Something Fishy About Your Food?

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

| July/August 2005

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.

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