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Is Masago Good for You? Benefits & Side Effects of This Japanese Staple

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Masago - Dr. Axe

Masago is a common ingredient that has gained widespread popularity recently among sushi savants and connoisseurs of Japanese cooking. Easily distinguishable by its vibrant color and unique taste and texture, masago is enjoyed around the world for both its versatility and powerful health profile. Not only is it easy to add into a variety of recipes, but it also boasts a concentrated dose of protein, healthy fats and essential nutrients — such as vitamin B12, selenium and magnesium.

Ready to see what else this delicious ingredient has to offer? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of this unique ingredient and how you can add it to your diet.


What Is Masago?

Masago, also called smelt roe, is a type of fish egg that comes from capelin, a fish species that is found primarily in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Arctic Oceans. The capelin fish belongs to the smelt family and is an important forage fish that is considered a staple in the diets of the Atlantic cod and other species like the harp seal. (1)

The meat of the capelin itself is not commonly consumed but is sometimes dried, roasted or salted. Instead, it is typically reduced to a meal or oil and used to produce fish feed or fertilizer. Masago roe, on the other hand, is a common ingredient found in many traditional Japanese dishes. The small eggs have a sweet yet savory flavor and add an extra bit of crunch to dishes. You can often find it in masago sushi and seafood recipes alike, and it can also be used to boost the flavor of sauces and dips as well.

In addition to being incredibly versatile, masago is also well-known for its impressive nutrient profile. Besides being low in calories, each serving of masago offers a hearty dose of protein, vitamin B12, selenium and magnesium, along with a long list of other important nutrients.


Is Masago Good for You? Potential Benefits and Side Effects of Masago

Although masago is typically consumed in small amounts, it contains a pretty extensive nutrient profile and can bump up your intake of several key nutrients, including vitamin B12, selenium and magnesium. It’s also considered a nutrient-dense food, meaning that it contains a concentrated amount of these key vitamins and minerals for a low amount of calories. Here are some more benefits of masago:

1. Natural Source of Vitamin D

It’s also one of the few natural food sources of vitamin D, an essential micronutrient that many don’t get enough of. In fact, a deficiency in this important nutrient can contribute to a slew of vitamin D deficiency symptoms, including fatigue, depression, insomnia and anxiety. (2)

2. High in Omega-3

Plus, masago is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are a type of heart-healthy fat associated with a variety of benefits. Not only can omega-3 fatty acids help support heart function, but they have also been shown to protect cognitive health, reduce inflammation and aid in weight control as well. (3)

3. Low in Mercury

It’s also low in mercury and can be consumed safely, even while pregnant. According to the American Pregnancy Association, pregnant women can safely enjoy masago in moderation along with other low-mercury seafood options like salmon and tobiko. (4)

However, there are some potential downsides that need to be considered, plus several reasons that you may want to keep your intake in moderation, including:

1. High in Sodium

First of all, masago is relatively high in sodium, packing in about 10 percent of the daily recommended value into a single tablespoon. For those who have high blood pressure or heart problems, cutting back on sodium is key to keeping blood pressure in check. (5) Overdoing it on the sodium can contribute to other health problems too, and a high intake of sodium has been associated with issues like stomach cancer and bone loss. (6, 7)

2. Often Combine with Unhealthy Ingredients

Masago is also most commonly found in sushi, a popular food that has the potential to be laden with health problems. Besides usually being filled with farmed fish, refined carbs and questionable ingredients, the raw fish found in sushi also significantly ups your risk of parasitic infections and foodborne illness.

3. Dropping Population Causing Ecological Concerns

Additionally, masago consumption may also be linked to some ecological concerns. In fact, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently reported that capelin stock had declined by 70 percent between 2015 and 2018, which is thought to be largely attributed to environmental issues rather than overfishing. (8)

However, that’s not to say fishing may not be contributing to the problem. According to research professor Dr. Bill Montevecchi, fisheries often target egg-bearing fish, throwing the delicate ecosystem out of whack and contributing to dwindling capelin populations. (9) Not only does this essentially wipe out the next generation of capelin, but it also decreases the food supply for large predatory fish that depend on species like the capelin for survival.

 

Masago - Dr. Axe

 


Masago Nutrition

Masago is low in calories but contains a good amount of protein and healthy fats. It’s also high in many important nutrients, such as selenium and magnesium, and delivers over 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin B12 in each and every serving.

One tablespoon (16 grams) of masago contains approximately: (10)

  • 40.3 calories
  • 0.6 gram carbohydrates
  • 3.9 grams protein
  • 2.9 grams fat
  • 3.2 micrograms vitamin B12 (53 percent DV)
  • 10.5 micrograms selenium (15 percent DV)
  • 48 milligrams magnesium (12 percent DV)
  • 1.9 milligrams iron (11 percent DV)
  • 240 milligrams sodium (10 percent DV)
  • 37.1 international units vitamin D (9 percent DV)
  • 0.1 milligrams riboflavin (6 percent DV)
  • 0.6 milligrams pantothenic acid (6 percent DV)
  • 57 milligrams phosphorus (6 percent DV)

In addition to the nutrients listed above, it also contains a small amount of calcium, vitamin B6 and vitamin A.


Masago vs. Tobiko vs. Caviar

Masago may be one of the more popular varieties of roe, but it’s not the only type available. In addition to masago, tobiko and caviar are two other common ingredients enjoyed for their unique flavor and extensive nutrient profile.

Most of us are familiar with caviar, but what is tobiko? Like masago, tobiko is also a type of roe, but it comes from fish in the Exocoetidae, or flying fish, family. Tobiko is small and orange-red in color with a distinct smoky flavor. In comparing masago vs. tobiko, masago is cheaper and slightly smaller with a more subtle flavor and a bit less of a crunch. However, like masago, tobiko is incredibly versatile and can be used in many different recipes, including egg sushi. And because tobiko is slightly more expensive than masago, the two are often used interchangeably in dishes.

Meanwhile, the term caviar typically refers to a delicacy derived from the eggs of any fish in the Acipenseridae, or wild sturgeon, family. However, other more affordable varieties are also available and are produced from species like salmon or the American paddlefish. The eggs are usually salt-cured, can be served either fresh or pasteurized, and are enjoyed either as is, alongside a cracker or bread or as a garnish or appetizer.

However, there are many concerns about the sustainability of traditional caviar derived from fish like the Beluga sturgeon, landing it on the list of fish you should never eat. (11) Additionally, Seafood Watch also advises consumers to avoid caviar and wild sturgeon and opt for fish raised in recirculating aquaculture systems to minimize the potential ecological impact. (12)


Where to Find Masago + Masago Uses & Recipes

Wondering where to buy masago? Although it has risen in popularity in recent years, it can still be a bit challenging to find and may require you to venture beyond your corner grocery store. Asian specialty stores or fish markets are your best bet to score fresh masago, but you can also find it through certain online retailers if options are limited in your area.

Although masago sushi is the most popular way to enjoy this delicious delicacy, the potential uses of masago extend way beyond sushi. It is a staple ingredient in Japanese cuisine and can be used to whip up seafood pasta, poke bowls or rice dishes. Plus, some people also mix mayonnaise with sriracha and a few tablespoons of masago to make a spicy masago sauce for sushi rolls or dipping.

Need some inspiration for how to start enjoying masago without the sushi? Here are a few creative and delicious ways to add it into your next meal:


History

The consumption of fish eggs can be traced back all the way to the fourth century B.C. when caviar produced from the roe of sturgeon was commonly served at banquets. It was even considered a delicacy and was enjoyed as a luxury item in ancient Greece, Rome and Russia. Although caviar was originally produced solely from fish in the wild sturgeon family, there are many other convenient and affordable options available today for enjoying roe, including salmon roe, tobiko and masago.

While masago can be added to a variety of recipes, it’s most often found in sushi, a principal in Japanese cuisine that dates back thousands of years. Although sushi has evolved over time and taken on many different forms, the style of sushi that most people are familiar with emerged around the 1750s following the invention of nori seaweed in sheet form. Other types of sushi, such as nigirizushi, didn’t appear until years later in the 1820s.

Today, masago is considered a popular alternative to tobiko and is commonly enjoyed in everything from sauces to seafood dishes and beyond. In addition to supplying a savory flavor and crunchy texture to foods, it can also bump up the nutritional value of your favorite recipes.


Precautions

Allergic reactions to fish roe, such as masago, are uncommon but have been reported. If you experience any negative food allergy symptoms like hives, itching or swelling after eating masago, discontinue use immediately and talk to your doctor.

Additionally, masago is high in sodium, cramming in about 10 percent of the recommended daily value in just one tablespoon. Overdoing it on the foods high in sodium has been linked to many adverse effects on health, so be sure to keep intake in moderation if you have high blood pressure, heart problems or kidney issues.

Be sure to also store masago properly to keep it fresh for longer and reduce the risk of foodborne illness. It’s generally advised to keep frozen and move it to the refrigerator only when you’re ready to use it. It can last up to six months in the freezer but stays fresh only three to four days in the fridge.


Final Thoughts

  • What is masago? Also sometimes called smelt roe, it is a type of fish egg that comes from capelin.
  • Although it’s generally consumed in small amounts, it packs in a good amount of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, selenium and magnesium.
  • However, it’s also relatively high in sodium, so it’s best to keep intake in moderation if you have a history of high blood pressure, heart problems or kidney disease.
  • It’s also typically combined with unhealthy ingredients, like in sushi, and there are some concerns when it comes to sustainability.
  • Masago has a savory, mild flavor that works well in many dishes. Try adding this nutrient-packed power food to spring rolls, sauces or seafood pasta to take advantage of its one-of-a-kind flavor and nutrient profile.

Read Next: Pollock Fish Protects the Heart, Body & Mind


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