Eat more fish, but low-mercury ones

Eat more fish. But stick to kinds with less mercury.

That’s the message that US federal regulators sent Tuesday in updating their advice on eating fish for pregnant women and nursing mothers, as well as women who might become pregnant and small children.

A decade ago, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency recommended maximum amounts of fish those groups should consume. But the new guidance includes a minimum amount, suggesting that pregnant women eat at least eight ounces and as many as 12 ounces (about 227g) per week of fish low in mercury in order to promote fetal growth and development.

“The information developed over the past decade strongly demonstrates that the health benefits from the consumption of fish far outweighs any risk,” Stephen Ostroff, the FDA’s acting chief scientist, told reporters Tuesday. “As the science has evolved, it’s become clearer and clearer that there are significant benefits.”

The US government recommended that women and children in the defined groups steer clear of certain fish due to their high mercury levels: shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico. Among the fish it said contain lower levels are pollock, salmon, shrimp, tilapia, catfish, cod and canned light tuna.

The agencies, however, recommended limiting consumption of white, or albacore, tuna to six ounces a week. 

Consuming high levels of mercury has the potential to damage neurological development of infants and young children and can pose a health risk to adults.

Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy group, said Tuesday’s recommendations were too vague to prove helpful to many women.

Lunder said. “This advice needs to be more specific. It’s just not using all the information we have.”

Lunder said the amount of mercury, as well as levels of protein and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, varies widely between species of fish – even the ones that the FDA and EPA recommended in Tuesday’s update.

But Jennifer McGuire, a dietitian with the National Fisheries Institute, called Tuesday’s recommendations significant and promising. She said previous advice from the government about the dangers of consuming too much mercury had the effect of scaring many pregnant women away from seafood altogether, which wasn’t necessary.

“This is the first time that the FDA has really tried to emphasise seafood as something that pregnant women should be eating a minimum of each week. That puts it in the ranks of folic acid and exercise,” McGuire said. “That’s really exciting, and totally consistent with the current science.”

The move is unlikely to satisfy consumer advocates who have pushed regulators – and even sued the FDA – to require labeling on seafood packages disclosing mercury content, saying such an approach would be more effective than hard-to-remember government guidelines.

- WashingtonPost