FDA Revises Fish Recommendations: Is Something Fishy?

by | Dec 17, 2008

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is asking the White House to amend its own previous warnings that children and pregnant women avoid seafood for fear of mercury poisoning, the Washington Post reports. The agency argues that the neurological benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and other minerals are worth the risk of mercury poisoning.

But not everyone is happy about this.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other consumer advocate organizations are outraged by the proposed change, accusing the FDA of catering to fishing industries and ignoring public health. The EPA has called the FDA document “scientifically flawed and inadequate” and an “oversimplification” of the health concerns involved.

There is a large body of scientific evidence that mercury can cause problems in the developing nervous system, so the new recommendations would have to be careful to educate consumers about both the positive and negative aspects of consuming more fish.

I have not seen the report myself, so I cannot pass judgement immediately. However, as I have explained in Synapse the dynamics of fish consumption and mercury contamination are very complicated, particularly for children and pregnant women.

My advice is to be careful with fish regardless of what the FDA report says. While it is extremely important to consume adequate omega-3 fatty acids as well as vitamin D from fish sources, mercury contamination is a serious concern that should not be overlooked.

To get the maximum benefit from fish and minimize mercury consumption

  • Eat fish at least twice per week
  • Avoid large fish such as tuna, shark and swordfish
  • Seek fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel
  • Take vitamin D and omega-3 supplements (fish oil based) when fish is not available
  • Enjoy vegetarian sources of omega-3s like soy, flax and walnuts

Recently I have been experimenting with canned sardines and anchovies and they are much better than I expected them to be. I also enjoy canned salmon as well as smoked salmon or lox (but watch your nitrate intake!). If you can afford it, fresh fish is always wonderful.

Do any of you have strong opinions about the FDA report or know if it is available to the public yet?

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16 Responses to “FDA Revises Fish Recommendations: Is Something Fishy?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Once, again, as in your vitamin D article I am so sick and tired of getting jerked around with topics like this. They treat us like total tools, telling us to do/eat one thing one minute and then the opposite the next minute. I feel like my diet would simply be the most healthy with one single principle: moderation. If I made all of my food choices in moderation, it seems like I would probably live a pretty healthy life, save a lot of money, and never have to hear another bogus FDA recommendation ever again. And to think that as recently as college classes I took, I was forced to memorize detailed features of that inane 1992 pyramid

  2. Matt Shook says:

    I’m beginning to think most of my opinions can be classified as “strong.” =P I’m not really surprised by what comes out of Washington these days…haven’t been for a long time. This “revision” of policy is fairly common practice for the FDA. ;)

    When it comes to mercury, I can’t help but try to avoid it completely (including “silver” dental fillings). I don’t eat fish/seafood for several reasons…however it is important that I make sure I’m getting the proper nutrients/oils in return. I include organic (sometimes raw) flax seed in my breakfast smoothie and granola (hemp seed/flax seed combo) every morning. I also include flax seed oil and various nuts in my salads. (A simple combination of flax seed oil, avocado oil, and olive oil makes a great dressing!)

    I’m still avoiding the soy due to possible complications with phytoestrogens (flax seed has them too, but its a healthier alternative)…

  3. Darya Pino says:

    @anon:

    I couldn’t agree more, on many accounts.

    First, moderation is always the best policy (except with man-made trans fat) for both health and happiness. Common sense dictates that you should not go overboard with any particular food, and that a little of anything will probably do minimal damage.

    As for the “They” treating us like tools, I agree that the FDA has not been the vigilant public watch dog it was originally designed to be, but it has not always been this way and does not have to be.

    If we had scientists in charge of the FDA, USDA and EPA instead of politicians, national health advice would result in a tremendous improvement in our diets and health.

    Lots of data has shown that we are most likely to eat what is available, and government agencies determine what food we grow and consume. Since it is inevitable for the government to have a role in protecting our agriculture/food supply/economy, we would be better off with a highly efficient and function FDA rather than none at all.

  4. Matt Shook says:

    I just realized that I may be developing a reputation as the “avoiding” guy! Hahaha…

  5. Darya Pino says:

    @Matt:

    In our nation’s food culture avoiding may be the best strategy. You sound like you eat a diverse diet of healthy food, so keep it up!

    Don’t worry about offending the rest of us omnivores ;)

  6. Healthyliving says:

    You mentioned nitrates with the lox. I’d be interested in seeing an article about nitrates, lunch meat, etc…..

  7. Steve Parker, M.D. says:

    And you didn’t even mention the dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls, Darya.

    It’s interesting to see a pissing contest between two government agencies. And we taxpayers are funding it.

    I’ve been practicing internal medicine for 24 years and have never seen a case of human poisoning by chemicals in fish. Nor have any of my thousands of physician contacts ever mentioned finding a case to me.

    Sure, maybe we’re missing the diagnosis.

    I suspect the concerns are overblown, especially if you eat only two servings a week.

    I had a canned sardine sandwich on whole bread yesterday. Quick and cheap. Ditto for sardines.

    -Steve

  8. Darya Pino says:

    @Steve

    I know, the list of potential fish toxins is exhausting. I think I mentioned those other toxins in the articles I linked to.

    For adults there is certainly little to be concerned with. But for women of childbearing age and young children there is data on neurodevelopment (my personal field of expertise–About page on the way, I promise), particularly IQs, social ability and motor function given different fish diets. Omega-3s are good, mercury is bad….

    I’ll take the sardine sandwich :)

    Thanks for your input!

  9. Matt Shook says:

    @Darya
    “Don’t worry about offending the rest of us omnivores ;)”

    Hahaha…yeah, I really do believe vegan/vegetarianism isn’t for everyone. I have a good friend who is vegan who I think should not be…he has a terrible time digesting legumes/beans and veggies too.

    Btw, this video on mercury and neuron degenration was pretty interesting and informative.

  10. Steve Parker, M.D. says:

    And now we have this actor/celebrity (who?) in the news who says he’s suffering mercury toxicity from sushi!

    Sushi twice daily, we read.

    Even still, I’m skeptical. If you read it in the news, it must be true, right?

    -Steve

  11. Steve Parker, M.D. says:

    The actor/celebrity’s situation was covered by Sandy over at JunkFoodScience.com:
    http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2008/12/do-fish-fly.html

    Very interesting post, as usual for Sandy, and highly recommended by me.

    -Steve

  12. Matt Shook says:

    @Steve

    Thanks for posting the interesting article regarding an alternative take on mercury poisoning (or the lack thereof). I enjoyed some aspects of the article but a few in particular kind of bothered me.

    She wrote: “For the investors in the Broadway production, believing this popular food myth could cost them $3.5 million.”

    Forgive me if I fail to feel some sympathy for the “investors”…I believe personal health should be our top priority, not ensuring a return on investment for others. Regardless if his condition was caused directly (or indirectly) by mercury consumption, he has a right to say “I’m not well” and take the time to improve his health.

    Secondly, she references ephedra in connection with Dr. Coker to show you just how bad this guy really is. I think she included it for a bit of shock value despite the fact that FDA-approved prescription (and even some over-the-counter) drugs account for far more deaths than ephedra ever did. Her initial statement above tends to lean towards favoring a healthy bottom line over a health body…which I find disturbing.

    It is possible that he did contract high levels of mercury through other means (environmental/occupational contamination), not the sushi…but he would still be sick nonetheless. Ultimately, I think more specific information regarding the Piven case would have to be released before condemning him as a faker and liar.

  13. Karin says:

    I have started to hear some confusing news stories about this on the radio and TV lately too. It seems like the reporters don’t really know what to say about it either; except for that you can tell they love a headline like this….

  14. Mike says:

    Alright- after years of resisting all kinds of pressure to take all kinds of supplements but sticking to only my multivitamin, I’m gonna start taking a daily Vitamin D. I hope this doesn’t backfire…..and if I get cancer I’m coming to find you Darya!

  15. Fred says:

    Do you have any sources which document the relative levels of mercury in salmon vs tuna? I have heard that chunk light tuna is fairly low on the mercury scale compared to other fish, but I don’t have a citation.

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