Unique Health Benefits and Risks of Eating Fish Skin

Fish skin is the outermost part of a fish, known as the epidermis. It protects fish from harsh environments and pathogens that may cause infections. It also helps to keep the fish hydrated. For people, fish skin can be a good source of nutrients. However, it is often discarded as most people do not appreciate or know about its nutritional value. There is also a misconception that fish skin is not easy to digest. Many also consider the texture and appearance of fish skin off-putting. However, properly cooking fish skin can make it crispy and flavorful. In this article, we shall look at the health benefits and risks of eating fish skin.

Can You Eat Fish Skin?

Salmon steak with skin

Fish skin is safe to eat or fit for human consumption if adequately cleaned and the outer scales removed. However, fish skin from certain fish species may not taste as well as others. For instance, tilapia skin may have a bitter taste. Tuna and swordfish skins are thick, tough, and leathery, making them less palatable.  

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At the same time, fish skin may be nutritious, crispy, and enjoyable if prepared well. For instance, grilling or pan-frying salmon with its skin makes it crisp and more flavorful. Usually, fish skin has the same nutrients as flesh fish but improves the taste and texture of the fish.

Cooking fish with its skin ensures no nutrients get lost due to the high heat used while pan-frying or grilling fish. It also allows even cooking and adds to the overall flavor of the fish.

Health Benefits of Fish Skin

Source of Proteins

Fish skin is a source of proteins. The most abundant proteins in fish skin comprise gelatin and collagen and often provide amino acids, including proline, glycine, and hydroxyproline. The proteins found in fish skin help build strong muscles and bones. They also keep the immune system strong, lowering the risks of contracting viral and bacterial infections.

Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fish skin contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial to the body. A study showed that omega-3 fatty acids lower inflammation and help reduce the risk of heart disease. In addition, eating fish skin improves endothelial function and increases blood flow to the heart, preventing heart disease.

Arthritis patients should also take fish skin because it contains omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids can usually help reduce joint inflammation and pain. These fatty acids also prevent the loss of cartilage in people with osteoarthritis and can help manage morning stiffness and other symptoms in those with rheumatoid arthritis.

Also Read: What Happens When You Eat Too Much Shrimp in One Sitting?

Pregnant women may consume fish skin, as it contains omega-3 fatty acids. Omega fatty acids can be beneficial to the growing fetus. They support the growth of the fetal brain and eyes. However, pregnant women should eat fish in moderation to reduce fetal exposure to mercury. They should also only eat fish low in mercury to minimize this risk.

Breastfeeding mothers can also eat fish skin as they can pass omega-3 fatty acids to their babies. However, they should only eat fish skin from salmon, sardines, and trout, as they are low in mercury. Doing so reduces mercury exposure and the risk of adverse health.

Eating fish skin with omega-3 fatty acids also supports brain health. This protects people from diseases associated with the brain, such as the loss of intellectual functioning, also known as dementia. In addition, the omega-3 in fish skin can help reduce the risk of depression and even out mood swings in those with bipolar disorder.

Improves Skin Health

Woman with a youthful and glowing skin gently touching her face

Fish skin contains collagen and gelatin. These proteins make the skin glow and youthful. Collagen also reduces wrinkles by making the saggy skin firmer or tighter.  

Fish skin also contains vitamin K, which helps retain moisture and improve the appearance of human skin. Vitamin C also protects human skin from excessive exposure to UV rays. Thus, those who eat fish skin get this vitamin, reducing the risk of sunburn and skin cancer.

In addition, fish skin is a source of vitamin E. Vitamin E usually improves skin health, prevents wrinkles, and helps repair the skin.

Source of Minerals

Fish skin also has calcium, iodine, and mineral salts. These minerals help in building strong bones and muscles. They also help maintain normal metabolism.

Health Risks of Eating Fish Skin

Contamination with Mercury

Fish skin may contain mercury. Mercury is stored in fats on fish skin and may have adverse health effects if ingested. In particular, mercury may cause brain damage, kidney failure, hearing loss or impairment, and even death if the symptoms remain untreated. Young children should eat fish skin in moderation. They should also only eat skin from fish low in mercury, as mercury can affect their developing brain and other body parts.

It is always important to be mindful of the source of fish, as some may be from highly polluted lakes or rivers. Such water bodies may contain high levels of mercury that can contaminate fish skin, increasing the risk of cancer and other health problems if consumed.

Contamination with PCBs

Fish skin might contain probable carcinogenic chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls. Therefore, consuming fish skin contaminated with PCBs can lead to cancer. However, PCBs are not very toxic and can only cause adverse health effects if you eat contaminated fish over a long period.

When young children eat fish skin containing PCBs for some time, they get exposed to various healthy risks. For instance, eating fish skin contaminated with PCBs for a prolonged period might interfere with brain development and cause neurodevelopment and motor problems in these children.

Also Read: Can You Eat Shrimp on a Low Sodium Diet?

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also avoid taking fish skin contaminated with PCBs, as they pass it to the fetus and the breastfeeding babies. These substances can harm them, especially if they build up in their systems over time. For instance, PCBs might negatively lead to low birth weight, a small head size, learning deficits, muscle development delays, and problems with short-term memory.

Contamination with Arsenic

Fish skin may sometimes be contaminated with arsenic, a toxic inorganic compound often found in marine and aquatic environments. The accumulation of arsenic in the body can cause toxicity and adverse health effects, including cancer, cardiovascular illnesses, and diabetes mellitus.

Contamination with Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)

PBDEs are another type of contaminant that can be found on fish skin.

Fish skin with high levels of PBDEs might introduce health risks for pregnant women and their babies. For instance, studies demonstrate that children of mothers with high exposure to PBDEs score low on fine motor skills, attention, and intelligence than those with lower exposure. As a result, children may have impaired motor coordination and cognitive deficits, including attention problems.

PBDEs on fish skin may also put mothers at risk. They might interfere with conception. As a result, women may take longer than usual to conceive or become pregnant. In addition, PBDEs affect hormone levels and may cause hypothyroidism in pregnant women. The low thyroid hormones can complicate the pregnancy and increase the risk of developing gestational hypertension, anemia, abortion, and postpartum hemorrhage. The baby may also have a low intelligence quotient and developmental problems.

Contamination with Chlorinated Pesticides

Chlorinated pesticides can also contaminate fish skin. DDT is the most common chlorinated pesticide and often contaminates fish skin.

Although the US government banned it, some countries still use it today. Therefore, imported fish might still be contaminated with DDT and other chlorinated pesticides. This puts consumers at risk if they eat fish skin from fish imported from these countries.

Mothers who eat fish skin contaminated with DDT may also pass it to their infants through breast milk, adversely affecting their health and growth. For instance, DDT exposure may negatively affect the liver and the nervous system.

In addition, pregnant women who take fish skin with high DDT contamination may not reach full term and may give birth prematurely.

Contamination with Harmful Microorganisms

Fish skin can sometimes have microbial contamination from bacteria such as Salmonella and Vibrio ssp. This happens when fish is sourced from contaminated aquatic or marine environments. However, this risk is reduced by adequately cooking fish skin to kill these microorganisms.

How to Reduce the Risks Associated With Eating Fish Skin

  1. Eat fish skin from less contaminated fish. Evidence shows small fish generally have fewer contaminants than larger ones.
  2. Eat skin from fish low in mercury, such as salmon.
  3. Avoid eating fish skin from bottom-feeding or dwelling fish, such as catfish and carp, as they have high levels of contaminants.
  4. Grill fish to help reduce the amount of contaminants.
  5. Remove fish skin if you are not comfortable eating it. You should also remove the fats around the skin, as contaminants accumulate more in the fatty parts of the fish.