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Nutrition experts have long advised Canadians to add fish to their menus two or three times a week. Mounting evidence suggests that regularly eating fish can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, dementia and possibly even rheumatoid arthritis.

But if your daily catch comes from your supermarket's frozen-food case, you might be doing your health a disservice. Many products contain extras, such as cheese, vegetable oil, breadcrumbs and seasoning, which can quickly undo the benefits of your frozen filet.

The health benefits of fish relate to special fats called omega-3 fatty acids. The oilier the fish, the more omega-3 fats it contains. Fish such as salmon, rainbow trout, herring and sardines have the most omega-3 fatty acids.

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Studies have found that, compared to non-fish eaters, people who eat fatty fish a few times a week have a reduced risk of sudden-death heart attack, ischemic stroke (caused by a blood clot) and Alzheimer's disease.

Most frozen fish products are made with lean fish, such as cod, haddock and sole, which are low in omega-3s. But that doesn't mean these types of fish aren't good for you. Some studies suggest all types can protect the heart -- even low-fat fish.

Cod, sole, flounder and haddock are good choices for women and children because they're low in mercury. Women of childbearing age and children are advised to limit their intake of high-mercury fish (swordfish, tuna steaks, king mackerel, whitefish) to once a month.

According to a recent Statistics Canada report, Canadians are eating more fish today than they were a decade ago, thanks to a greater variety of convenient, easy-to-prepare products.

Fish sticks, fish filets, fish cakes and even fish burgers abound. You'll find them breaded, lightly breaded, battered, crispy, crunchy, or seasoned. However, not all frozen fish products are created equal. As a general rule, if you're buying more than fish, you're adding more calories, fat and sodium to your meal.

Take President's Choice Breaded Haddock and Cheese. One filet (100 grams) delivers 10 grams of protein along with 261 calories, 15 grams of fat and almost 800 milligrams of sodium. A 100-gram filet of plain, baked haddock packs 24 grams of protein for less than half the calories (112), a fraction of the fat (0.9 grams) and one-10th the sodium (87 milligrams).

Some breaded and battered products are swimming with artery-clogging trans fat from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Sobey's Smart Choice Battered Haddock isn't so smart after all. Eat two pieces and you'll swallow 13 grams of fat, one half of it as trans fat. And Captain Highliner has some navigating to do when it comes to steering clear of trans fat. One serving of his Fish Sticks with Crunchy Breading packs 8.8 grams of trans fat, almost 90 per cent of its total fat content. Even a large order of McDonald's fries has less trans fat.

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Beware of words like "lightly breaded," which often have nothing to do with fat or calories. President's Choice Lightly Breaded North Atlantic Sole Fillets are not so light on your waistline. One 113-gram fillet delivers 275 calories and 16 grams of fat -- a far cry from the 132 calories and 0.7 grams of fat in unbreaded fish.

Not all frozen fish products should be tossed back in the freezer case. The best of the bunch are plain uncooked fish fillets, as well as those that have been grilled or baked instead of fried.

One filet of Bluewater Brand Garlic & Herb Grilled Pollock serves up a mere 95 calories and three grams of fat -- less than half the calories and one-quarter the fat found in their English Style Battered Pollock.

When it comes to breaded and battered frozen fish, the healthier choices are less abundant. Look for products that have no more than 10 grams of fat and 500 milligrams of sodium per 85- to 113-gram serving. If the stated serving size is a larger, sodium numbers can be slightly higher.

It's downright challenging to find breaded fish products that don't harbour trans fat. Only 10 out of the 83 products I rated were trans-fat free (less than 0.2 grams per serving). Until more manufacturers find alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils, look for products that contain as little trans fat as possible.

Finally, be careful what you slather on your fish stick. A dollop of mayonnaise-based tartar sauce adds 160 calories and 17 grams of fat. Pass the lemon wedge, please.

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Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Contact her at lesliebeck.com.

Reeling in better choices

.................................................................Calories...Fat (g).....Trans fat (g).....Sodium (mg)

Janes Family Crispy Fish (100 g)................................210...9.0............0.1...............500

Janes Family Multigrain Breaded Haddock (134g)............200...4.5.............0.................520

No Name Breaded Fish Sticks (100g)..........................188...10.0...........0.4...............412

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President's Choice Southern Crunch Haddock (85g).........151...6.8............1.0...............413

President's Choice Breaded Fish Fillet Nuggets (93g)........195...9.2............0.3...............460

President's Choice Reduced Fat Scottish Haddock (120g)...181...3.1............0.3...............492

Our Compliments Breaded Cod Fillets (100g)..................214...9.8............1.2...............394

Highliner Breaded Cod Fillets (87g)..............................170...8.0............0.3...............310

Highliner Health Bake Breaded Fish Fillets (100g)............143...1.2............n/a................425

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