Fish – health food or hazard?

The next time you bite into that tuna sandwich, take time to appreciate that it is chock full of heart-healthy fat (Omega 3), is a great source of protein, and is rich in vitamins & minerals. Unfortunately, now you need to think about whether or not it is hazardous to your health. This is because fish and shellfish may contain dangerously high amounts of mercury. So, it is time to learn about mercury in the food chain, your risk level, and how to protect yourself.
According to The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mercury (a metal) exists naturally on earth, finding its way into our farmland, water and air. Humans via industry also add mercury to the environment. There are several types of mercury, but the one that has found its way into your sandwich is known as methylmercury.
The amount of methylmercury in fish has a direct correlation to the age and size of the fish. The larger and older a fish is, the greater the amount of methylmercury. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the average person is exposed to 3.5 micrograms of mercury a day. We are told that this amount is not a harmful level for most people but those who eat a lot of fish may exceed these levels. Also, there are certain people that are significantly more sensitive to methylmercury exposure and need to take precautions. Why all the concern? Because the impact from exposure to methylmercury can last for a very long time, and some effects are permanent.
Ninety-five percent of the methylmercury you eat will be absorbed during digestion. Once in the bloodstream, the methylmercury can lead to minor changes that might not be noticed, such as a slightly lower IQ. Both the FDA and EPA report that methylmercury consumption can lead to serious complications such as brain damage, parathesia (pins & needles feelings on the skin), vision, speech and kidney complications. Pregnant women need to be particularly cautious, since methylmercury can permanently damage a developing fetus. There could be irreversible developmental delays, brain damage, speech impairment, blindness, seizures, muscle weakness and cerebral palsy. This is also concern for young children due to their small size and developing brains, as well as for nursing moms (mercury can be transferred in breast milk).
Right now there are mercury limiting guidelines from the EPA/FDA for pregnant/nursing women. First of all, fish offers a wealth of good nutrition. So, go ahead and put fish on your plate in limited amounts – eight to 12 ounces a week of low mercury fish (see list below). Skip eating the highest mercury fish (tilefish, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel). When having tuna, choose the light meat most often, limiting white albacore to 6 ounces/week (that’s out of your total weekly allowance). Young children should also be fed fish the low mercury fish, but in smaller amounts.
As for the rest of us, there is a great deal that can be done. If you are concerned, ask to be tested for mercury. There are blood, urine and hair analysis tests available. In the meantime, take the initiative and choose the lowest mercury fish for your dinner plate. The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) created a listing of the lowest mercury fish that you can take to the supermarket next time fish is on the menu –
Lowest mercury fish
Crab (Domestic)
Croaker (Atlantic)
Haddock (Atlantic)
Mackerel (North Atlantic, Chub)
Perch (Ocean)
Salmon (Canned)
Salmon (Fresh)
Shad (American)
Sole (Pacific)
Squid (Calamari)
Trout (Freshwater)

Lower mercury sushi choices:
Akagai (ark shell) 1
Anago (conger eel) 1
Aoyagi (round clam)
Awabi (abalone) 1
Ayu (sweetfish)
Ebi (shrimp)
Hamaguri (clam)
Hamo (pike conger; sea eel)
Hatahata (sandfish)
Himo (ark shell)
Hokkigai (surf clam)
Hotategai (scallop)
Ika (squid)
Ikura (salmon roe)
Kaibashira (shellfish)
Kani (crab)
Karei (flatfish)
Kohada (gizzard shad)
Masago (smelt egg)
Masu (trout)
Mirugai (surf clam)
Sake (salmon)
Sayori (halfbeak)
Shako (mantis shrimp)
Tai (sea bream)
Tairagai (razor-shell clam)
Tako (octopus)
Tobikko (flying fish egg)
Torigai (cockle)
Tsubugai (shellfish)
Unagi (freshwater eel)
Uni (sea urchin roe)

Eating fish has become one of those “good news/bad news” hot topics. The good news? Fish is still heart-healthy and an excellent source of protein and rich with vitamins and minerals. The bad news? Fish can be a health risk due to the methylmercury it may contain. Don’t despair! There is no need to ban fish from the menu. Be selective, and get cooking!
Jennifer Giffune, R.D., L.D.N. is a freelance author, professional speaker and nutrition counselor. She currently is providing nutrition counseling services for Hampden County Physician Associates at their offices in Feeding Hills, Westfield and Southwick. If you would like to schedule a counseling session with Jennifer, please call (413) 569- 2257.

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