Late last week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB376, a bill that outlaws the sale and posession of shark fins within the state. “Some shark populations have declined by more than 90 percent,” he said at the time, “portending grave threats to our environment and commercial fishing industries.” He signed the bill, he said, “in the interests of future generations.” Brown also signed a companion bill, AB853, that would give suppliers and restaurants another 18 months to exhaust their existing stock of shark fins, meaning that, practically speaking, AB376 will not go into effect until July 2013.
But that doesn’t mean the shark fin debate is closed. The 400-year-old “Compendium of Materia Medica,” one of the most respected manuals of Chinese traditional medicine, claims shark fins “can nourish the five organs [heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys], increase kidney function, and are good both as a tonic and as an appetite stimulant.” The tradition continues. Chinese cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo claims that shark fins benefit the complexion as well. That, she says, “is why the Chinese regard the shark fin so highly.”
Not everyone concurs. Noted Harvard nutritionist Lilian Cheung, co-author with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh of “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life,” says traditional medicine should be reevaluated. “I respect some of the claims,” she explains, “but it’s just like anything else with Chinese medicine: it’s sort of passed down through the centuries. We need to look at that together with the new scientific paradigm and see where they converge. It’s a good source of protein, there’s no question about it. But protein is something that Americans are not deficient in.”
Protein, water and ash
According to a recent report from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, 97.5 percent of a dried shark fin is protein for the most part, with a bit of water; ash is the third-highest component at 2.2 percent. The rest of the fin consists of small amounts of fat, calcium, iron and phosphorus. Cheung laughs when asked about the nutritional value of shark fins. “From a nutritionist’s standpoint,” she says, “I don’t think it’s a good value! Nowadays, they are so expensive, and you’re not getting high quality.”
Chen Cunren, the late authority on Chinese cuisine and traditional medicine, wrote about shark fins and their nutritional value in his newspaper columns, which were collected under the title “Jinjin youwei tan” or “Talks on Eating With Gusto.” Chen pointed to a Shanghai study that found shark fins to be a concentrated source of protein, but he nonetheless promoted vegetarianism. “Eating shark fins every day is very detrimental to the digestive system,” he concluded, because they are so hard to assimilate.
Mercury counteracts potential benefits
Shark expert John McCosker of the California Academy of Sciences has often been asked whether shark fins are beneficial. “Absolutely not!” he says. “A bowl of vegetable soup is good for your health, but a bowl of shark fin soup can increase one’s impotence! It’s ironic, but consuming all of those toxins and that much mercury is bad for you.”
Does that mean that the benefits of eating shark fin soup don’t outweigh its potential harmful effects? “No one to my knowledge has been able to demonstrate any health value of consuming the soup,” McCosker says.
Large predatory ocean fish are likely to be high in mercury, McCosker says. But it’s almost impossible to measure the quantity. According to Peter Knights, the co-director of the conservation organization WildAid, “the only advice on mercury is the same pretty much for any fish: The lower down the food chain, the safer you are.”
Chinese consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers. A report on the Chinese-language television station KTSF in San Francisco’s Bay Area last May said pregnant women should avoid shark fin altogether because of the mercury. The amount of protein in dried shark fin is roughly the same, ounce for ounce, as that in dried egg whites.
The bottom line: Despite Chinese tradition, contemporary thought suggests that consuming shark meat and fins can be dangerous — and in California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington — illegal too.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Illustration credit: Carolyn J. Phillips