Is barracuda safe to eat? (Main risks)
In this brief guide, we will answer the question “Is barracuda safe to eat?”. We also will discuss how mercury concentration can make some fish species unsafe to consume.
Is barracuda safe to eat?
Barracuda can be dangerous, it is advisable to consume barracuda in moderation and exercise caution based on the fish’s origin. Barracudas serve as a significant marine pelagic fishery resource found in nearly all equatorial, tropical, and warm temperate seas globally.
In India, barracudas hold economic importance as a marine fishery resource, with their high-quality flesh and affordable price leading to substantial demand in the retail market. (1)
Barracuda comprises approximately 76.9–77.0% moisture, 20.4–23.9% protein, 0.8–1.3% fat, and 1.3–1.4% ash. The fish is notably rich in fatty acids, with unsaturated fatty acids prevailing over saturated ones. The primary fatty acid in barracuda is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), accounting for 20.6-21.1%. DHA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid.
The second-highest fatty acid is palmitic acid (15.34-16.02%), classified as a saturated fatty acid. Barracuda is recognized as a high-quality source of proteins, vitamins, and various essential elements, including calcium (Ca), zinc (Zn), iron (Fe), and selenium (Se). (1, 2)
What are barracuda health benefits?
Barracuda, a fish known for its high-quality protein and abundance of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA), is an excellent source of essential nutrients. These fatty acids play a crucial role in heart health, brain development, and eye health. Barracuda is also a natural source of Vitamin D, which aids in the body’s utilization of calcium for strong teeth and bones.
Furthermore, it provides essential minerals like selenium, iodine, magnesium, iron, and copper, supporting growth, repair, and overall bodily functions. (3)
What are the potential risks of barracuda consumption?
Barracuda can accumulate heavy metals through contact with their gills and skin. This can lead to higher levels of these metals, which can be harmful to humans due to the process of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. Even at low concentrations, non-essential metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium can have toxic effects, especially since they tend to build up in animal tissues.
These substances can accumulate in predatory fish and other animals at the top of the food chain like barracudas who have a high level of predation. As a result, their organs and tissues can contain increased levels of pollutants, including mercury.
Ciguatera fish poisoning is another concern when eating barracuda. This poisoning is caused by ciguatoxin (CTX), which comes from a type of plankton called Gambierdiscus toxicus that lives in coral reefs. It makes fish like barracuda and grouper unsafe to eat in certain reef areas because they contain this toxin. (4)
What are the health hazards of methylmercury?
Methylmercury, a type of mercury found in nature, can affect the central and peripheral nervous systems in humans. It has a stronger impact on the developing brain during fetal exposure compared to adults. Neurological symptoms caused by methylmercury exposure can be subtle and include things like hearing loss, restlessness, and blurred vision. As the exposure continues, symptoms can progress to difficulties in speaking, poor coordination, and, in severe cases, coma or even death.
Upon ingestion, organic mercury, particularly methylmercury, is easily absorbed from the intestines and widely distributed throughout the body. Methylmercury can readily pass through the blood-brain barrier and the placenta, posing significant health and developmental risks. (3)
What are the risks of ciguatera fish poisoning?
Ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP) is prevalent in tropical and subtropical waters and stems from the consumption of contaminated reef fish. Herbivorous fish in coral reefs ingest ciguatoxin, which is then passed through the food chain to carnivorous reef fish, eventually reaching humans.
Notably, factors such as temperature, gastric acid, and cooking methods have no impact on ciguatoxin, and its presence doesn’t alter the odor, color, or taste of the fish.
Diagnosis of CFP is primarily clinical, relying on a constellation of symptoms linked temporally to the ingestion of suspected fish products. This toxin can affect anyone, and symptoms may endure for months or even years. Neurological symptoms typically persist for a few days to several weeks, with sporadic recurrences possible years later. (5)
What are the symptoms of ciguatera?
A wide range of symptoms have been observed in documented cases, including weakness, chills, sweating, joint and muscle pain, and a metallic taste in the mouth. Neurologic symptoms usually follow an acute gastrointestinal illness, and in rare cases, there may be cardiovascular collapse.
Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain are common. Neurologic manifestations can include sensitivity to cold (discomfort when touching cold water or objects) and tingling sensations in the arms, legs, face, tongue, and throat.
Approximately a third of patients experience tooth pain, numbness or looseness in the teeth. Visual symptoms include blurred vision and temporary blindness. Chronic neuropsychiatric symptoms can significantly impair individuals, including malaise, depression, headaches, muscle pain, and fatigue.
Cardiac effects may involve bradycardia (possibly due to cholinesterase inhibition), tachycardia, and other arrhythmias. Fatal outcomes can occur from respiratory or cardiac failure, particularly in patients who have consumed toxin-rich fish parts like the liver, intestines, or roe. (6)
Should barracuda be avoided?
Certainly. As per the CDC recommendations, it is advisable to avoid or limit the consumption of fresh reef fish, particularly barracuda and moray eel, due to their higher likelihood of causing ciguatera. Additionally, it is strongly advised against eating the fish’s liver, intestines, eggs, or head, as these parts have the highest concentration of toxins.
On average, barracuda typically contains around 0.77 parts per million (ppm) of mercury. It is a general guideline that fish higher up the food chain tend to have elevated mercury levels. Therefore, it is recommended to consume these fish infrequently. (3, 7)
In this brief guide, we answered the question “Is barracuda safe to eat?”. We also discussed how mercury concentration can make some fish species unsafe to consume.
In my perspective as a food scientist, barracuda should only be consumed when the precedence of the fish can be attested. Where its safety cannot be attested it should be avoided because of its high mercury concentration and the danger of ciguatera.
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RAJESH, K. M. et al. Feeding behaviour of the sawtooth barracuda, Sphyraena putnamae (Jordan and Seale, 1905) along the southeastern Arabian Sea, India. Regional Studies in Marine Science, v. 47, p. 101974, 2021.
WICAKSONO, A. R.; SWASTAWATI, F.; ANGGO, A. D. Fatty acid profile and changes in quality of smoked barracuda fish (Sphyraena jello) with different concentrations of liquid smoke. Food Research, v. 7, n. 3, p. 44-50, 2023.
HEALTH CANADA. Human health risk assessment of mercury in fish and health benefits of fish consumption. Bureau of Chemical Safety, Minister of Health, 2007.
MAULU, Sahya et al. Fish nutritional value as an approach to children’s nutrition. Frontiers in Nutrition, v. 8, p. 1090, 2021.
REBATO, Niño et al. Consumption of barracuda in the Caribbean Sea linked to ciguatera fish poisoning among Filipino seafarers. Western Pacific Surveillance and Response Journal: WPSAR, v. 9, n. 4, p. 12, 2018.
ANSDELL, Vernon. Seafood poisoning. In: Travel medicine. Elsevier, 2019. p. 449-456.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. Food Poisoning from Seafood. Travelers’ Health. 2022.