Food of the Czars: Why Caviar Is so Expensive

August 14, 2013


Salt-cured sturgeon roe, which is listed as beluga caviar on menus, is one of the most expensive foods in the world, with prices as high as $200 to $300 per ounce. Why on earth does something as simple as fish eggs cost so much?

The roe that is used for beluga caviar comes from the beluga sturgeon, which is found in the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. It takes up to two decades for the beluga sturgeon to reach its maximum adult size, with the heaviest weighing around two tons.

Beluga roe consists of the largest, softest eggs compared to other varieties of sturgeon. Other varieties of caviar include sterlet, osetra and sevruga.

While these caviars have their supporters, beluga is widely acknowledged as the most desirable variety. Roe from other kinds of fish are delicious and relatively inexpensive, but only sturgeon roe can properly be called caviar.

Caviar is available in both pasteurized and unpasteurized forms. Pasteurization slows spoilage, just as it does with milk, but caviar connoisseurs say it detracts from taste and texture. Unpasteurized varieties therefore command higher prices. People who are lucky enough to taste beluga caviar describe it as very creamy, almost buttery in texture and taste.

The eggs can range from gray to light purple to black, with the palest being valued the most because they come from older fish. In recent times, a sample of pearly white caviar was extracted from a sturgeon believed to be 100 years old. This caviar sold for more than $1,000 per ounce.

The endangered status of beluga sturgeon is one reason caviar is expensive. Several countries, including the United States, have banned the import of beluga caviar since 2005. Among all the countries that export beluga caviar, only Iran is exempted from the import ban because its strict conservation policies are judged sufficient to protect the sturgeon and its habitat.

In terms of nutrition, caviar is a good source of vitamin B12, but it is also high in cholesterol and salt. A one-tablespoon serving weighs in at 42 calories, 2.86 grams of fat, and 240 mg of sodium. So remember: When you win the lottery, enjoy caviar in moderation.

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