Something Fishy About Your Food?

It’s a great source of good-for-you fats, but do the risks of fish outweigh its benefits?

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By now, most American consumers are familiar with the great fish debate: It’s good. It’s bad. Its benefits outweigh its drawbacks. No, they don’t.

So what’s a consumer to do? True, fish offers good nutrition and beneficial fats. Also true that some fish is contaminated with heavy metals. Even health officials disagree on the issue. So what is the truth? And how do we weigh the good against the bad?

Adding fish to our diets has been promoted in recent years because of various research reports that essential fatty acids (EFAs) — especially those from fish — are good for us. In fact, in September 2004, the Food and Drug Administration announced qualified health claims for the omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish and their effect on reducing the risk of coronary heart disease. About the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency released two press releases warning women of childbearing age and nursing mothers of the dangers of eating fish due to toxic mercury content.

The Good News

EFAs are exactly what the name implies — essential. Our bodies do not have the ability to make these fats, yet they are critical to many bodily functions. Two of these EFAs — EPA and DHA — are available directly through consumption of fish. Each of these EFAs has been linked to a number of health benefits, including reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, stabilizing moods and improving attention-deficit disorder.

Indeed, fish oil has been linked to lower rates of several diseases, attributed in large part to its omega-3 EFA content. It also reduces inflammatory prostaglandin precursors and increases beneficial eicosanoid (locally acting hormones) production. Other dietary sources of EPA and DHA are algae, flax, perilla (Perilla frutescens) and hemp.

The Bad News

A March 2004 press release by the Environmental Protection Agency said that nearly all fish contain traces of mercury, and some fish have levels high enough to harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system. A warning was issued for women who have the potential to get pregnant, pregnant women and nursing mothers to limit fish consumption to two meals a week. Another press release followed in August 2004, stating that one-third of the nation’s lakes and one-quarter of its river ways are contaminated with toxic levels of mercury and other contaminants. Pregnant women and children were warned not to consume fish from these sources.

Just how dangerous is mercury in the body? Let’s look at the use of mercury in dental fillings. The controversy has been alive for years about whether amalgam dental fillings, which contain mercury, really pose a threat to health. Several studies have confirmed that these silver amalgam fillings release potentially toxic levels of mercury. One 1991 study published in Advances in Dental Research found that mercury absorption from fillings was four times higher than from fish. Other studies have linked the mercury from amalgam fillings to Alzheimer’s disease and gastrointestinal problems, as well as damage to children’s brains, kidneys and immune systems.

Recently, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Journal of the American Medical Association published studies stating that 8 to 10 percent of women of childbearing age had potentially toxic levels of mercury in their bodies. To top it off, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences definitively warned that some children born from mothers exposed to mercury are at risk of becoming those children “who have to struggle to keep up in school and who might require remedial classes of special education.”

BLACKENED CATFISH Serves 6

6 U.S. farm-raised catfish fillets
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon crushed dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 stick butter, melted, or 1/2 cup olive or canola oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup dry white wine

Wash the catfish fillets and pat dry. Set aside. Combine dry ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

In a pan, mix together melted butter or vegetable oil and lemon juice, and dip fillets on both sides. Sprinkle fillets liberally with spice mixture on both sides, and set aside.

Heat a black iron skillet on the stove until very hot and fry fillets for about 2 minutes on each side. Turn often to prevent sticking and remove them from skillet when cooked. Take skillet off burner and pour in butter mixture along with wine (quickly) while stirring. Pour pan juices over fillets and serve immediately.

Recipe adapted from the Catfish Institute, www.CatfishInstitute.org.

A Strategy to Get the Goods

Below are three steps you can take to increase your intake of the good nutrients from fish while at the same time reducing your risk of mercury toxicity.

Step one: Eat the right kind of fish. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise us to eat fish — up to 12 ounces weekly — that usually are low in mercury. These include shrimp, canned light tuna, wild salmon, pollock and catfish. Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Check local advisories about the status of the waterways near you.

Step two: Supplement your diet. An alternative and easy way to get EPA and DHA in the diet is through dietary supplements. There are fish oils, as well as other sources of DHA and EPA on the market, that have been tested and shown to be free from mercury contamination.

Step three: Try dietary cleanses. Certain cleansing or detoxification programs can help lower the burden of heavy metal toxicity. New evidence shows that low-methoxy weight (PectaSol®) modified citrus pectin may be able to detoxify the body from heavy metals and lower the total body mercury burden (see “Detoxify from Heavy Metals,” below).

The nutrients found in fish — especially DHA and EPA — are important for our health, and the consumption of certain kinds of fish is still recommended. However, you can take steps to lower your risk of mercury toxicity, such as eating the right kind of fish from safe sources, supplementing the diet with DHA and EPA, and cleansing the body of potentially dangerous mercury buildup.


Kerry Hughes is an ethnobotanist who focuses on researching and developing herbal medicines around the world. Kerry is editor and coauthor of Botanical Medicines (Haworth Press, 2002). E-mail her at kerry@EthnoPharm.com.