Is it safe to eat ribbon fish?

Ribbon fish, also known as cutlassfish or hairtails, are long, slender fish that are commonly eaten in many parts of the world. However, there are some concerns about the safety of eating these fish. Here we will examine the evidence on the risks and benefits of eating ribbon fish.

Nutritional value of ribbon fish

Ribbon fish are low in fat and high in protein. A 100 gram serving provides about:

  • 90 calories
  • 18 grams of protein
  • 1 gram of fat

They are a good source of various vitamins and minerals like vitamin B12, niacin, selenium, and phosphorus. So ribbon fish can be a nutritious addition to the diet.

Benefits of eating ribbon fish

Here are some of the main health benefits associated with eating ribbon fish:

  • High protein – Ribbon fish are an excellent source of protein needed for building and repairing muscles.
  • Low fat – The low fat content makes ribbon fish a healthier choice compared to some other types of fish.
  • Rich in vitamins and minerals – Ribbon fish provide B-vitamins, selenium, and phosphorus that play diverse roles in maintaining good health.
  • Heart healthy – The omega-3 fatty acids in ribbon fish can improve cardiovascular health by lowering triglycerides and blood pressure.

Mercury levels in ribbon fish

Like many types of seafood, ribbon fish can contain traces of mercury. Mercury accumulates in the tissues of fish over their lifespan. Larger, longer-lived predatory fish tend to have higher mercury levels.

Studies have found the following mercury levels in ribbon fish on average:

  • North Atlantic: 0.05 ppm
  • Mediterranean Sea: 0.18 ppm
  • Arabian Gulf: 0.14 ppm
  • South China Sea: 0.16 ppm
  • East China Sea: 0.31 ppm

For comparison, many health organizations set the safe upper limit for mercury at around 0.5 ppm. So ribbon fish generally fall within accepted levels, though larger specimens may exceed the threshold.

Risks of mercury exposure

High level mercury exposure over long periods can cause problems like:

  • Impaired neurological development in children
  • Vision and hearing loss
  • Impaired motor skills and sensation
  • Memory and cognitive dysfunction

However, the low mercury concentrations found in a single serving of ribbon fish are not a health concern. The benefits of eating fish outweigh the potential risks from mercury exposure, according to major health authorities.

Ciguatera poisoning

Ciguatera is a type of foodborne illness caused by eating certain tropical reef fish that have accumulated toxins called ciguatoxins. Ribbon fish are not typically carriers of ciguatera.

But there have been isolated cases of ciguatera poisoning from ribbon fish consumption. In parts of the Pacific, a few percent of wild-caught ribbon fish have tested positive for ciguatoxins. The risk seems highest with fish caught near coral reefs.

Proper handling and cooking does not destroy ciguatoxins. Symptoms of ciguatera poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and neurological effects like tingling extremities.


Ribbon fish are susceptible to various helminth parasites like nematodes and cestodes. One study in Tamil Nadu, India found ribbon fish to have a 60% prevalence of parasite infection.

However, thoroughly cooking fish to an internal temperature of at least 145°F (63°C) kills any parasites present. So parasites are generally not a concern with well-cooked ribbon fish.


Fish allergies are quite common. The major fish allergen is parvalbumin, a protein found in muscle tissue. Cooking does not destroy parvalbumin.

Allergic reactions to fish can involve symptoms like:

  • Hives, itching, eczema
  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, throat
  • Coughing, wheezing, chest tightness
  • Nasal congestion, sneezing, watery eyes
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Dizziness, fainting

In severe cases, fish allergies can trigger anaphylaxis and restrict breathing. People with a fish allergy need to avoid ribbon fish and other seafood.


Biotoxins like domoic acid and saxitoxin sometimes contaminate seafood through harmful algal blooms. These neurotoxins can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP) and paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) respectively.

Ribbon fish do not seem prone to accumulating high levels of domoic acid or saxitoxin. But in locations affected by toxic algae, all seafood should be avoided or monitored through official testing programs.

Pufferfish poisoning

Tetrodotoxin is an extremely potent neurotoxin found in pufferfish and some other species. There are no documented cases of ribbon fish containing dangerous levels of tetrodotoxin.

Allergic reactions to additives

Some people experience allergies to common food additives like sulfites, Yellow 5, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Reactions can range from mild to severe.

When eating processed ribbon fish products, check the ingredients list for any additives. Avoid dishes containing additives you are sensitive to.

Fresh vs frozen

In terms of safety, fresh and frozen ribbon fish are comparable. Freezing stops bacterial growth and kills parasites. One advantage of frozen is that harvesting date and location can be more reliably traced.

When buying fresh, look for firm flesh with a sheen and no discoloration. Use fresh ribbon fish within two days. Frozen ribbon fish should be thawed overnight in the fridge before cooking.

Wild vs farmed

No major differences in safety have been found between wild and farmed ribbon fish. Wild fish may have slightly higher mercury levels. Farmed fish could be more prone to antibiotic residues if producers use improper practices.

Cooking methods

Ribbon fish hold up well to almost any cooking method. They are suitable for baking, broiling, frying, grilling, and use in soups and stews. The flesh becomes opaque and flakes easily when fully cooked.

As mentioned earlier, cook ribbon fish to an internal temperature of at least 145°F to kill potential parasites. Use a food thermometer to verify doneness.


Fresh ribbon fish has a shelf life around 2 days when refrigerated at 40°F or less. Ribbon fish can also be successfully frozen for 3-6 months at 0°F or below. Vacuum sealing extends the freezer life further to 9-12 months.

Keep frozen ribbon fish wrapped to prevent freezer burn. Thaw overnight in the fridge, not on the counter. Cook thawed fish within a day and don’t refreeze.

Risk groups

Some people are more vulnerable to contaminants in seafood and need to take extra care with ribbon fish:

  • Pregnant women – Mercury exposure can impact fetal development
  • Young children – More susceptible to mercury’s neurological effects
  • Immunocompromised individuals – At higher risk for parasitic and bacterial illnesses
  • People with liver disease – May have difficulty metabolizing contaminants
  • Individuals allergic to fish – Need to avoid parvalbumin protein

These groups should limit intake of ribbon fish and choose lower mercury varieties when possible. Speak to your doctor about specific portion recommendations.

Countries that eat ribbon fish

Ribbon fish are popular across Asian cuisines, especially in:

  • China
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Vietnam
  • Thailand
  • Indonesia
  • India
  • Bangladesh
  • Philippines

They are eaten to a lesser extent in other parts of the world like Egypt, Australia, Brazil, and the United States.

Parts of ribbon fish eaten

Both the flesh and organs of ribbon fish are consumed. Some parts eaten include:

  • Flesh – The ribbon fish’s white, flaky, low-fat flesh is the most commonly eaten part. It can be cut into fillets, steaks, chunks, etc.
  • Liver – Ribbon fish liver is considered a delicacy in some Asian cuisines. It has a soft texture and rich flavor.
  • Gonads – The ovaries and testes may be eaten as part of the inner organs.
  • Intestines – Ribbon fish intestines can be used in dishes like fish head curry.
  • Head – The head is used for broths and braising dishes.
  • Bones – Small bones are sometimes left in steamed or braised preparations.

The bones, skin, and any inedible parts are usually discarded.

Typical dishes

Here are some common ways ribbon fish are prepared around the world:

  • China – Ribbon fish with ginger and scallion, boiled fish head soup
  • Japan – Ribbon fish sashimi, simmered ribbon fish and vegetables
  • Korea – Grilled ribbon fish gui, spicy ribbon fish stew
  • Thailand – Ribbon fish curry, steamed ribbon fish with lime
  • Vietnam – Fried ribbon fish with dill, fish noodle soup
  • India – Ribbon fish cutlets, ribbon fish fry
  • Philippines – Ribbon fish sinigang, escabeche

Selecting and avoiding specimens

When buying whole ribbon fish, avoid any with these characteristics:

  • Cloudy eyes
  • Discolored or yellowish gills
  • Strong fishy odor
  • Dry, dull flesh
  • Cuts, punctures, or bruising

Select ribbon fish that appear fresh, with:

  • Bright, clear eyes
  • Bright red gills
  • Firm, elastic flesh
  • Shiny, vibrant skin
  • No discoloration

For fillets, make sure there are no dark areas or dry edges. Packages should not be torn or leaking.

Proper ribbon fish storage

To safely store fresh ribbon fish at home:

  • Keep ribbon fish very cold, between 32-40°F
  • Place in a container on ice or fridge crisper
  • Don’t let ribbon fish sit in standing water or juice
  • Wrap fillets well or place in sealed bag
  • Use fresh ribbon fish within 2 days

For freezing:

  • Wrap ribbon fish tightly in freezer wrap or bags
  • Exclude as much air as possible
  • Freeze at 0°F or below
  • Use frozen ribbon fish within 3-6 months

Identifying spoiled ribbon fish

Signs that ribbon fish has spoiled and may not be safe to eat include:

  • Slimy flesh
  • Fishy, ammonia-like odor
  • Discoloration or graying of flesh
  • Dry, flaky texture
  • Mold or white crystals on surface

When in doubt, throw it out! Do not taste spoiled fish.


Overall, ribbon fish can be a healthy, low-mercury choice when properly handled. The small amounts of mercury found in most ribbon fish are not a significant concern, especially when consumption is limited to 1-2 servings per week. Parasites, biotoxins, and foodborne illnesses are also rare occurrences with ribbon fish.

The most important considerations for safe consumption are choosing fresh, high-quality specimens, proper storage, and thorough cooking. Individuals with fish allergies or special risk factors related to contaminants should take extra precautions with ribbon fish. But for most people, ribbon fish is a nutritious component of a varied seafood diet.

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