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Fresh or canned fish, "Sell by" vs. "use by" labels on foods

Created date

March 15th, 2017
Canned tuna fish on a platter

Q. Is it better for your health to eat fresh fish or canned?

A. By now we know that eating fish—especially cold-water fish—two or three times a week is associated with better health. Research shows us that people who eat fish tend to have decreased rates of cardiovascular disease, fewer arthritis symptoms, and possibly lower rates of dementia-related illness. Cold-water fish are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are a healthful fat. While there are some differences in canned and fresh fish, both are roughly equivalent from a nutritional standpoint. Canned fish may be a better choice for some people because it is less expensive and has a longer shelf life. If it is packed in oil, it can also have higher levels of omega-3s per ounce than fresh. Some people are concerned about mercury levels in canned fish, but mercury is only a concern for pregnant women. Ultimately, whether fresh or canned, it is important to have omega-3s in your diet, so choose whichever type fits your lifestyle.

Q. What is the difference between “sell by” or “use by” labels on foods?

A. As of now, there is no standardization in the food industry regarding such labels. For the most part, “sell by” or “use by” indicates how long a product can stay on the shelf or when peak freshness or flavor will be less than optimal. In most instances, food can be safely consumed for a period of time after these dates. Spoilage in dairy products and meats can usually be detected quickly by taking a whiff. The glass-of-water test can be used for eggs—a fresh one will sink, a spoiled one will float. For any product, however, the presence of mold means toss it out. Although it may appear to be only on the surface, invisible mold spores reach deeply into foods. 

Seniors need to be vigilant, however, when it comes to food safety. Sight and the sense of smell may be diminished with age, and while a case of food-borne illness may not be a major threat to a younger person, it can be dangerous for seniors because your immune system is compromised and you may not be able to tolerate dehydration very well. The maxim “when in doubt, throw it out” is a good rule to live by. 

Health and wellness experts practice exclusively at Erickson Living communities all over the U.S. This month our expert is Jennifer Tam, M.D., Medical Director, Linden Ponds, Hingham, Mass.

Dr. Tam received her bachelor’s degree in biology and her medical degree from the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines. She completed her internship and a joint residency in internal medicine and primary care at the Sound Shore Medical Center of Westchester in New Rochelle, N.Y. Tam is board-certified in internal medicine and geriatric medicine and has a fellowship in geriatrics. She joined Linden Ponds in October 2005.