by Marion Nestle
Jun 17 2014

Fish politics: The FDA’s updated policy on eating fish while pregnant

Eating fish presents difficult dilemmas (I evaluate them in five chapters of What to Eat).

This one is about asking pregnant women to weigh the benefits of fish-eating against the hazards of their toxic chemical contaminants to the developing fetus.

The Dietary Guidelines tell pregnant women to eat 2-to-3 servings of low-mercury fish per week (actually, it’s methylmercury that is of concern, but the FDA calls it mercury and I will too).

But to do that, pregnant women have to:

  • Know which fish are low in mercury
  • Recognize these fish at the supermarket, even if they are mislabeled (which they sometimes are).

Only a few fish, all large predators, are high in mercury.  The FDA advisory says these are:

  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • King Mackerel
  • Tilefish

What?  This list leaves off the fifth large predator: Albacore (white) tuna.  This tuna has about half the mercury as the other four, but still much more than other kinds of fish.

The figure below comes from the Institute of Medicine’s fish report.  It shows that fish highest in omega-3 fatty acids, the ones that are supposed to promote neurological development in the fetus and cognitive development in infants, are also highest in mercury.

fish

White tuna is the line toward the bottom.  The ones in the blue boxes are all much lower in omega-3s and in mercury except for farmed Atlantic salmon (high in omega-3s, very low in mercury).

What’s going on here?

  • Tuna producers know you can’t tell the difference between white and other kinds of tuna and don’t want you to stop eating tuna during pregnancy.
  • The data on the importance of eating fish to children’s cognitive development are questionable (in my opinion).  The studies are short term and it’s difficult to know whether the small gains in early cognitive development that have been reported make any difference a few months later.
  • The FDA must be under intense pressure to promote fish consumption.

I think it is absurd to require pregnant women to know which fish to avoid.  In supermarkets, fish can look pretty much alike and you cannot count on fish sellers to know the differences.

Other dilemmas:

  • Even smaller fish have PCBs, another toxin best avoided by pregnant women, if not everyone.
  • The world’s seafood supply is falling rapidly as a result of overfishing.
  • Half of the mercury in seafood derives from emissions from coal-burning power plants.  The best way to reduce mercury in fish is to clean up the emissions from those plants, but plant owners want to avoid the expense.

That’s fish politics, for you.

The FDA documents:

Comments

[…] Source: Fish politics: The FDA’s updated policy on eating fish while pregnant […]

[…] Source: Fish politics: The FDA’s updated policy on eating fish while pregnant […]

[…] Source: Fish politics: The FDA’s updated policy on eating fish while pregnant […]

  • Mark.
  • June 17, 2014
  • 3:41 pm

I keep reading that sufficient selenium intake prevents much of the harm from mercury, and that some types of fish naturally have enough selenium to be safe even if fairly high in mercury, while some don’t. I wonder if that’s actually true.

[…] Go here to see the original:  Food Politics » Fish politics: The FDA's updated policy on eating fish … […]

[…] Fish politics: The FDA’s updated policy on eating fish while pregnant <<Very interesting perspective on the new fish and pregnancy recommendations. Worth a read, especially if you’re considering creating a tiny human. (Food Politics) […]

  • Otis Idli
  • June 20, 2014
  • 6:19 pm

You think it’s absurd to suggest a mother should be an educated consumer? There’s nothing special about the fish problem among the many challenges a mother faces in choosing healthy food and behavior. There are mounds of complicated and conflicting information for people to sort through concerning many topics. It’s just a matter of taking responsibility for one’s health and making a modest effort. It seems you are basically saying that people are too stupid to figure out which fish to buy. It might be true that most people are pretty dumb, but selecting fish is not rocket science and even dumb people can probably handle that.

[…] I said in my previous post on the topic, if you like fish, of course eat it, otherwise I can’t think of any compelling reason why […]

[…] I said in my previous post on the topic, if you like fish, of course eat it, otherwise I can’t think of any compelling reason why […]

[…] I said in my previous post on the topic, if you like fish, of course eat it, otherwise I can’t think of any compelling reason why […]

[…] I said in my previous post on the topic, if you like fish, of course eat it, otherwise I can’t think of any compelling reason why […]

[…]   […]

[…] in fish (good) versus the content of methylmercury (bad) as still rather uncertain,” explains Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and […]

Leave a comment