What is sushi?
Sushi is a traditional Japanese dish, based around a particular variety of short-grain rice that's lightly seasoned with vinegar and served with a selection of raw or cooked fish and vegetables.
Toppings and fillings include sushi-grade raw fish, such as salmon or tuna, cooked fish or shellfish, tofu, avocado, chicken, vegetables and wasabi.
There are many varieties of sushi, including:
• Sashimi– slices of sushi-grade fish are served on their own, without rice. There are a few cooked versions including squid, crabmeat and tiger shrimp.
• Maki – sushi rolls made with rice and a filling, like avocado and salmon, wrapped in seaweed and sometimes rolled in sesame seeds.
• Uramaki – similar to maki rolls but with the rice on the outside and the seaweed on the inside, wrapped around the filling.
• Temaki – this is sushi that has been folded into a cone shape, and is often wrapped in seaweed.
• Nigiri – sashimi that is served on top of a rectangle of rice.
Nutritional profile of sushi
A serving of sushi tuna nigiri (6 pieces) typically provides:
• 255kcal / 1080kj
• 12.6g protein
• 3.8g fat
• 45.5g carbohydrates
What sushi ingredients are healthy?
Sushi can be a healthy choice, but it depends on the type you choose and the ingredients used. Oily fish, such as salmon, provides omega-3, which is an essential fatty acid and has to be obtained from your diet. The World Health Organisation recommends eating 1-2 portions of oily fish a week, so sushi may be a delicious way to help reach these targets.
Commonly used vegetables include cucumber, aubergine and avocado - aubergines are a good source of fibre, B vitamins and potassium. While avocados are an excellent source of heart-healthy fats, including the mono-unsaturated variety as well as vitamin E. Seaweed is a classic ingredient in sushi, both as dried sheets used to wrap around the rice (nori) or in salads (wakame). High in fibre and protein, seaweed is also a good source of minerals including iodine, iron, zinc and vitamin B12.
Read more in our guide to the health benefits of seaweed.
Which sushi ingredients aren't as healthy?
Sushi rice is often made 'sticky' with a combination of vinegar, sugar and salt, which will increase your total intakes for the day. Soy sauce is high in salt, so it's worth keeping an eye on how much you use. Just one teaspoon of soy sauce contributes about 10-15% of your recommended daily salt intake.
Some varieties of sushi and the accompanying dishes may be made with mayonnaise or are deep fried in batter – this is likely to dramatically increase the levels of saturated fats in your meal.
Should we be concerned about mercury levels in the fish used in sushi?
The main concern with eating sushi is that it may contain high levels of mercury. A study by the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health found that blood levels were higher in mercury with weekly consumption of certain fish, including tuna steak and sushi.
It would appear that some fish varieties commonly eaten in the UK contain small amounts of mercury, with bluefin tuna and Spanish mackerel both likely to contain more mercury than salmon.
Is sushi safe for everyone?
Certain species of bacteria such as Salmonella, as well as Anisakis and Diphyllobothrium parasites are commonly found in raw fish. This highlights the need for correct handling and storage procedures and suggests that those who are immuno-compromised as well as pregnant women would be advised to avoid raw fish consumption. It is worth noting that food regulations do require 'sushi-grade' fish to be used, and that it is stored under deep-freeze conditions and prepared in accordance with strict hygiene control.
Women who are trying to conceive, are currently pregnant or breastfeeding, and children under the age of 16 are advised to avoid eating fish like swordfish, shark or marlin as it's these types of fish that tend to be higher in mercury and pollutants. Pregnant women may also reduce their risk of food poisoning by avoiding raw fish and shellfish and making sure any fish and shellfish is cooked thoroughly.
How to make a healthy sushi order
• Keep rice to a minimum and look for the fresh fish and sashimi-style dishes, or those wrapped in seaweed.
• Add some miso soup and edamame beans for extra health benefits.
• Go easy on the soy sauce and avoid any deep-fried dishes or mayonnaise-heavy dishes.
• Mind your portions. It’s very easy to think you’re not eating a lot when sushi comes in bite-size pieces, but the calories and salt content could soon add up, especially when you eat more than 8-10 pieces.
Healthy sushi recipes
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This article was updated on 22 March 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Follow Kerry on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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