Even with “white tuna,” not everything is always as it seems. For a myriad of reasons, restaurants will often sell something under a different name, confusing the customer (at best) and hurting them (at worst). Often, they get away with it, but sometimes… Well… You read the news. Escolar is a name you may recognize.

What is “White Tuna?”

I bring this up because there is an item often served at sushi restaurants called “white tuna” (shiro maguro), or “super white tuna,” that sounds as though it is albacore tuna, or a similar kind of tuna, which is very light in color (hence why it is called “white tuna”) on the menu. However, most of the time it is a different fish, called “escolar” (AKA “butterfish”). I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve seen escolar served but simply called “white tuna” or “super white tuna” on the menu.

Sushi’s Misnamed Delicacy – Escolar vs. “White Tuna” or “Super White Tuna”

Escolar, a deep-sea fish known for its rich, buttery texture, has gained popularity in sushi cuisine under the moniker “white tuna.” However, it’s crucial to understand that escolar (Lepidocybium flavobrunneum) is not a member of the tuna family. Its mislabeling has led to confusion, particularly when compared to albacore tuna, which is also referred to as “white tuna” in some circles. Despite this, escolar’s unique flavor profile has made it a sought-after ingredient in sushi bars around the globe.

When I order white tuna I always ask the staff if it is escolar or albacore, so it actually is easy to clear up any confusion should you be ordering this item. Legal requirements aside, it’s bad enough to sell a product that people think is a different fish, but it is particularly significant with escolar, as some people simply aren’t able to handle that the different types of fats in the fish very well. As evidenced by an Australian Government’s article warning people of the issue.

Escolar’s Journey to the Sushi Bar

The rise of escolar in sushi cuisine outside Japan is a modern phenomenon, intertwined with global seafood trends and changing consumer preferences. Its high oil content, which contributes to its creamy texture, makes it a favorite among sushi aficionados. However, this same characteristic can lead to digestive discomfort for some individuals if consumed in large quantities. Despite its culinary appeal, escolar can cause digestive issues due to its high levels of wax esters, which can be difficult for some people to digest.

But the digestive issues associated with excessive escolar consumption, often referred to as “keriorrhea,” stem from its indigestible wax esters. Balancing the desire for escolar’s unique taste with the need to avoid digestive discomfort is a bit of a delicate act. When it comes to sushi, escolar offers an unparalleled experience. Its high oil content, which contributes to its creamy texture, makes it a favorite among sushi aficionados.

However, this same characteristic can lead to digestive discomfort for some individuals if consumed in large quantities. Despite its culinary appeal, escolar can cause digestive issues due to its high levels of wax esters, which can be difficult for some people to digest.

The Mislabeling Controversy

The practice of referring to escolar as “white tuna” or “super white tuna” in sushi restaurants outside Japan has led to confusion and controversy. The controversy stems from the fact that escolar is not a true tuna species. While escolar shares certain characteristics with tuna, such as its oily flesh and firm texture, it belongs to a different taxonomic family altogether.

his mislabeling can lead to confusion among diners who may expect escolar to taste and behave like genuine tuna, potentially impacting their dining experience. Moreover, the misnomer “white tuna” exacerbates the issue by blurring the distinction between escolar and other tuna species like albacore. In Japan, albacore tuna is indeed referred to as “shiro maguro,” (and sometimes “binnaga-maguro,” or “bincho-maguro”) translating to “white tuna,” further complicating matters for consumers unfamiliar with the nuances of Japanese culinary terminology.

Beyond mere confusion, mislabeling escolar as “white tuna” raises ethical concerns regarding transparency and consumer trust. Diners have a right to know what they are eating, particularly when it comes to potential issues associated with escolar consumption, such as digestive discomfort resulting from its high wax ester content.

The controversy underscores the importance of accurate labeling and clear communication in the food industry. By providing consumers with accurate information about the seafood they are consuming, restaurants can foster trust and transparency, ultimately enhancing the dining experience for all parties involved.

Sustainability and Ethical Considerations

As escolar gains popularity in sushi cuisine, concerns surrounding its sustainability and ethical implications come to the forefront, prompting discussions within the culinary community and among conscientious consumers.

Environmental Impact of Fishing Practices

Escolar’s deep-sea habitat and slow reproductive rate raise questions about the sustainability of its fishing practices. Deep-sea trawling, the primary method of harvesting escolar, can have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems, leading to habitat destruction and bycatch of non-target species. Additionally, the long lifespan and low reproductive rate of escolar mean that populations may be slow to recover from overfishing, further exacerbating concerns about its long-term sustainability.

Ethical Considerations in Sourcing and Consumption

The ethical implications of escolar consumption extend beyond environmental concerns to encompass social and economic considerations. The reliance on deep-sea fishing for escolar may contribute to exploitative labor practices within the fishing industry, including poor working conditions and low wages for workers involved in harvesting and processing the fish. Furthermore, the demand for escolar as a luxury seafood item may drive up prices, making it inaccessible to communities that rely on seafood as a staple food source.

Promoting Sustainable Sourcing and Consumption

Addressing the sustainability and ethical challenges associated with escolar requires a multi-faceted approach that involves collaboration between stakeholders across the seafood supply chain. Sustainable fishing practices, such as implementing quotas, gear restrictions, and area closures, can help mitigate the environmental impact of escolar harvesting.

Additionally, promoting transparency and traceability in seafood sourcing can empower consumers to make informed choices about the seafood they consume, encouraging demand for sustainably sourced escolar and incentivizing responsible fishing practices.

The Path Forward – Informed Choices in Sushi Dining

The escolar story highlights the importance of knowledge and awareness in the culinary choices we make. Diners are encouraged to engage with sushi chefs and restaurateurs, asking questions and expressing preferences informed by an understanding of escolar’s culinary and nutritional profile. By advocating for transparency and ethical sourcing, consumers can play a role in shaping a sushi culture that honors tradition while embracing sustainability and innovation.

A Culinary Adventure with Caution and Respect

Escolar, with its rich flavors and complex history, embodies the evolving nature of sushi cuisine as it expands its cultural and geographic boundaries. As you venture into the world of sushi, perhaps let escolar be a reminder of the delicate balance between culinary exploration and mindful consumption. Savoring escolar in moderation, with an appreciation for its origins and impact, exemplifies a respectful approach to the diversity of the world’s seafood variety.

The Regulatory Landscape in Japan

In Japan, a nation renowned for its rich sushi tradition and stringent food safety standards, escolar has found itself in a unique position concerning legality and consumption. Unlike many other seafood items that enjoy prominence in Japanese cuisine, escolar is subject to regulatory scrutiny, primarily due to health concerns associated with its consumption. The heart of the issue lies in escolar’s high content of indigestible wax esters and the distress they can cause.

Despite its popularity in various parts of the world as a sushi ingredient, the Japanese government has taken steps to regulate the sale and distribution of escolar. These regulations stem from the desire to protect consumers from the potential adverse effects of its consumption, highlighting a commitment to public health over culinary novelty.

The legal status of escolar in Japan serves as a testament to the country’s rigorous approach to food safety and consumer protection, setting a precedent for how nations can navigate the complexities of introducing exotic seafood into their culinary landscapes.

A Global Perspective on Escolar

The regulatory stance in Japan contrasts with the more lenient approach taken in other countries, where escolar is often freely sold and consumed, sometimes without clear labeling or consumer advisories. This discrepancy highlights the global diversity in food safety regulations and consumer protection standards, reflecting varying levels of awareness and concern regarding the potential health impacts of escolar consumption.

As the international community becomes increasingly interconnected, the case of escolar presents an opportunity for dialogue and collaboration on food safety standards. By examining Japan’s cautious but informed approach to escolar, I believe other nations can consider adopting similar measures to ensure the well-being of their citizens, promoting an informed and health-conscious approach to the enjoyment of this complex and intriguing seafood.

While escolar’s legal status and regulatory framework in Japan highlight the challenges of balancing culinary exploration with public health, it also reflects a broader commitment to food safety and consumer awareness. As the global palate continues to expand, the story of escolar serves as a valuable lesson in the importance of informed dietary choices and the role of regulation in safeguarding public health.

Be Mindful Ordering White Tuna or Super White Tuna

Even if you are able to eat a small portion of escolar with no issues, if eaten in large quantity *that* may lead to spending an evening in the washroom. This will not be a fun time if you are planning a night out and are less able to digest the types of fats in this fish efficiently.

Of course if you are of the perspective, many a not very nice practical joke has been played on people by others loading their unwitting friends’ plates with super white tuna in anticipation of the results. I don’t find it to be a particularly funny thing to do to someone, but the results are very real and can be quite distressing for some.

Ordering sushi can confusing enough for newcomers, and even those who are very familiar with the dish are sometimes not aware of practices such as this. And this is not to say that all white tuna served is escolar and every restaurant serves escolar without including the word “super” in the item name, but you never know, so it’s typically good to ask. But if you happen to get it as a surprise, and you have a more sensitive tummy, you’ll unfortunately know soon enough.

Warren Ransom

I have always been fascinated by the creation and culture of different foods, particularly sushi and sashimi in the modern era of Japanese cuisine. I am a classically trained chef and sushi connoisseur, also having operated a food service company and enjoy investigating and experimenting with food around the world.

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