Monday, 11 June 2012

Fish fingers AKA fish sticks

Fish fingers, otherwise known as fish sticks, have been popular for over half a century. It is thought that they were invented in the US in the 1920’s to use up an oversupply of cod. Birdseye in the UK tried the same tactic in the 1950’s to take advantage of an oversupply of herring. The herring product was test marketed with the much blander cod product as a control, but to Birdseye’s surprise the cod product was much more popular than the savoury herring product. The cod product and its variations have been in production since 1955. The fish finger is now produced by numerous manufacturers including large supermarket brands.

Fish fingers like most food products comes under cost pressures over the years and the original crumbed slice of cod just isn’t what it used to be. Shelf life is increased by adding chemicals, flavour enhancers are used to combat the problems caused by increasing shelf life, and colours are added to make the breadcrumbs look nice and toasty and so on. Cutting costs mean using as much of the fish as possible, and the leftovers from the filleting process are separated from the bones and skin with a specialised mincing machine. The minced fish is then used to fill in the voids in the fillets allowing complete use of the fish and nice neat symmetrical fillets.

With the stringent food and labelling regulations, and the large number of entities that are prosecuted for infringing them, one would suspect an ingrained culture of dishonesty in the fresh and manufactured food industry. With that element if doubt in our mind the question is, what is in that crumbed cuboid we call a fish finger? To quote many a small child, it can’t be fish fingers because fish don’t have fingers. The days of an over-supply of cod are long past and the regulations merely state that white fish is used. The fish fingers are either made from fish fillets or at the lower price range contain minced fish.

Minced fish is a product of passing headless gutted fish through a bone separator where the skin and bone are removed. In its simplest form fish, or pieces of fish, are fed from a hopper to pass between a moving rubber belt and the outside of a revolving perforated drum of stainless steel. The flesh is forced into the centre of the drum where it is expelled with a screw and the leftover skin and bones are scraped off the outside of the drum. To obtain the best texture and flavour the optimum size for the perforations is about 5mm. Fish that are difficult to fillet economically, for instance small and irregular shaped fish or very bony fish can be deboned and the fish mince used as fish fingers, fish cakes and such like. Fish bones are not usually ground and added to the mince as the blood in the bone discolours the fish flesh.

Seafood extender or surimi should not be confused with minced fish. Surimi is lean fish flesh minced and washed to eliminate odours, and most of the taste, and then pulverised into a gelatinous paste. The desired flavour and texture is created by mixing with starch, egg white, salt, vegetable oil, humectants, sorbitol, sugar, soy protein, seasonings, flavours, and enhancers such as transglutaminases and monosodium glutamate (MSG). If the product is to be frozen food-grade cryoprotectants are added. A typical product is a crab stick.

At the time of writing the fish fillets are mainly cod, haddock and pollock or fish that are similar. Predatory fish are not usually chosen because of their high mercury content. It is important to note that mercury from fish is generally not a health consideration for most people; it is only an issue for women planning pregnancy, pregnant women, breastfeeding women and children under six.

Choice magazine tested nineteen brands of fish fingers in Australia and the results are here but you have to pay to view them.

The manufacturers of fish fillet fingers seem happy enough to publish the product contents, but most brands using fish mince seem to be more reluctant to advertise what’s in them, this may be because they buy in blocks of frozen fish mince from third parties. Here are some typical fish finger products from reliable manufacturers:

Bayview Crumbed Fish Fingers 288g (12 fingers).
Ingredients: minced flounder, crumbs (20%)(rice flour , maize flour , sugar , dextrose , whey powder, salt, canola oil , mineral salts ), canola oil, tapioca starch, rice flour, water, maize flour, salt, aerators (575 , 500 ), spices, maltodextrin, thickeners (415, 464 ).
May contain traces of egg, soy, crustacea.

Birds Eye has a fillet and minced fish product.
Fish Fillet Fingers 250g
Ingredients: Hake or hoki fish fillets (56%), water, wheat flour, maize flour, canola oil, wheat starch, maize starch, salt, yeast, wheat gluten.
Fish Fingers 375g with a New Crunchier Crumb
Ingredients: minced hake or hoki fish (53%), water, wheat flour, maize flour, canola oil, wheat starch, maize starch, salt, wheat gluten, yeast, acidity regulators (450, 451)

I&J tasty fish fingers 800gm
Ingredients: minced hake or hoki fish (54%), water, wheat flour, canola oil, maize flour, tapioca starch, salt, thickeners (guar gum, 1404, gellan gum), wheat starch, sunflower oil, hydrolysed vegetable protein, yeast, flavour, emulsifiers [soy lecithin, 481], acidity regulators (450, sodium bicarbonate, 451, 341), rice flour, spices, natural colour (annatto extracts), ascorbic acid, wheat gluten.

In general, if the packet does not explicitly state fillets then expect minced fish.

The decrease in wild fishing stocks around the world will eventually make a fish fillet an extreme luxury item. It seems likely that most manufactured products will use minced fish formed into various shapes and sizes and many people will never know what a fillet of cod is. Fish is already being farmed both on land and in the sea, and rice farmers have realised they can harvest a secondary crop of fish in their padi fields.

The marketing experts advertising fish fingers seem to be in a different universe to me. The expected market for fish fingers is as a snack food for children. My research suggests that fish fingers mostly form the basis of an evening meal with two thirds of the fish fingers consumed by adults. The marketing experts also suggest that children prefer the fillets when other research suggests that the children prefer the minced fish. Children prefer the processed flesh in both fish fingers and chicken nuggets, and there is a suggestion that some of the processing chemicals may be addictive to children but this is not supported.

In the end it’s a tasty convenient meal that most people are after, and to preserve the taste of the fish finger it is important not to thaw the product before cooking. Thawing the product and re-freezing is an absolute catastrophe as most of the taste is lost in the process. Those that have purchased the minced fish variety may be a bit cynical of the above as the taste can vary from acceptably fishy to wet cardboard. The minced fish taste depends on how small a hole the minced fish was forced through, the smaller the hole, the more the taste is damaged. If you don’t use sauce with your fish fingers perhaps now is the time to change, the kids love to dunk the fingers in tomato sauce, but you may prefer tartare sauce, a sweet chilli sauce or even a curry sauce.

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