What Is Masago? 7 Health Benefits + Drawbacks of Sushi Fish Roe
During my childhood, I had the lucky experience of living in Japan.
As a kid, I had a lot of food aversions, and back then, sushi wasn’t a common delicacy in the US.
So it took a while for most sushi to grow on me - but one thing I took to straight away was masago.
At the time, I was very young. Between that and the menus being in a different language than the one I knew, I had no clue what I was eating.
I just thought of it as, “That wonderful orange stuff with the fabulous texture of joy.”
Since then, of course I have learned that masago is fish eggs.
And living in the US again, I feel quite spoiled these days, as Japanese food and ingredients have become much more widely available.
Now it is possible to enjoy masago around the world.
But did you know that masago not only features a fun, vivid color, a delicious flavor, and a delightful texture, but also provides you with some awesome health benefits?
In this article, I will share the top health benefits of masago with you.
But in case you are not an expert on fish eggs in cuisine, I will start by telling you more about what masago is and how it differs from other fish eggs which you may find on your sushi plate.
What is Masago?
Masago is a type of roe. If you do not know what “roe” is, it refers to ripened fish eggs.
“Roe” does not refer to eggs from any particular species. Roe can come from all different types of fish.
Masago roe comes from a type of fish called “capelin.”
Sometimes, masago roe is also referred to as “smelt roe.” This is because the capelin fish belongs to the smelt family.
If you cannot picture a capelin fish, that is not a surprise. They are not all that well-known, although they are common.
In terms of size and appearance, the capelin could be mistaken for a sardine.
They can be found throughout the North Pacific and Atlantic Oceans as well as the Arctic Ocean.
Why have you never spotted capelin fish on a seafood menu? Probably because it is not considered all that desirable.
The eggs are regarded as being much tastier than the fish itself.
Thankfully, the meat does not go to waste when capelin are harvested.
Instead of landing up on dinner plates, it finds its way into fish oil and fishmeal (1).
KEY POINT: Masago refers to the fish eggs (roe) from capelin.
Masago vs. Tobiko, Ikura, and Cavier Used in Sushi
If you eat a lot of sushi, you probably have noticed that there are a few different types of common fish eggs. Masago sushi is only one of them.
Here is a quick overview of the different types of eggs so that you can easily tell one from the other.
- What it is: Capelin eggs
- Natural color: Orangey-yellowish
- Flavor: Mild
- Size: Smaller than tobiko
- Cost: Lower than tobiko
Basically, if you think about the sushi you have eaten, these are the really tiny eggs which are commonly used in rolls, etc.
- What it is: Flying fish eggs
- Natural color: reddish-orangey
- Flavor: Somewhat smoky
- Size: Small, but marginally larger than masago
- Cost: Slightly higher than masago
If you are not paying attention, tobiko and masago are easy to confuse.
But if you are observant, you should be able to distinguish between them pretty easily now that you know the differences to look for.
The more experience you have with eating sushi, the faster you’ll learn to tell the difference at a glance.
- What it is: Salmon roe (a.k.a. “red caviar”)
- Natural color: Orangey-red
- Flavor: Salty
- Size: Significantly larger than tobiko and masago
- Cost: More expensive than tobiko and masago
You may think of these as the “big fish eggs” which you are sometimes served in sushi restaurants.
They tend to be less common than tobiko and masago, but they turn up often enough that you have likely tried them.
- What it is: Cured or salted roe from sturgeon (usually)
- Natural color: Often black, but varies (depending on the species of sturgeon used)
- Flavor: Strong, salty
- Size: Depends on the species used
- Cost: Generally high
Now you should be able to distinguish one type of fish eggs from the next when you are out eating sushi.
KEY POINT: There are a number of different types of fish eggs which are popular in cuisine.
The smallest are masago, followed by the slightly larger tobiko. Ikura are the “big fish eggs” used in sushi.
Caviar is the pricy black stuff. Both caviar and ikura have a salty flavor. Masago and tobiko are more mild.
Why Do Fish Eggs Come in Different Colors?
Now, you might sit down to eat masago (or another type of roe) at a restaurant sometime, and blink in surprise when it is not the expected color.
For example, you could be served masago which is bright green, or black, or red.
You already know that masago has a yellowish-orangey color, so how can it be a different hue? Is it really the same stuff?
The answer is “Yes, masago can come in different colors. It is still capelin roe - but ingredients have been added.”
Different additions can alter both the hue and the flavor of the eggs. For example:
- Green masago may be infused with wasabi.
- Red masago may have beet added.
- Black masago might have squid ink in it.
- Yellow masago might have yuzu present (that is a type of citrus).
The additions of these flavors and colors can add to your enjoyment of the roe and also contribute a different taste and appearance to the overall dish you are eating.
Green masago for example can not only enhance the look of a dish in an unexpected way, but also add some spiciness to it, giving it a bit of a kick.
Having said that, sometimes artificial colors and flavors are added to masago and other types of roe as well.
You will need to ask at the restaurant or check the ingredients label of the product you are purchasing to know whether you are getting naturally or artificially enhanced roe.
KEY POINT: Sometimes masago and other types of fish eggs may come in different colors than you're used to.
These colors do not indicate a different species of fish, but rather the addition of natural or artificial ingredients to alter the color and taste.
9 Health Benefits of Masago
Now that you are up to speed on masago as well as some similar fish egg delicacies, let's go over some of the excellent health benefits of this type of roe.
1. Masago is low in calories and carbohydrates.
Here's some nutritional data for 1 ounce of masago (2):
- Calories from Fat: 14
- Calories: 40
- Total Fat :2g
- Saturated Fat: 0g
- Trans Fat: 0g
- Cholesterol: 50mg
- Sodium: 294mg
- Total Carbohydrate: 4g
- Dietary Fiber: 0g
- Sugars: 4g
- Added Sugars: 0g
- Sugar Alcohol: 0g
- Protein: 3g
Note that this is data specifically for masago, rather than fish eggs in general.
KEY POINT: Masago does not load you up too much on calories or carbs.
2. Masago is a food which is nutritionally dense.
For some reason, it is challenging to find further nutritional information specifically on masago, but here is some data on one ounce “mixed species” of roe (3):
- Total Omega-3 fatty acids: 682mg
- Total Omega-6 fatty acids: 8.1mg
- Protein: 6.2g: 12% DV
- Vitamin A: 83.7IU: 2% DV
- Vitamin C: 4.5mg: 7% DV
- Vitamin D: ~ ~
- Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol) : 2.0mg: 10% DV
- Vitamin K: 0.1mcg: 0% DV
- Thiamin: 0.1mg: 4% DV
- Riboflavin: 0.2mg: 12% DV
- Niacin: 0.5mg: 3% DV
- Vitamin B6: 0.0mg: 2% DV
- Folate: 22.4mcg: 6% DV
- Vitamin B12: 2.8mcg: 47% DV
- Pantothenic Acid: 0.3mg: 3% DV
- Choline: 93.9mg DV
- Calcium: 3.1mg: 0%
- Iron: 0.1mg: 0%
- Magnesium: 2.8mg1%
- Phosphorus: 56.3mg: 6%
- Potassium: 30.9mg: 1%
- Sodium: 12.7mg: 1%
- Zinc: 0.1mg: 1%
- Copper: 0.0mg: 1%
- Manganese: 0.0mg: 0%
- Selenium: 5.6mcg: 8%
KEY POINT: While low in calories and carbs, masago contains ample amounts of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.
3. An excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Let’s look more closely at the omega fatty acid ratio contained in an ounce of this type of roe:
- Total Omega-3 fatty acids: 682mg
- Total Omega-6 fatty acids: 8.1mg
You can see that the amount of omega-6 fatty acids contained in roe are quite low, but the amount of omega-3 fatty acids are quite high.
Omega-3 fatty acids meanwhile are very good for you.
They can fight inflammation throughout your body (6), reduce triglycerides (7), fight the decline of cognitive abilities (8), reduce depression (9), and even help purge excess fat from the liver (10).
As western diets are tilted far too much in the direction of omega-6 fatty acids and do not include sufficient omega-3 fatty acids, foods like roe which help to right that imbalance are excellent to incorporate into your meals.
KEY POINT: When you eat more roe, you take in a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, but very few omega-6 fatty acids.
This can reduce inflammation and contribute other benefits to your health.
4. You get plenty of protein when you eat fish eggs.
You also probably noticed the rich protein content of an ounce of roe:
- Protein: 6.2g: 12% DV
When you are more satisfied after your meals, you are less likely to overindulge.
This means that you will naturally be eating less food, even though you may not be counting your calories.
This in turn can contribute to weight loss or maintenance, alongside the aforementioned metabolic boost.
KEY POINT: You have a low-calorie dense source of protein in roe.
That means that eating more fish eggs in your meals can help you feel full and maintain or lose weight.
5. Enjoy the benefits of vitamin B12.
Here again is the vitamin B12 content of roe:
- Vitamin B12: 2.8mcg: 47% DV
In developed countries, vitamin B12 deficiency isn’t all that widespread in the younger population (compared to some other nutrient deficiencies), but it is estimated that it affects 6% of those who are age 60 or younger (15).
The same article linked above reports, “Closer to 20% have marginal status (plasma vitamin B-12: 148-221 pmol/L).”
That means that among the elderly, this deficient is quite prevalent.
Those who are deficient in vitamin B12 may have symptoms such as (16) numbness or tingling in the extremities, anemia, lost balance, inflammation of the tongue, fatigue, weakness, and cognitive difficulties.
If your levels are not deficient but are sub-optimal, it is possible you could experience issues too.
Adding more roe to your diet can help you to boost those vitamin B12 stores, protecting your cognitive and physical function.
KEY POINT: If you are looking for a healthy source of vitamin B12 to enhance your diet, fish eggs make for a wonderful choice.
6. Roe contains ample selenium.
To remind you, the selenium content of fish eggs is as follows:
- Selenium: 5.6mcg: 8%
Like omega-3 fatty acids, selenium is a nutrient which you can up your intake of if you eat more seafood—including roe.
What is selenium useful for in your body?
KEY POINT: The vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids in roe are not the only nutrients which contribute to your cognitive well-being.
Selenium can enhance cognitive health as well while also bolstering immunity.
7. Fish eggs can provide you with vitamin D.
While no vitamin D is listed in the nutritional data which I have shared with you on fish eggs, I have heard that they are a good source of it.
I was unable to find a citation specifically for masago, but the USDA does report (19) which states that caviar (black and red) contains 117 IU of vitamin D per 100 grams.
The reason this is important is because there are not a lot of foods which can provide you with significant vitamin D.
In fact, the list pretty much consists of (20) fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, fortified breakfast cereals and fortified foods like milk, yogurt, soy milk or juice.
Because it is hard to get adequate vitamin D through the foods we eat, we rely on sunlight for sufficient amounts.
A lot of folks also work indoors all day and do not get to go out much even when the sun is out.
So if that describes you, make sure you add some extra fish eggs to your diet so that you can nourish your body with the vitamin D you need.
With more vitamin D on your side, you can reduce your chances of heart disease (23) as well as MS (24), decrease your overall chances of mortality (25) from a variety of causes, and enjoy many other health benefits.
KEY POINT: Many people do not get enough vitamin D from diet or sunlight.
Vitamin D is essential for your health, and increasing your intake can provide numerous benefits.
There are not many foods which are helpful for this, but roe is among them.
8. There is not a lot of mercury content in roe.
The highest levels of mercury tend to be in large fish, not small fish like capelin.
That means that both capelin and their eggs are low in mercury content.
The American Pregnancy Association has published a list (26) of sushi with both high and low mercury levels.
Under “Sushi With Lower Levels of Mercury” which pregnant women can safely eat twice a week in 6 ounce servings, they list masago along with a couple of other types of roe (salmon and urchin).
Additionally (27), mercury accumulates in different concentrations in different areas of a fish’s body.
The eggs contain less mercury than the muscle or organs of a fish.
KEY POINT: While fish eggs are good for you in part because of their nutritional content, what they do not contain is important too.
Masago and other forms of roe are relatively low in mercury compared to some other seafood options.
9. You can get a lot of vitamin E from eating roe.
Vitamin E content in roe is pretty substantial:
- Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol) : 2.0mg: 10% DV
It is not common to be deficient in vitamin E, which means that a lot of people overlook the value of this important nutrient.
But just because deficiency is uncommon doesn’t mean that you cannot benefit from incorporating more foods which are rich in vitamin E into your diet.
According to Mayo Clinic (38),
“Some research has shown that high-dose vitamin E might delay the progression of Alzheimer's disease in people who have been diagnosed with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.”
As of this point in time, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia are rising swiftly, and there is not a lot of direction with regards to what we can do to prevent or treat it.
There is currently no research which indicates that more vitamin E can stop mild cognitive impairment from turning into full-blown dementia.
So can vitamin E help prevent Alzheimer’s disease?
There does not appear to be evidence to suggest that. But at least there is evidence showing it may help as a treatment.
So if you have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, adding more roe to your diet could be a good thing.
If you know someone with Alzheimer’s, roe could likewise be helpful to that person.
KEY POINT: There do not seem to be many reasons to supplement with vitamin E, particularly since deficiency is rare.
Nonetheless, there are some studies which show that more vitamin E may help to slow Alzheimer’s disease.
That means that masago’s vitamin E content may be good for brain health.
Are There Any Drawbacks with Eating Masago?
Now you have a lot of good reasons for eating more masago.
It tastes great, it enhances texture, and it also is rich in nutrition without adding a lot of carbs or calories to your diet.
But are there any reasons to avoid masago?
As with any other type of food, you can get “too much of a good thing.” Following are some of masago’s potential drawbacks.
1. You will get a lot of sodium through eating masago.
You may have noticed while going over the nutritional content of fish eggs that they happen to be high in sodium.
As mentioned before, 1 ounce of masago contains 294mg of sodium.
In moderation, sodium is not a problem. But in excessive amounts, it can lead to a variety of health issues.
If you have too much sodium in your diet, it can cause your blood pressure to rise too high (28).
While most people are aware of the cardiovascular implications of too much sodium, many are not as aware of some of the other health issues which can be associated with it.
Too much sodium can result in a loss of bone density (29) by impacting calcium metabolism.
High sodium intake also has an association with gastric cancer (30).
This is a good reason to keep your masago intake moderated.
KEY POINT: Masago is a source of a lot of great nutrition, but watch out for eating too much sodium in your diet if you overdo it.
2. Sometimes the wrong additives are used to enhance masago.
Previously, I talked about how fish eggs can be enhanced with the addition of flavorings or colourings which might be natural or otherwise.
Unfortunately, it is pretty common for unhealthy additives to show up in masago and other types of roe.
For example, high-fructose corn syrup may be present in some processed fish eggs.
This is a very unhealthy additive which can lead to problems with insulin resistance.
It also can adversely impact weight and dopamine signalling while leading to increased inflammation (31).
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) may be added to roe as well.
MSG is a common migraine trigger and may also cause other unwanted symptoms (32).
How can you make sure that you are not eating MSG or other unwanted additives?
When shopping for roe at the store, carefully check the ingredients to make sure that what you are
KEY POINT: If you want to avoid nasty additives like high-fructose corn syrup and MSG in your foods, you need to be selective of the roe you are eating.
3. Some people are allergic to masago or other types of fish eggs.
There is a protein called “vitellogenin” which is present in roe. This protein can cause allergic reactions in some people (33).
“But I am not allergic to fish,” you might protest. “Surely I can eat fish eggs without trouble.”
Well, obviously if you have already eaten roe and know your are not allergic, you are good to go.
But if you have never eaten roe, you cannot know if you will be allergic or not until you do, even if you have never had an allergic reaction to fish.
Research shows that even people who are not allergic to fish can be allergic to fish eggs (34).
Indeed, it is among the most pervasive allergies in Japan (35).
KEY POINT: Most people are able to enjoy consuming fish eggs without any problems, but some folks are unfortunately allergic.
This can happen even without the presence of fish or shellfish allergies.
4. There may be sustainability problems involved with eating masago.
According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, there has been a drop of 70% in the availability of capelin over the past three years (36).
According to Bill Montevecchi, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s (37), capelin fishing has become problematic because of the fact that pregnant fish and their eggs are what are being specifically harvested.
As he explains, “You’re not only fishing what you catch, you’re essentially fishing the next generation.”
The same article linked above also quotes aquatic sciences biologist Alejandro Buren at Fisheries and Oceans Canada as saying, “Fishing on spawning fish can have an impact on the populations. Some management on the timing may be appropriate.”
The other issue with capelin fishing is that a lot of other fish species rely on capelin as a main source of food.
So if future generations of capelin end up getting depleted by over-fishing on pregnant fish, that could result in additional species also being depleted in numbers.
How big a problem is this?
That depends on who you ask. If you read the article which I linked to, you can view some contrasting opinions on the matter.
Regardless, it may be worth your time to do some research on the brands of masago you are buying.
Check to find out what kinds of harvesting and sustainability practices the companies follow.
KEY POINT: There are some concerns that high market demands for masago are resulting in over-fishing of pregnant capelin.
This may be upsetting ecological balance in the ocean over time.
In General, the Advantages of Masago Outpace the Disadvantages
We now have discussed both the pros and cons eating masago in-depth.
As you can see, there are many nutritional reasons to make masago and other types of roe a regular part of your diet.
As to the possible disadvantages, you can largely mitigate those through careful shopping.
Obviously if you are allergic to roe, you cannot eat it.
But so long as you are not, you simply need to look for products which do not contain unwanted additives and which have been harvested through sustainable practices.
Beyond that, you just need to make sure that you do not overindulge and eat too much sodium.
Where Can You Buy Masago?
There was a time when it was very challenging to find ingredients for Asian cuisine in Western grocery stores, but they are becoming a lot more available.
So there is a chance that you may be able to purchase masago at one of your local grocery stores.
You will probably have the best luck if you check a gourmet grocery store or one specializing in Asian products.
If you are unable to locate a store which sells masago in your local area, you can still buy it online.
There you should find many purchase options both for masago and other types of roe.
Shop around to make sure that you find the best prices. Remember, masago is generally more cost effective than many other types of fish eggs.
KEY POINT: It is no longer nearly as challenging to find masago for sale in Western countries than it used to be.
If you live in an urban area and have access to a wide range of groceries at your local supermarkets, you may be able to pick it up in person.
Otherwise, you can order it on the internet.
How Can You Eat Masago?
Once you purchase masago, how can you eat it? There are plenty of different ways that you can use it to enhance your recipes while boosting your nutritional intake. Here are a few ideas to consider.
- Enjoy masago by itself. Just as you might enjoy a spoonful of caviar, you can also delight in a spoonful of masago.
- Eat it on a cracker. Just as this is a simple way to eat caviar, it also is a quick and inexpensive way to indulge in some masago as a snack. You could also eat it with cheese instead.
- Make your own Masago sushi. Masago works particularly well as a topping for sushi rolls.
- If you are eating cooked fish, you can add masago to that as well.
- Try adding it to a salad. You may sometimes eat fish in a salad, so why not eat fish eggs the same way? It can go particularly well with Asian dressings.
- Add masago to rice. While you could hypothetically use any type of rice to do this, short-grain sticky rice works best since this is the type of rice that you are used to having in sushi. You could also add some seaweed flakes.
- Masago tastes delicious with noodles as well. Add it to your favorite Asian noodle entrée for extra flavor and nutrition.
- Incorporate masago into dips. You may be able to come up with some surprising tasty flavor commendations.
- Anything else you can think of. With cooking, the sky is the limit. You can use your imagination to come up with all kinds of ideas of your own. You can also research recipes to make with roe online.
KEY POINT: While you may not be used to eating masago at home now, you should find that it is pretty easy to integrate it into your diet in a variety of different ways.
Use your creativity to enhance your favorite dishes, but don't be afraid to try something new.
Conclusion: Masago is Delicious and Nutritious, and Much of the World’s Population Could Benefit from Eating More of It
You now know a great deal more about masago then you probably did in the past.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I had the privilege of living in Japan when I was young and enjoying masago and other tasty Asian ingredients in authentic cuisine.
But when I moved back to the States, a lot of the foods I had come to enjoy were hard to come by, especially outside of restaurants.
So take advantage of the excellent availability of masago and other types of roe.
In most countries, you should now be able to shop for masago either in person or online.
It doesn’t take a lot of ingenuity to find delicious new ways to enjoy it at home.
When you do, you’ll be loading up on nutrition and doing your body and taste buds a favor.
Enjoy all that extra protein, selenium, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and other scrumptious goodness!
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