Despite Concerns,
Seafood Still Remains Good Food

An article by By Susanna Baird
Reprinted from "Taste for Life" magazine

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Fish is high in protein and low in saturated fat, particularly white-fleshed species including cod, halibut, and tilapia. It’s also full of health-boosting “good” fats –omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega 3s, especially prevalent in fatty coldwater fish (herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, and tuna), benefit the body in many ways. These fats may help prevent heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, and they aid pre- and postnatal neurological development. Older brains need omega 3s, as well. One study of elderly people found that annual mental decline was 10 percent slower in those eating fish at least once a week. These powerful fatty acids may benefit those suffering from arrhythmia, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis. They may even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Recent Concerns

Despite the many health benefits of fish consumption, 83 percent of Americans- some likely scared off by warnings of contaminants-do not eat the two servings a week recommended by many experts. Two contaminants in particular, mercury and PCBs, have received significant press in relation to seafood. Emitted primarily by industrial sources, mercury winds up in water and enters the tissue of fish in a form called methylmercury. As big fish eat smaller ones, methylmercury moves up the food chain and biomagnifies (grows more potent). Fish at the top of the food chain, such as swordfish and shark, typically contain the highest concentrations of methylmercury.

Excessive mercury can affect the human nervous system and kidneys. Many experts believe that fetuses, infants, and young children, whose nervous systems are still maturing, are especially at risk and can sustain developmental and neurological damage as a result of overexposure.

Because of the perceived danger, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a joint warning in 2004 advising mothers-to-be, nursing mothers, and small children to avoid the high-mercury species king mackerel, shark, swordfish, and tilefish. However, this same population was encouraged to continue eating 12 ounces per week of low-mercury seafood including salmon, shrimp, and canned light tuna.

Polyychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs) prohibited for U.S. manufacturers in 1977 but still present in the atmosphere and waterways, are also a concern. Like mercury, PCBs were released into the environment by industrial sources and continue to build up in the tissue of fish. Also like mercury, these substances may have negative developmental and neurological effects on fetuses and children. PCBs have also been linked to breast cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Benefits Outweigh Risks

The FDA’s advisory created and unexpected backlash: Some health experts believe the American public misheard the warning as, roughly, “watch our for fish!” A recent study by the University of Maryland’s Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy showed that many adults didn’t understand the warning, knowing neither who should fish nor what fish to avoid.

Now, as a result of these misconceptions, many Americans are missing out on the crucial benefits fish offer. The realty is that experts still recommend two servings of fish a week. Limit consumption to the low-mercury species. Also keep in mind that selenium, found in many ocean fish, neutralizes mercury’s toxicity in the body, as does natural vitamin E.


Tuna Watch

When issuing its 2004 warning to pregnant and nursing women, the FDA noted that canned light tuna- a type of tuna called skipjack-was an acceptable low-mercury fish (skipjack contains about one third of the mercury found in albacore). However, a recent Chicago Tribune story alleged that approximately 15 percent of light tuna sold, sometimes but always labeled “tonno” or “gourmet,” is not skipjack but yellowfin, a potentially toxic tuna species. Since then, the FDA has released test results showing that 6 percent of light tuna tested contained high levels of mercury. The FDA is still investigating the yellowfin allegations.


Salmon: Wild Caught or Farm Fresh?

Salmon, low in mercury and high in omega-3 fats, seems an ideal choice for the health conscious. However, a debate about the merits of wild-caught versus farmed salmon continues to confuse consumers. PCBs and other contaminants sit at the heart of the debate. Farmed salmon contain notably higher levels of PCBs than wild-caught salmon. Additionally, because farmed salmon are raised in close quarters, they are prone to disease epidemics and, for this reason, are often treated with chemicals.

One gourmet chain had committed to purchasing only farmed king salmon that meets strict contaminant and environmental guidelines; natural product stores carry wild-caught fish. Some experts recommend wild-caught salmon for pregnant/nursing women and young children.

Consume Wisely

When shopping, choose fresh fish with firm, translucent flesh. Avoid fish with spots or bruises, as well as cloudy eyes, which could signal bacteria and/or decomposition. When opting for frozen fish-an excellent choice with the advent of flash freezing-make sure fish is hard, with no freezer burn. If purchasing lobsters or crabs, choose fresh caught rather than buying from a tank. Pick up seafood at the end of any shopping trip.

When preparing fish, remove the skin, fat, and internal organs-all places where toxins build up. This reduces levels of PCBs and other toxins, but not mercury. Wash hands and cooking tools during preparation, and keep raw seafood away form other food. Let fat drain away from the fish while cooking, and avoid frying, which seals in toxins, cook thoroughly.


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