The ink is barely dry on new FDA-EPA guidance for young children, pregnant/nursing women, and women who might become pregnant.
In short, both agencies recommend
that pregnant/nursing women, women of childbearing age, and young children eat more fish to optimize kids' brain development.
This is because fish and shellfish are the sole food sources of DHA … the omega-3 fatty acid essential to brain development and lifelong brain health … which you can't get from plant foods.
But Consumers Report (CR) magazine just issued contrary advice that's sure to concern and confuse women and deter optimal brain development in some babies and young children.
Vital Choice tuna: More omega-3s, less mercury
All Vital Choice albacore comes from a North Pacific fishery in which smaller boats line-catch individual tuna using the sustainable troll method, which ensures careful handling of each fish, safety for dolphins, and very minimal by-catch.
Thanks to its sustainable harvest and lower mercury content, albacore from this fishery is categorized as "Super Green" by Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Vital Choice albacore tuna is sustainably harvested by our neighbor Paul Hill, who quickly flash-freezes it on his small boat to preserve the fish at its peak of freshness.
Because predatory fish such as tuna accumulate mercury over time, Paul provides us with younger, smaller albacore tuna (14 lbs. or less) for optimal purity.
The mercury content of individual fish vary, but the smaller, younger albacore tuna caught by the troll fishery that supplies our tuna average less mercury than the generally much larger, older tuna caught for canning by national brands.
And because we choose only smaller fish from this certified-sustainable troll fishery, testing by independent laboratories confirms that Vital Choice albacore averages substantially less mercury than national brands of "white" (albacore) tuna.
The average mercury content of Vital Choice albacore is 0.25 ppm. In contrast, the FDA-reported average mercury concentration in fresh and canned albacore is 0.35 ppm.
The FDA's average figure for mercury in albacore (0.35 ppm) is higher than ours (0.25 ppm) because the FDA tested standard canned albacore, most of which is older and larger than ours.
In addition to being the purest fish, our smaller albacore also have higher average levels of omega-3s.
This is because the albacore processed by national brands is cooked twice (before it's cleaned and again in the can), while ours is cooked once, in the can.
New seafood guidelines undercut by retrograde advice from Consumer Reports
After years of issuing unscientifically fearful guidelines, the FDA and EPA finally heeded scientists' pleas to revise their guidelines to reflect the best evidence on child development.
The agencies' 2004 guidelines advised young children and pregnant/nursing women to eat “up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury”.
Two months ago, the FDA and EPA updated their 2004 guidance
, which emphasized the hypothetical dangers of eating fish over the proven benefits.
The “Key Message” of the agencies' new guidance reverses the old emphasis to stress the importance of ensuring adequate fish intake for optimal child development:
- Eat 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week from choices that are lower in mercury.
- The nutritional value of fish is important during growth and development before birth, in early infancy for breastfed infants, and in childhood.
Sadly, the latest issue of Consumers Report (CR) magazine ignores the science underlying the agencies' new guidance.
The editors of CR actually advise young children and pregnant/nursing women to completely avoid canned tuna, which is one of the most affordable and readily available sources of omega-3 DHA.
(Unfortunately, the industrial-scale processing that most supermarket tuna brands undergo reduce its omega-3 content very substantially. See “Vital Choice tuna: More omega-3s, less mercury”, below.)
In a response to Consumer Reports, the FDA explained the rationale for its advice:
“Based on a review of the latest science, we have concluded that it is possible for pregnant and breast-feeding women, and women who might become pregnant, to increase growth and developmental benefits to their children by eating more fish than these groups of women typically do.”
Regrettably, the new FDA-EPA guidance still contains unscientific warnings to limit intake of canned albacore (“white”) tuna to six ounces per week.
That advice flows from the fact that albacore contains three times more mercury than canned “light” tuna on average: about 0.35 ppm mercury, vs. 0.11 ppm in average light tuna.
But at Vital Choice, we select only younger albacore weighing 14 lbs or less, which average only 0.25 ppm.
More importantly, the FDA's own 2008 report echoed what EPA-funded university research shows … namely, that fears about mercury in seafood are baseless when it comes to virtually all commercial ocean fish – including “light” tuna and “white” (albacore) tuna.
Why fish-mercury fears are (mostly) misplaced
Sadly, federal agencies have not adapted their fish-intake advice to reflect the highly persuasive evidence that the mercury in virtually all ocean fish – including commonly consumed species – is a non-issue (Ralston NV 2et al. 010).
The FDA analysis cited large, credible studies conducted by university and government researchers (e.g., in the Seychelles Islands and the UK), which clearly show that children who eat fish-rich diets display better brain performance than kids who eat fish-poor diets and they suffer no adverse effects.
The only studies showing any (slight) developmental harm from eating seafood (i.e., in the Faroe Islands and New Zealand) involved kids who ate large amounts of whale, seal, or shark … species high in mercury and/or PCBs but low in selenium.
Indeed, a very strong preponderance of the human and lab research shows that almost all seafood is safe for children and adults to consume frequently.
In fact, the only fish shown to pose any mercury-poisoning risk are the few, uncommonly consumed species that are high in mercury and low in selenium.
This small category only includes marine mammals (whales, seals), certain fresh-water fish, and a very few ocean fish – such as king mackerel, tilefish, swordfish, and certain shark species – that are either not very commonly or very frequently consumed in America.
Selenium is a key seafood-safety factor
Many informed scientists propose the use of a Selenium-Health Benefit Value (Se-HBV) as a more scientific measure of seafood safety (Ralston 2008).
The credibility of the Se-HBV as gauge to determine the safety of commercial fish species is based on strong evidence showing that if its selenium level is higher than its mercury level, the fish is safe to eat.
Seafood with more selenium than mercury can actually help neutralize the ill effects of mercury absorbed from far bigger environmental sources … such as coal-burning power plants.
As Consumers Report noted, “… canned tuna accounts for 28 percent of Americans' exposure to mercury, according to an analysis by an EPA researcher ...”, (Sunderland EM 2007)
Americans don't eat much seafood, and tuna is their biggest single source, so more than 50 percent of their mercury intake comes from industrial sources.
Therefore, eating any of the vast majority of commercial seafood that has more selenium than mercury would help Americans avoid the ill effects of the majority of mercury they absorb … which comes without any protective selenium.
More data is needed on selenium/mercury ratios
Scientists who remain hesitant to adopt the Se-HBV measure as a reliable gauge to the safety of commercial fish species note that the ratio can vary within a species, depending on the catch location (Burger J et al. 2011).
That is likely true, and the lack of selenium/mercury data on some major commercial species must be remedied by testing samples from every species' harvest regions, regularly.
That said, all of the available evidence – including lab studies and large population studies from diverse seafood-loving countries – supports the safety and child-development value of nearly all seafood.
- Berry MJ, Ralston NV. Mercury toxicity and the mitigating role of selenium. Ecohealth. 2008 Dec;5(4):456-9. Epub 2009 Feb 6.
- Burger J, Gochfeld M. Selenium/mercury molar ratios in freshwater, marine, and commercial fish from the USA: variation, risk, and health management. Rev Environ Health. 2013;28(2-3):129-43. doi: 10.1515/reveh-2013-0010.
- Choi AL, Budtz-Jørgensen E, Jørgensen PJ, Steuerwald U, Debes F, Weihe P, Grandjean P. Selenium as a potential protective factor against mercury developmental neurotoxicity. Environ Res. 2008 May;107(1):45-52. Epub 2007 Sep 12.
- Consumer Reports (CR). Special report: Can eating the wrong fish put you at higher risk for mercury exposure. August 2014. Accessed at http://www.consumerreports.org/
- Energy & Environmental Research Center, University of North Dakota (EERC). EERC Research Finds Mercury Levels in Freshwater and Ocean Fish Not as Harmful as Previously Thought. June 22, 2009. Accessed at http://www.undeerc.org/news/newsitem.aspx?id=343
- Groth E 3rd. Ranking the contributions of commercial fish and shellfish varieties to mercury exposure in the United States: implications for risk communication. Environ Res. 2010 Apr;110(3):226-36. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2009.12.006. Epub 2010 Feb 8.
- Karimi R, Fitzgerald TP, Fisher NS. A quantitative synthesis of mercury in commercial seafood and implications for exposure in the United States. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Nov;120(11):1512-9. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1205122. Epub 2012 Jun 25. Review.
- Peterson SA, Ralston NV, Peck DV, Van Sickle J, Robertson JD, Spate VL, Morris JS. How might selenium moderate the toxic effects of mercury in stream fish of the western U.S.? Environ Sci Technol. 2009 May 15;43(10):3919-25.
- Ralston NV, Blackwell JL 3rd, Raymond LJ. Importance of molar ratios in selenium-dependent protection against methylmercury toxicity. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2007 Dec;119(3):255-68.
- Ralston NV, Ralston CR, Blackwell JL 3rd, Raymond LJ. Dietary and tissue selenium in relation to methylmercury toxicity. Neurotoxicology. 2008 Sep;29(5):802-11. Epub 2008 Aug 9.
- Ralston NV. Selenium health benefit values as seafood safety criteria. Ecohealth. 2008 Dec;5(4):442-55. Epub 2009 Apr 14. Ralston NV, Raymond LJ. Dietary selenium's protective effects against methylmercury toxicity. Toxicology. 2010 Nov 28;278(1):112-23. doi: 10.1016/j.tox.2010.06.004. Epub 2010 Jun 16. Review.
- Sunderland EM / U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury exposure from domestic and imported estuarine and marine fish in the U.S. seafood market. Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Feb;115(2):235-42. Epub 2006 Nov 20.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). How People are Exposed to Mercury. Accessed at http://www.epa.gov/mercury/exposure.htm