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Casting Your Net On Seafood Safety

Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian

Take heart, fish lovers! While the safety issues surrounding the consumption of fish are legitimate, don’t let them spoil your seafood catch.

The Benefits
There are many health benefits from eating seafood. It is an exceptional source of high quality protein and essential vitamins and minerals, but is generally low in calories, saturated fat and sodium. Many varieties of fish contain the very beneficial polyunsaturated fat called Omega-3 fatty acids, which help fight heart disease and stroke by lowering blood pressure and triglycerides. New research is beginning to show that these healthy fats may also reduce the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis, asthma and colitis, as well as help treat depression and bipolar disease.

The Dangers
For most individuals, commercial fish and recreationally caught fish are safe to eat. However, many fish contain varying levels of substances that are thought to be toxic to the body. These substances include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and methylmercury (MeHg).

  • According to the US Department of Agriculture, farm-raised salmon have a higher overall fat content than wild salmon, yet both varieties are similar in Omega-3 content. Since farm-raised salmon contain more fat, they may be contaminated with more PCBs and other pollutants and pesticides. Farm-raised salmon are also fed fishmeal that may be contaminated with PCBs.
  • Methylmercury occurs naturally in the environment and nearly all fish contain traces of it. Larger fish, such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish contain the highest amounts. <pagebreak>
Guidelines for Those at Risk 
While most fish are safe to eat, consumption of some types of fish may present serious health concerns for women who might become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children. Therefore, the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Environmental Protection Agency have issued the following guidelines for these individuals. By following these guidelines, these women and young children can receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish, yet reduce their exposure to the harmful toxins:
  • Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
  • Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Five of the most common are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
  • Another commonly eaten fish is albacore (white) tuna, but it has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
  • Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local water, but do not consume any other fish during that week.
  • To reduce exposure to PCBs, trim the fat before broiling, baking, or grilling fish. All of these methods are preferable to frying because they enable the PCB content in the fat to cook off.
  • Though more costly, choosing wild and canned Alaskan salmon over farmed-raised salmon will help to decrease the PCB contamination.
  • When feeding fish and shellfish to young children follow the guidelines listed above, but serve smaller, child-size portions.
General Guidelines for Others 
Don’t be scared away from the vast fish and seafood smorgasbord. Indeed, nothing in life is risk-free. Limit the "big fish" (shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish), enjoy tuna in moderation, and watch for local fish advisories. Reel in and enjoy the rest, for you can’t beat the taste and healthy benefits!
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