October 23rd, 2006
Given how much uncertainty there is in the food supply these days, the last thing we need is a couple of reputable scientific organizations telling us to eat fish “even if” it’s contaminated with life-threatening toxins. But that’s exactly what happened this month when the Harvard School of Public Health and the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, concluded that consuming fish can reduce the risk of heart disease and death, even if it’s contaminated with PCB’s, dioxin and mercury.
The Harvard study in particular said the benefits of eating fish high in omega-3’s, like salmon and mackerel, strongly outweighed risks that could occur from ingesting contaminants like PCB’s and dioxin. Dr. Darius Mozaffarian, one of the study’s two authors, called those risks “greatly exaggerated,” and said, “Seafood is likely the single most important food one can consume for good health.”
In a New York Times story about the study, Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, public health and food safety at New York University, described the Harvard study as “astonishing…Those of us who have been in nutrition for a long time have seen miracle foods come and go: vitamin E for heart disease, beta carotene to prevent cancer; now it’s fish.”
Both reports are being criticized by environmental groups and Consumers Union for failing to adequately address the risks of mercury in tuna and PCBs in many fish. Jane Houlihan, research director of the non-profit Environmental Working Group, said, “Once again pregnant women are being told it’s O.K. to eat tuna…The reality is, 90 percent of women would exceed the government’s level for a safe dose of mercury if they ate six ounces of albacore tuna every week as the F.D.A., E.P.A and now I.O.M. recommend.”
What to do?
•Women of childbearing age and children under 12 should not eat swordfish, shark, tile fish or king mackerel. They should limit their intake of albacore (white meat) tuna to no more than six ounces per week to avoid mercury, and not eat tuna every week.
•Everyone should choose wild Alaskan salmon over farm-raised salmon, which contains more PCBs and other toxins.
•You can also eat a variety of fish species to reduce your overall exposure to contaminants. Striped bass and farm-raised tilapia are safe, delicious alternatives.
I list a lot more options on the Food Page of Your World.