Don’t Eat Swai Fish — Here’s Why (Plus Alternatives)

Swai-Fish

Seafood, especially protein-rich fish, is often cited as a cornerstone in a healthy diet. The Mediterranean diet, often named the healthiest “diet” worldwide, centers fish as a key protein source. But with salmon costing up to $25 per pound (1), it is no surprise Americans often to turn to more affordable alternatives.

Enter: swai fish. As low as $2/pound and carrying a light flavor profile that lends itself to work with a variety of dishes, swai fish can seem like the right choice at the supermarket.

Unfortunately, swai fish’s low price tag does not include the list of health concerns associated with eating the fish. It’s a poor quality protein for several reasons and typical conditions for growing swai make the fish a far greater hazard to health than it’s worth.

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Where Swai Fish Comes From

Most swai fish come from Vietnam. Also known as Pangasius, it is primarily farmed in the Mekong Delta. Vietnam's swai production is one of the world's largest freshwater fish farming industries. 

Because of Vietnam’s relatively low bar for regulation, swai fish imported carries risk of bad bacteria like E. Coli, coming from polluted waters, and being high in levels of antibiotics and other drugs meant to treat mass infection on fish farms.

Another often invisible risk associated with Swai fish is that it is sometimes intentionally mislabeled as the more desirable, expensive catfish. In the early 200s, producers got away with selling it as a type of catfish when in fact it is a related, but not the same species. Although current US regulation forbids this type of mislabeling, a risk always remains depending on how reliable the source of your seafood is.

Swai fish is also called:

  • River catfish
  • Pangasius
  • Basa
  • Sutchi
  • Tra

Why It May Be Dangerous to Eat Swai Fish

  1. Risk of food poisoning
    A 2016 study found that up to 80% of swai fish contained a bacteria well-known for causing foodborne illness in humans (Vibriobacteria) (2). 
  2. Their farms don’t meet US standards for quality
    The fish ponds in Vietnam use antibiotics, strong veterinary drugs (known to cause cancer in humans), and pesticides. (2)  While the US can turn away imports of fish containing these harmful agents, poor quality is not always easy to spot or pull from supply before hitting supermarket shelves. 
  3. Swai farming creates polluted waters
    Not only do we want fish coming from healthy water systems within thriving ecosystems for our own health reasons, but supporting fishing industries that are disruptive to water systems and surrounding wetlands creates a feedback loop that wreaks havoc on the environment, and in turn, the health of anything growing or living there. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends avoiding this fish altogether, stating: “Take a pass on this red rated seafood for now because it poses a high risk to the environment”. (3) 
  4. Low relative nutritional value
    Swai fish, a lean protein, only contains 10% of the omega-3s as that of an equal portion of salmon. Although it offers selenium, niacin, and B12 -- these benefits are negligible compared to the relative health risks outlined above and considering there are far more healthy choices for seafood, lean protein, and healthy fats alike.

If You Choose to Eat Swai…

If you’re partial to swai for one reason or another, it is a good practice to look at the companies and producers you’re buying from and investigate their quality assurance procedures, and FDA/USDA compliance histories. With a little extra homework, you may be able to find more reliable producers. 

But my recommendation is to make healthier choices, more on that below.

Swai Fish Nutrition Facts

A 3-4 oz serving of swai contains roughly:

  • 70-100 calories
  • 15-20 g protein
  • <1 g fat
  • 0 g carbohydrates
  • 350 mg sodium

What to Eat Instead

My favorite healthier swaps instead of swai

  • My top seafood pick: salmon
  • Most similar in nutritional makeup and taste to swai: cod
  • A healthy, low-calorie option: oysters
  • A delicious, affordable option: sardines 

Regardless of what about swai appeals to you: cost, taste, health potential -- there are better options out there. Just make sure to confirm your seafood, no matter the species, is coming from a reputable, sustainable, health-conscience producer.

At the end of the day, making healthy food choices can be tricky if you don’t know what to look for. Eating healthy means eating a diet that suits your unique needs, budget included. The best way to get started on a personalized nutrition plan is first to assess how your current health and diet stack up to your long term health and longevity goals.

Schedule a consultation with us today to see if our program would be a good fit for your needs.

FAQ

It is highly suggested that pregnant women avoid swai fish while pregnant. Offering little nutritional value and a host of risks (including elevated mercury levels), it is best to stay away from swai fish while pregnant.

Swai fish is often referred to as a type of catfish. It used to go by the name “Asian catfish,” until a 2003 US regulation began enforcing otherwise. Although a related species, swai fish is not technically a catfish.

Swai fish is typically tasteless and odorless, which makes it easy to cook in a variety of ways, similar to other types of white fish. It is comparable to catfish, but lighter and more delicate.

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  1. Selina Wamucii. "Salmon Prices in United States of America." https://www.selinawamucii.com/insights/prices/united-states-of-america/salmon/#:~:text=King%20salmon%20is%20quite%20costly,more%20than%20farm%2Draised%20salmon!
  2. Dr. Axe. "Swai Fish: The Dangerous, Mislabelled Fish You Should Avoid." https://draxe.com/nutrition/swai-fish/
  3. Seafood Watch. "Swai." https://www.seafoodwatch.org/recommendations/search?query=%3Afree%3Bswai%7Cspecies

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BY DR. WILL COLE

Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.

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