high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and niacin; and it’s a good source of phosphorous and potassium. The Star’s recipe for Swordfish with Tomato Basil Caper Sauce is a mild-tasting yet meaty-textured alternative for anyone trying to work more fish dishes into their diet.