Low Mercury Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl (Maguro Butsu)

ahi poke recipe in a blue bowl

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Americans eat nearly three pounds of tuna each every year (usually in cans), making it the nation’s second most popular seafood after shrimp. The government promotes it via school lunch programs, WIC (the federal food program for poor women and children), and even in the U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary recommendations.

Low in fat, high in protein, tuna contains Vitamins A & D and lots of omega-3 fatty acids that are thought to protect against heart disease and boost brain development early in life. In fact, the American diet is far too low in omega-3s, making tuna one of the few foods we eat that give us this vital nutrient.

Tuna is very good for you!

But because of emissions from power plants and garbage incinerators, tuna also absorbs significant amounts of methylmercury, a form of mercury that concentrates in the fatty tissues of big fish and humans. Mercury, even at low levels, has been linked to a host of health and developmental problems in babies and adults.

Tuna is not the highest-mercury fish we eat—that title belongs to swordfish and tilefish—but it is by far the largest source of mercury in our diet because people eat so much of it.

The Mercury in Tuna Dilemma

None of this is news to federal regulators. In 1970, a New York chemistry professor tested a can of tuna in his pantry and discovered that it contained significantly more mercury than what the FDA then considered safe. After running tests of its own, the agency recalled nearly 1 million cans of tuna. It also issued an “action level” under which fish with more than 0.5 parts per million (ppm) of methylmercury could be pulled from the market.

An action level is not a regulation. It doesn’t require anyone to do anything. Even so, the fishing industry found the new standard so intolerable that it sued the FDA. As a result, in 1979, the FDA doubled the level to 1 ppm, making it twice as high as what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (which issues mercury advisories for anglers) and the European Union consider safe.

The action level in China is 0.3 ppm—more than three times more stringent than the FDA’s.

But tuna often exceeds even the weak US standard: In 2006, for instance, the group Defenders of Wildlife tested cans of tuna straight out of grocery stores and found that 1 in 20, particularly those imported from Latin America, had mercury above the FDA action level and could, in theory, be pulled from the shelves.

Warnings About Eating Tuna

It was only after years of criticism from environmental groups and scientists that the FDA began to warn pregnant women about mercury. But, when the FDA failed to come through on tougher regulations to back up their warning, some states stepped up with more stringent warnings. Washington State, for example, warns that children under six should eat no more than half a can of albacore tuna a week.

Because of continued pressure from scientists, doctors, and environmental groups, in 2003, the FDA did revise the mercury advisory for several kinds of fish, but again it bent the science to accommodate the tuna industry’s interests so that canned light tuna would end up in the low mercury group “in order to keep the market share at a reasonable level.”

The current FDA advisory warns pregnant and nursing women to eat no more than 6 ounces of albacore, and no more than 12 ounces of chunk light tuna, per week.

The FDA recommends the same guidelines for children, with the vague suggestion that they eat “smaller portions.” A 44-pound preschooler who follows the FDA guideline would consume four times the mercury the EPA considers safe.

Because of mercury contamination, mainstream commercial brands of tuna should be eaten in extreme moderation, and probably avoided by pregnant and nursing women altogether.

Low Mercury Tuna Fish

Most of the world’s fisheries are contaminated with Mercury, PCBs and other human-made pollutants, and they are significantly over-fished. But farmed fish are pumped full of antibiotics and have their own grave environmental issues.

So, unless you choose to abstain from eating fish altogether (which is certainly an option many people take), what is a conscious seafood lover to do?

Young tuna fish have far less methylmercury than any other tuna because they are caught before they grow large enough to accumulate a lot of mercury in their bodies. But not all low mercury tuna is created equal: to be eco-friendly as well as low-mercury the tuna also needs to be pole, troll, or line-caught, and, ideally, certified as sustainably harvested.

Because of consumer demand, there are a few companies who have made it their business to supply eco-friendly, young, low-mercury tuna fish. Their products come at a premium because they:

  • sustainably harvest selected tuna breeds with poles and lines instead of nets,
  • monitor the percentage of their catch, often through third-party sustainable-fishery certifiers like the Marine Stewardship Council,
  • rigorously test their products to ensure that their mercury levels fall well below EPA and FDA standards, and
  • use BPA-free cans to package their product.

Here are some of those companies…

Vital Choice – offers Marine Stewardship Council-certified sushi-grade tuna medallions and canned tuna in BPA free cans! They carry minimal-mercury tuna, salmon and other seafood, too. Available online.

Wild-Planet – offers troll-caught, minimal-mercury, canned tuna in BPA-free cans. Available online and at better grocery stores.

Safe Catch – has the lowest tested levels of mercury of any brand of tuna, and meets Consumer Reports “Low Mercury” criteria set for pregnant and nursing women and young children. Safe-Catch is also the only tuna endorsed by the American Pregnancy Association. BPA-free cans and Marine Stewardship Council certified. Available at better grocery stores, Costco and online.

This Tuna Poke recipe is a great way to get the most taste and nutrition from your sushi-grade, low mercury tuna:

ahi poke recipe in a blue bowl

Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl (Maguro Butsu)

The world's fisheries are contaminated and overfished. This Tuna Poke recipe uses sustainably-caught, low-mercury tuna so you can enjoy this very nutritious food without worry.
Prep Time: 15 mins
Total Time: 15 mins
Course: Appetizer, Dinner
Cuisine: Gluten Free, Japanese, Keto, Paleo
Approx. Cost: $10
Servings: 4 servings
Calories: 171kcal


  • 14 oz. sushi-grade tuna, line-caught, skinned
  • 1 bunch mustard greens, or cress (optional)
  • 4 tsp. wasabi paste, or the same amount of wasabi power mixed with 2 tsp. purified water
  • 4 Tbsp. coconut aminos,  or nama shoyu 
  • 8 spring onions, or scallions, green part only, finely chopped
  • 4 shiso leaves, cut into thin slivers, lengthwise
  • sesame seeds, toasted (optional)


  • Cut the tuna into 3/4 inch cubes or 1/2 inch thick medallions.
  • If using mustard and cress, arrange as a bed in four small serving bowls or plates.
  • Just 5-10 minutes before serving, blend the wasabi paste with the coconut aminos or nama shoyu in a bowl, then add the tuna and spring onions.
  • Mix well and leave to marinate for 5 minutes.
  • Divide among the bowls and add a few slivers of shiso leaves on top. Garnish with sesame seeds, if using.
  • Serve immediately and enjoy!


Serving: 4OZCalories: 171kcalCarbohydrates: 6gProtein: 24gFat: 5gSaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 38mgSodium: 377mgPotassium: 344mgFiber: 1gSugar: 1gVitamin A: 2405IUVitamin C: 6.6mgCalcium: 32mgIron: 1.4mg

6 thoughts on “Low Mercury Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl (Maguro Butsu)”

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  1. How do you feel about eating cilantro after eating tuna or other types of fish since cilantro is suppose to bind to mercury and cleanse it out of the body.

    1. Not everyone can eat cilantro, and its efficacy at removing heavy metals is inconsistent and poorly tested. I would NOT rely on cilantro to protect you from contaminated fish. Better to choose sustainable sources with minimal mercury.

  2. I recently purchased canned tuna and salmon from Vital Choice. The tuna is THE BEST I’ve ever had! I was amazed when I opened the can to see a solid piece of fish. It’s so good you can eat it right out of the can. I often serve it, as is, over a salad for dinner. I will never buy the nasty, stringy, name brand commercial tuna from the grocery store again!

    Great article!

  3. Minimal-mercury fish is code word for juvenile fish. The way these companies ‘claim’ to have lower mercury is by taking smaller fish from the oceans. That is horrible for sustainability.

    Read up on maximum sustainable yeild, biomass and recruitment. If you want to be eco-friendly, you should know what you’re talking about first.

    Your family footprint just got a whole heck of a lot bigger.

    1. Small Footprint Mama

      Mike, indeed minimal-mercury fish is juvenile fish. I don’t think any of these companies deny this at all. However, this information comes from the Marine Stewardship Council:

      There are two fishery segments targeting albacore tuna worldwide: 1) surface fisheries catching migratory juveniles and 2) deep water long-line fisheries capturing spawning stocks. It is counter intuitive to assume that the most sustainable method of catch is to shift effort to juveniles since they have never bred. However, if all fish should be allowed to breed before harvest then there would be no commercial salmon industry since all commercial salmon have also not bred. The salmon stocks are managed by assessment of percentage of capture versus escapement. If an adequate percentage escape capture to go on to reproduce, then the fishery is considered sustainable.

      “In the albacore world, the surface fisheries are artisanal methods of harvest that are fairly ineffective in capture compared to long-line fisheries. The West Coast troll and pole fishery captures less than 15% of the bio-mass resulting in 85% of the fish returning to the spawning stocks. This 85% escapement is sufficient to sustain the population of the species. Once a fish becomes a mature spawning adult it continues to increase in fecundity exponentially with age. A 10 year old female albacore produces many times more eggs than a 6 year old albacore. The same is true with rockfish or most other fish and is the key rationale for marine reserves designed to protect mega fauna (large spawning adults) in the reserves and allow catch of their offspring outside the reserves. There is scientific consensus that a harvest shift away from long-line caught mature albacore to migratory juveniles with proper escapement is the best model for sustainability; this explains why groups like Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch consider US troll/pole caught albacore as a “best choice” – http://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations/groups/tuna?type=albacore&q=Tuna,%20Albacore.

      1. You should be aware that Vital Choice has rescinded its stated Tuna mercury level of 0.08 ppm and has restated it as 0.25 ppm more than 3 times higher. One should also be aware that every canned fish that utilizes PET liners (most do now to avoid BPA)produce antimony at fairly high levels due to the product being heated in the cans. (Same for all canned products that must be heated to avoid bacterial contamination.) Antimony is a known toxin and carcinogen.



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