Life is hard for us pescatarians these days.
First, we read that it’s important to eat fish regularly because it can be very nutritious, and packed with great nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, the B vitamins and lean protein. Next we hear alarming reports from scientists that consuming fish may be more hazardous to our health than we think because of its high mercury levels.
These reports, produced by the Biodiversity Research Institute and an international coalition of environmental campaign groups called the Zero Mercury Working Group, say that mercury contamination of seafood is on the rise across the globe, and that “smaller traces of the toxic metal may be enough to cause restricted brain development or other health problems for humans who eat them.”
According to these reports, 84 percent of the world’s fish contain unsafe levels of mercury.
Now that we are all thoroughly scared, let’s take a straight look at the facts.
As usual, balance is our key: the reality is that the healthy effects of fish outweigh the risks from mercury when it comes to lowering heart attack risk, as long as the fish is low in mercury, according to a study from Umea University in Sweden. Researchers there found that high omega-3 fatty acids in fish were linked with a lower risk of heart attack, but high levels of mercury in fish raise risk of heart attack, so to maximize the benefits of the omega 3-s, they advised people to choose fish with low levels of mercury and high levels of omega-3s.
That all makes sense to me. Here are 3 simple ways to avoid high levels of mercury in your fish:
1. Read The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Recommendations
The EPA points out that nearly every kind of fish contains mercury, but some contain higher levels than others. Mercury can be especially dangerous for pregnant women because it can affect development of the child’s brain and nervous system. The FDA has released guidelines for children, women who are pregnant and women who are trying to become pregnant. They recommend against eating shark, king mackerel, tilefish and swordfish because of their high levels of mercury; fish known to be lower in mercury include shrimp, salmon, catfish, pollock and canned light tuna (which has lower mercury levels than albacore tuna).
I’d say that what’s good enough for pregnant women is good enough for all of us.
2. Check Out Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” and “Super Green List”
I take the Seafood Watch list with me every time I shop for fish: it provides recommendations for “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives” and “Avoid” to ensure that the fish I am purchasing was caught or farmed using environmentally friendly practices, and that I am supporting healthy, sustainable and abundant oceans. It has also led to some lengthy conversations with fish salesmen, who don’t like to be questioned in front of their customers.
By clicking on your state on the map on their site, you can download the pocket guide that’s right for your region to help you choose ocean-friendly seafood wherever you live or travel.
I recently discovered that the same group also puts out a “Super Green List,” which highlights products that are currently on the Seafood Watch “Best Choices” list, are low in environmental contaminants and are good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Their suggestions include:
Albacore Tuna (troll- or pole-caught, from the U.S. or British Columbia)
Freshwater Coho Salmon (farmed in tank systems, from the U.S.)
Pacific Sardines (wild-caught)
Rainbow Trout (farmed)
Salmon (wild-caught, from Alaska)
** Other Healthy “Best Choices”
Arctic Char (farmed)
Barramundi (farmed, from the U.S.)
Dungeness Crab (wild-caught, from California, Oregon or Washington)
Longfin Squid (wild-caught, from the U.S. Atlantic)
3. Study Lists Provided By The Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC)
The NRDC has released a list of fish and their mercury levels so that people can be informed on what they are consuming. If you want to get more detailed information about mercury levels and how much you personally are consuming, you can also use the mercury thermometer to calculate your totals.
Here are the fish that contain the lowest mercury; feel free to enjoy two 6-oz servings per week of these: anchovies, butterfish, catfish, clams, domestic crab, crawfish, croaker, flounder, haddock, hake, herring, North Atlantic mackeral, mullet, oysters, ocean perch, plaice, canned and fresh salmon, sardines, scallops, American shad, shrimp, sole, squid, tilapia, freshwater trout, whitefish and whiting.
However, one more proviso from the NRDC: always check local advisories about the safety of fish caught locally by family and friends. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish caught in local waters, but don’t consume any other fish during that week.
In other words, use common sense and don’t overdo it!
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