The Fish Dilemma: The facts about mercury, PCBs, and what's safe to eat.

Last week's New York Times article revealed that the tuna sushi from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants had very high levels of mercury. We've known for years now that many of our fish have high levels of mercury and PCBs. But did you know that certain fish, like bluefin tuna and albacore, even salmon, have such high levels that it is unsafe to eat more than once a month, especially for women and children?

Since Omega-3 fatty acids have been the new health fad, this may have come as shocker for many who have chosen the tuna salad or salmon steak over beef or chicken for the touted health benefits of several servings of fish a week. Health experts might even say that the benefits (omega-3) outweigh the risks (mercury and PCBs). Hmm. There's actually a better solution. Let's have the omega-3s without the toxins. Can we please have our fish and eat it too?

Fish is good. It's got the Omega-3s, vitamin D, good fat, lean protein, and it's yummy. Mercury and PCBs on the other hand are bad. What's worse, mercury stays in our body for years and is very easily transfered to the fetus.

Methylmercury can cross the placenta and cause learning deficits and developmental delays in children who are exposed even to relatively low levels in the womb. The principal exposure route for the fetus is fish consumption by the mother...there is no doubt that methylmercury is toxic to the fetal brain and nervous system, and that many beneficial fish species are contaminated. EPA's safe exposure estimate for methylmercury has dropped twice in the past 16 years, as new science has identified adverse effects in children exposed in the womb at lower and lower doses.

- Brain Food, What women should know about mercury contamination in fish

PCBs are carcinogens that were banned back in the 70s, but they are resistant. Decades later, PCBs are still in our environment because they don't degrade. They just hang around and get consumed, and are then carried around in the fat of the animals that consume them. That is why they are especially prevalent in farmed salmon, which are 50% more fatty than wild salmon (By the way, did everyone know that farmed salmon has pigment added to it to give it the "salmon" color? Because their feed doesn't include krill, which wild salmon eat, their flesh is actually a gray color. Yet another reason to eschew farmed salmon -- not because they're really gray, but because they're only pretending to be pink).

Although farmed salmon isn’t inherently less healthful, it is what it eats: typically concentrated fish meal and fish oil. And all too often, the fish that go into this feed have lived in polluted waters.

- ConsumerReports.org, The salmon scam

This is especially important for children, women who are pregnant, and those planning to become pregnant. When I say "planning" I mean 1+ years. Remember, this stuff is in our system for a long time. It means that if you know you've been having tuna several times a week, it'll take a year or two for the mercury you've accumlated to get out of your system.

Don't worry though. There are fish safe to eat, and this definitely doesn't mean that you can't ever have sushi again. We can't find much to eat these days that isn't contaminated one way or another. Our bodies can get rid of most of it. Fish with higher levels of mercury or PCBs are recommended to be consumed no more than once a month. I don't know about you, but I sure can't afford sushi even once a month. So I'm fine with that.

The general rule is to eat smaller, younger fish. It's the older, bigger, and predatory fish that have all the mercury because they consume a lot of smaller fish. The higher up in the food chain, the more of it builds up. Bluefin tuna and albacore are high in mercury, but yellowfin (yellowtail) is fine. Get wild salmon when you can, but know that it's hard to find fresh, wild salmon, especially on the East Coast, and especially during winter. Another New York Times article showed that 6 of 8 wild salmon bought in New York City stores were actually farmed.

Things to remember

Handy charts

  • Here is a great chart that tells you which fish are ok to eat, and how often you can eat them
  • Here is a chart just for kids
  • This is a pocket guide for eco-friendly fish

Farmed salmon is okay

  • No more than once a month (pregnant women should be more cautious)
  • Farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile, the U.S., or Canada has less PCBs than those from Europe
  • Trim the fat and get rid of the skin before cooking
  • Broiling, baking, or grilling is better than frying -- the more fat that cooks off, the better

Wild salmon is excellent

  • Alaskan salmon by definition is wild (salmon farming is outlawed there)
  • Wild salmon season is from May-September. Be wary when finding fresh wild salmon during the off season
  • Canned and frozen wild salmon is readily available
  • Chum, Coho, and Pink wild salmon is better than Chinook (King) and Sockeye

There are other fish high in omega-3s, low in environmental contaminants, and eco-friendly

  • Arctic char
  • Atlantic mackerel (not the same as King mackerel, which is bad)
  • Sardines
  • Sablefish
  • Anchovies
  • Farmed oysters
  • Farmed rainbow trout

Other sources of Omega-3s

  • Flax seeds (you can get them whole, grounded, or just buy the oil -- Oprah's and Dr. Oz's fav)
  • Walnuts
  • Wheat germ
  • Soy
  • High omega-3 eggs are available in many health markets. These come from chicken fed a high flaxseed diet.

Got supplements? A few studies have shown that taking fish oil supplements result in a very low absorption rate, but it may be a good option over not getting omega-3s at all. The Environmental Defense evaluated 75 companies making supplements for their safety standards. Find out which brands are safe.

Also keep in mind that the source of the omega-3s is plants (algae for fish). Wild game like deer are high in omega-3s because they eat a lot of plants. Same for grass-fed cows. Our regular feedlot beef only eat corn, which is high in omega-6s, which is something we shouldn't have too much of. Leafy veggies contain omega-3s as well, but because they don't have much fat, there is controversy on how much of it we can get once they have been cooked.

In the end, I'd like to quote one of my favorite authors and say, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." There's a lot of information out there, and we can only do our best for ourselves and families. Instead of following food fads and diets, just eat a variety of real food, include more plants, and your body will do the rest. But no tuna or farmed salmon more than once a month.

Visit Parenting Squad for more articles.

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