For most people, unless you have an IgE allergy, fresh fish is safe in the elimination phase of the histamine diet, and far beyond. That’s because fish is only considered a problem when it’s not fresh, when histamine levels rise as a result of bacteria as it spoils. The trick is getting the absolute freshest fish; and now I’ve found us a supplier whose product I believe in. You’ll find my interview with Randy Hartnell, who spent 20 years working as an Alaskan fisherman before joining Vital Choice, below. We discuss why their salmon is a safer option for us and why you definitely don’t want to buy it at the grocery store.
Randy and I met at a health conference. He’s a wonderful person, and I was delighted to learn that his company was providing all the fish. Pre-cooked fish served on a heated platter left sitting in the sun, is not something I would normally ever eat (because of the bacterial accumulation). But having spoken with Randy at some length about his years as a fisherman in Alaska, I felt certain that his product was fresh enough to withstand extra histamine accumulation.
So I dove in and ate fish at lunch and dinner for five days straight. With no problems whatsoever.
Salmon, and a few other fish chosen for their nutritional qualities, are the only animal protein left in my diet (as well as the odd serving of liver for my chronic borderline anemia, ew!).
HEALTH BENEFITS OF SALMON
- Vitamin B12 (240% RDA)
- Vitamin D (130% RDA)
- Selenium (78% RDA)
- Vitamin B3 (55% RDA)
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids (55%)
- Protein (50%)
- Phosphorus (50%)
- Vitamin B6 (37%)
- Iodine (20%)
- Choline (20%)
- Vitamin B5 (18%)
- Biotin (15%)
- Potassium (14%)
Listen to my interview with former 20 year Alaskan fisherman Randy Hartnell at Vital Choice or read the transcript below.
Yasmina: Randy, thank you so much for joining us here today. I was really excited to meet you in San Diego at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and to eat all of your amazing products that were being served in buffets at the conference. It’s not often that I will just go ahead and eat fish somewhere, especially when it’s in a buffet-style thing where it might’ve been sitting out for a little while, but having met you on the first day of the conference, I had absolute conference in your product, so I went ahead and I ate your fish every time it was available, and I had no problems whatsoever. I thought it would be amazing to interview you because histamine levels in fish are a big concern to my readers, so welcome, and thank you.
Randy: Thank you. It was a real pleasure to meet you, Yasmina, and it’s always a joy to be able to share good seafood products with our customers and conference attendees, so I’m glad you enjoyed those.
Yasmina: Wonderful, so you spent 20 years as an Alaskan commercial fisherman before starting up Vital Choice 15 years ago, and so could you tell us how your experience as a fisherman has translated into the product that you offer?
Randy: Sure. Yeah. I started going to Alaska when I was in college, and totally fell in love with the lifestyle, and basically working on the water, working out in nature, and probably would still be doing that except farmed salmon, which is basically the feed bot version of salmon, and basically torpedoed our industry, all the markets defaulted to farmed salmon because very few people could distinguish between wild and farmed salmon. I found when I transitioned from catching fish into marketing fish, starting Vital Choice, that in all the relationships that I developed, and all the knowledge I had gained from fishing in Alaska over the years really served me well. It helped me understand where to go to find the very best fish, who I can trust to product and provide the very best fish, and gave us a real advantage over some of the other competitors out there. Most grocery stores, you go into the seafood case, and you want to buy fish, most of the time, the person behind the counter is going to have no idea where the fish came from, can tell you almost nothing about it. A lot of times the information they give you is not accurate, and so my sort of roots in the industry enabled me to provide a degree of information and authenticity that was lacking in the market. I think that has served us really well. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, if you will, or actually, to put it bluntly, there’s a lot of fraud when it comes to seafood.
You’ll have people who will buy cheap fish, and then relabel them as more expensive fish. The more common incidence of this is farm salmon. A lot of companies will buy, or retailers will buy farm salmon, and label it as wild salmon because they’ve got more and more customers coming in all the time who understand the difference, and they’re asking for wild salmon, and so the less scrupulous vendors will just put wild on the [inaudible 00:04:03].
Yasmina: That’s terrible. It is actually easy to spot, though? I find I can tell the difference by eyeballing the salmon. Farmed salmon looks a lot fattier. Sometimes it’s an odd color.
Randy: More people are getting savvier about being able to distinguish, but the thing is, there are five, six different kinds of wild salmon. The sockeye salmon, which is our signature product, is the most red. The flesh is the most red. It has the least amount of those white, fatty lines in it, so it’s pretty hard to do that, but when it comes to king salmon, especially, wild king salmon, it has a lot more fat in it, and so sometimes it won’t be quite as easy, and then there’s … Another thing about sockeye salmon is they can’t farm it. It’s the particular things about it that just won’t lend it to farming, but when it comes to king salmon, wild Pacific king salmon, wild Pacific silver salmon, they do farm those, so it can be pretty tricky to figure out the difference.
Yasmina: Okay, well, just for anybody out there listening to this who might be unaware as to why fish could be a problem for those with histamine intolerance or excess histamine inflammation is because of … There’s a common misconception that fish is inherently high histamine, which it’s not. It’s the bacteria. It’s fish that is not fresh that becomes a problem, and that’s why I’ve tried over the years to find good sources of salmon that I trust, and so could you explain to us a little bit about how what happens to the fish after it’s taken out of the water, and what the process is, and why we can be sure that your product is a safe bet for lower histamine levels through proper handling of fish?
Randy: Yeah. Sure. Every fish, every Alaskan salmon when it comes out of the water is a beautiful specimen, perfect, clean, but it’s what happens to it after that can be problematic. There are just all kinds of things that impact the quality of that fish by the time it gets to somebody’s dinner plate, from how many fish are being caught that particular day. If there’s a big pulse of fish coming in … Just recently in Bristol Bay, they had one of the biggest runs of all time just this last summer, over 50 million salmon, so on a given day, if two or three million fish come in and get caught, it takes a lot longer for those things to get unloaded, get processed in the plant. Maybe they don’t get chilled quite as well, and so what we do is we go to areas that have smaller runs, lower volume runs. We buy from fish that are generally caught during times when they’re not peak production, so the fish get processed, get brought onto boats that have chilled water, get to the plant, the processing plant as soon as possible, almost always within 12 to 24 hours, and then are frozen. We don’t sell any fresh fish. That’s where stores get into trouble. They feel like they have to sell so-called fresh fish. It may be a week between the time it came out of the water until the time it ends up on the grocery store, in the display case. During that time, as you mentioned, we use the analogy that a fish is like a melting ice cube. The moment you bring it out of the water, it’s perfect, but it goes downhill really fast. Part of the reason that seafood degrades so quickly are all of those poly and saturated fats. They’re so healthy and so good for us, those omega three fats. They are very unstable, and once they get exposed to the air, they start degrading quickly. Of course, there are the bacterial problems as well, but basically what we’re doing is we’re taking the fish, the very best fish that we can find based on the area that it’s caught, when it’s caught, who’s catching it, how they’re catching it, all those factors.
We understand those. We select the best fish, flash freeze it, and so basically when our customer thaws that fish out at home, it’s going to taste like it just came out of the water. It’s going to have a freshness, as though its flavor, appearance, odor, as though it just came out of the water. That’s really what has been responsible for our success, and we’ve grown every year for 15 years. We have thousands of satisfied customers, thousands of testimonials, and it really all boils down to just, we take really good care of the fish, and then we deliver it, and it’s close to perfect.
Randy: You mentioned, I know you’re focused on histamine so seriously, with good reason. I was at a seafood conference in Hawaii one time, and they wanted a … They planned to take us on a tour of the fish market early in the morning on Saturday, and so we went down there. They told us a story about how the regulators had come in and said that they were going to make them test all these fish for histamine content that came off the boat. It was going to cause a lot of expense, a lot of disruption to their process, and then they ultimately were able to show the regulators that they could smell the odor. They could detect the histamines with just the bare nose, just by smelling, and it was just as accurate as their equipment. I guess the message there is, your nose knows, and if something doesn’t smell … If something smells “fishy,” quote unquote, pay attention to it, and avoid it. Obviously we wouldn’t be in business if people didn’t like what they were getting, or if it smelled fishy, or tasted fishy.
Yasmina: No. Exactly. It’s interesting. This reminds me of a piece of research I found a couple of years ago which was … I think it was in southeast Asia that the local fishermen there would wrap the fish in garcinia mangostana leaves, in mango seed leaves, basically. They claimed that it stopped the fish from spoiling, and that was in fact proven to be absolutely accurate, so sometimes the old ways are best.
Randy: Uh-huh. They had figured it out. Yeah. One other quick story, Yasmina, and we had a customer … We’ve got customers all over the country, and I remember one year we got a letter from a woman who said that our fish had made her sick, and she had food poisoning, and that her doctors told her it was the fish, and that her family … Everybody pointed at the fish, and so we said, “Look, we’re gonna send you a box. We want you to put the leftover, the packages you haven’t used yet in a box, and we’re gonna send it directly to a lab, and we’re gonna test it.” We did all that, and the results came back, and the lab said that they almost never see that levels that low, bacteria levels that low. They were just a tiny fraction of what you would expect on a, the analogy they used was if you buy those baby carrots in the produce section, that the bacteria levels are dozens of times higher than they found on our fish.The thing is that it remains frozen. We ship it on dry ice, and what is it, almost 100 below zero. It’s a vacuum-sealed packaging, so there’s just not any opportunity for that kind of degradation to occur.
Yasmina: That sounds great, and as I said before, my experiences that I had, I normally don’t eat fish for every single meal, but I was having fish for lunch and dinner every day that I was away at our conference for about five days, I think it was, and I had no problems whatsoever. The fish had been sitting out in the sun in a big buffet tray, which I absolutely, normally don’t do.
Randy: That’s certainly not ideal for us, either, but …
Yasmina: No, and I know that wasn’t you. That was the hotel, but …
Randy: There’s only so much you can do when you’re working with institutional food preparation.
Randy: For hundreds of people, but anyway.
Yasmina: No, but still, there was no problem, and so what would be the best way for people to defrost this fish as quickly as possible given that we don’t want the histamine bacteria?
Randy: That’s a great question, and for a couple reasons, here’s what we do at our house, and what I recommend that other people do. You wait until it’s almost dinnertime, maybe a half hour, or hour before dinner time, or a meal time, whenever you want to prepare it, take it out of the freezer, and just submerge it in cool water. It will thaw, and I’m talking about like a six-ounce portion of some type of fish, and it will thaw out in 20 minutes or so, and then you remove it from the packaging, just pat it dry, or you can rinse it off if you want, pat it dry, and then prepare it. Some people say put it in the fridge the night before, but what I’ve found in these days, your plans can get interrupted, and before you know it, you had to leave, and now it’s been in there for two or three days, and you just want to avoid that. It’s so quick and easy to thaw as I’ve described that it’s kind of foolproof.
Yasmina: That’s wonderful. My favorite way to serve salmon is with some antihistamine ingredients. I normally either add some ginger and turmeric to it, and I pan roast it, or I will sometimes go a little bit extra. One of my favorite ways to make salmon is to make a pasta, a gluten-rice rice pasta, and I chop up the salmon, and I saute it. Then I simmer it briefly in a sauce that I make. It’s like a nut-free pesto, which is lots of garlic buzzed in the blender very briefly with basil, sorry, lots of basil, a little bit of garlic, lemon, olive oil. It takes about 15 minutes to make in all, this dish, and it’s one of my favorite go-to meals when I have fish or when I’m in a hurry, so that’s-
Randy: That sounds wonderful. Makes me want to run out to the kitchen and make it right now, so.
Yasmina: You don’t just do salmon. You do tuna fish, and actually maybe you’re the right person to ask about this. Tuna fish we see on many histamine lists is consider higher histamine than other fish. Is there a reason for that, and do you agree with that?
Randy: That was what they were targeting at this, the large tuna yellow fin that they, is what they were focusing on in Hawaii. In fact, in my earlier story, and a lot of times those boats will go out, and they will … I learned this when I was over there. They will go out, and catch these fish, and put them in the hold on ice, and they’ll be out for 20 or 30 days. They still call those fresh fish even though they’ve been in the hold on ice for 20 or 30 days, and then they take them out, and now I don’t know that that’s … I wouldn’t think that histamines would develop while they are buried in ice. Really it just comes down to what happens to them between the time they get off the boat and you receive them. I’m not sure why, other than just handling … Again, if they’re being sold fresh as opposed to frozen and vacuum-sealed, that whole time that they’re exposed to air, they’re subject to bacteria. I have a good friend who used to work at a meat and seafood store, managed a counter. He told me how much he just hated the seafood, because it’s so perishable, and it would go bad so fast. One point, they were trying to be proactive, and they got these little badges that they would put on the fish that would basically turn color with the rise of bacteria count. She said they turned color so fast that they threw them away, and even confessed that at one point, that they would soak these fish filets in milk, buttermilk, try to get a couple extra days out of them, but he hated the seafood because it goes bad so fast. There’s so much waste. You throw so much of it out, that … Is tuna different than anything else? It might have something to do with the fact that some of the tuna comes from warmer water. Our albacore is caught in North Pacific and frozen right on … Flash frozen at 40 below zero right on board, stays frozen, and then we bring it in, cut it, package it, so it never really has an opportunity to develop that problem.
Yasmina: Wonderful, because the thing is, I noticed I have a Google alert for a scombroid poisoning in fish, and I just get one after the other, it seems like every week in the United States, there’s another scombroid tuna issue. Yet, it has never been from whole foods, or from your company. The people who supply whole foods have never had a scombroid issue, and it just leads me to think it’s that cheaper, mass-produced, as you said, just taking too long to process it. That totally makes sense, and …
Randy: It’s sort of a takeaway message that people want to know is, okay, where do I find good fish? Like anything, it comes down to dealing with somebody who’s reputable, or that’s got experience. Whole Foods tends to … Also, here’s a big thing. People tend to be really price-sensitive. I’ve had friends who tried to sell to markets that are price-sensitive. In other words, while this guy will give it to me for five cents a pound cheaper, the other guy’s got to get five cents cheaper. It’s just a spiral to the bottom, and how do you get cheaper fish? You buy lower quality fish, and so our prices are on the high end because our quality’s on the high end and it’s directly related. When I was in a fishermen, for 20 years I’d catch these beautiful, sockeye salmon in Alaska, and there were other people buying … I had friends catching sockeye salmon in another part of Alaska, and they would always get a lot more than we did. They’d get 50% more, or 70. The grounds price, so maybe I’d get 75 cents a pound. They would get $1.50 for the same wild Alaskan sockeye salmon. Why was that? It was because that was a lower volume fishery. The fish were handled a lot better, and one of the key things was that those fish from that area had higher oil content. Those fish typically do not come into the United States now, expect for companies like us. I don’t know that there are many others out there like us, but we’re willing to pay twice as much for those fish because the quality is a lot better, flavor, but unfortunately, most people in this country are … We want our food as cheap as possible, and so we import all this unsustainable Asian shrimp, and catfish, and tilapia. It’s not as nutritious, it’s not as sustainable, but it’s cheap. It’s got that going for it, and so bottom line is, if you want really the best quality seafood or anything else for that matter, most of the things, you have to be willing to pay a little more for it.
Yasmina: Sure, so you don’t just do salmon and tuna fish. You have an amazing selection of things that I’ve been wanting to sample again for a long time, but I was … I would go into the local fishmongers, and I would kind of smell things, and I’m sure they were fine, but I was just always a little worried. You don’t just do salmon and tuna. You do, I’ve seen cod, and halibut, and you do meats. Could you tell us a little bit more about your offerings, and you also do supplements made from your own fish.
Randy: That’s our expertise, that’s our passion, and over the years we’ve added other … Really our specialty is Alaskan seafood, and there are a lot of reasons for that, but from that we’ve migrated other directions. I think everything under the umbrella of healthy, nutrient-dense food, so I think one of our first departures was we added a small line of organic, flash-frozen fruit, and that was basically because customers asked us for those kinds of things. We added, oh, just a variety of things, and we’ve kind of started tearing things back as organic vegetables and fruits have become more available in more supermarkets. We’ve kind of let those go and gone back to focusing primarily on seafood, but we have added some other protein options. It’s got to be really special to make the cut, so for example, we have a [Wagu 00:22:14] beef line, that all this beef comes from friends that are 35 miles away, and they’re basically organic grass farmers rather …
They describe themselves more as grass farmers, beef farmers, certified humane. It’s as good as it gets, and the same thing applies to the other things, the chicken, the pork, but really seafood is 90% of our business. We’ve added these things because people have asked us for them, and we found especially the kind of foods that we want to eat ourselves, feed our own families, and we’ve decided to add them to our product line. The supplements, interesting story there. My mom, several years ago, was buying fish oil from Costco, and I wanted to find out what kind of fish it was made from. It’s kind of a long story, but the ultimate conclusion of that was that they couldn’t tell me. I went all the way to the top of the company, and nobody could really tell me what kind of fish oil it was from, because it was from fish from all over the planet, farm salmon, sardines, anchovies, just kind of a blend, a generic fish oil.
In fact, they were telling me … I got this from several people [inaudible 00:23:25] was coming from farmed sardines, which is … There is no such thing as farmed sardines, but that was their story, so anyway, I thought, well, you know, we want to know what kind of fish our fish oils, where it originates, and so I imagine a lot of people do. We had access to wild sockeye, Alaskan sockeye salmon oil, this beautiful red oil, and so that was really our first foray into supplements, and we’ve expanded a little bit, but that’s really the foundation of our supplement program, the wild salmon oil.
Yasmina: You mentioned your friends who consider themselves to be grass farmers rather than beef. When I was living in the south of France just recently, I went into the butcher’s, and I said in French, “Which beef do you have that eats only grass throughout its entire life?” I was trying to figure out what the term was for grass-fed beef in France, and he just looked at me with an incredibly condescension and said to me, “But madam, what else should they eat?”
Randy: It’s a wonderful story, and in fact, if you go to our beef section, there’s a little video there where we interview the people. Same with the pork section.
Yasmina: Okay. Wonderful, and so what is the pitch for salmon in one or two sentences? Why should we be eating salmon?
Randy: Oh, boy. I could wax eloquent on that for quite a while, but in one or two sentences, I would say it’s probably the most natural, nutrient-dense food on the planet, sustainable, and probably the most natural, nutrient-dense and sustainable food on the planet. I could go into each one of those, and it tastes good, too, if you get it from the right place. These wild salmon are one of the last truly wild foods available to us. It’s something our body, I believe, recognizes on a molecular level as good, and people ask me all the time, “You must get tired of eating salmon,” and no, I don’t. I never get tired of it, and I’m not just saying that because I market it. I’m passionate about marketing it because I believe, and I’ve come to know a lot of food researchers, scientists, so now I personally understand on a molecular level why it’s so good for us. Those long chain marine omega three fats are, they’re literally vital. It’s part of where our name came from. They’re vital for our brain health, and our eyes, and our reproductive organs.
It would be hard to find another food that is so beneficial, and which has nutrients that so many people are deficient in. These healthy fats are just absent, all but absent from the Western diet, and there are just dozens and dozens of, as you know Yasmina, I’m sure, inflammation drives so much chronic disease, physical and mental as well, and that inflammation is in large part because we have this terrible imbalance of different types of fat, almost no omega-threes and lots of these omega-sixes that are pro-inflammatory, so.
Yasmina: I have a lot of omega six in my diet because I eat nuts, and seeds, and pulses, and all that stuff, but it’s 100% counterbalanced without needing an omega three supplement by the amount of salmon that I eat, which is the only animal protein that I eat. I will eat fish. That’s pretty much it, and liver once in a while if my RBC is tanking, but there’s a reason it’s the only thing I still eat, and that is because it delivers nutrients that I have a hard time getting anywhere else. I enjoy it. I feel terrible for the fish, and I love that there was an old Native American tradition, which was some tribes, after they would eat fish, and I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but they would return the bones to whatever body of water they had fished the fish from in the hopes that it would replenish.
I think that’s a wonderful way of remaining tied to the land that we come from, and to have a great understanding that we’re not dealing with infinite resources, and I think it’s good to have that link, but it’s a little impractical.
Randy: I’m so glad you mentioned that, because that is one of the most special things about wild salmon, is these fish are only on the planet for two, depending on the species, for two to four years. All those 50 million sockeye salmon that came back to Bristol Bay this year, they’re on their way up the river to spawn, and die, and lay their eggs, replenish the cycle, and it starts all over again. They’ve been managing those fisheries up there for 50 years. They know that one particular river may need one million fish to replenish, one may need two million, whatever. They have biologists in charge of those fisheries to ensure that they get the fish they need. All those other ones that come back over that, what they need for their spawning, are surplus, and they’re going to die anyway, and they’re 100 … Last count, about 135 different species that all depend on these salmon throughout their life cycle, so they’re a keystone species. We’re just one of 135 more that partake, so it’s a pretty guilt-free type of food, unlike almost anything else you could think of.
They get to live their entire lives. 99% is nature, and then get to live on in us, and those who eat them. That not only includes a lot of the other animals but the forests, the forests along the rivers, the salmon river streams are nourished by the salmon, and it’s really a wonderful story. The more you know about it, the better it sounds.
Yasmina: Thank you so much for joining us here today, Randy. I know that the information that you share will be of benefit to a lot of my readers, and I personally will continue enjoying your products for a long time to come, and I am very certain that they will benefit my readers, too.
Randy: Thank you, Yasmina. I’d just like to invite anybody that’s interested to visit our site, and we have a really great email newsletter for email newsletters. It’s got lots of recipes, and eco-news, and just it’s … We get a lot of positive feedback from it, and so check that out. There’s a lot of recipes, and cooking videos, and whatnot on our site as well, so and …
Yasmina: Okay, so that’s vitalchoice.com, correct?
Randy: That’s right. That’s right, and I’m always happy to answer questions. You can get me at [email protected].
Yasmina: Wonderful. Thank you so much. I think you might’ve opened the floodgates there. Prepare to be getting a lot of emails!
Randy: It’s a vital choice. Really a joy speaking with you. Thank you, Yasmina, and hope to talk to you again sometime soon.
Yasmina: Thank you very much.