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Which Fish Should I Eat?

Tim Boyer's picture

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital have found that a consumer’s decision on what fish are safe to eat is based on confusing and conflicting information that spans the recommendations of numerous agencies. According to their findings, this confusion necessitates an immediate need for clear and simple consumer advice that describes the multiple impacts of fish consumption on not only health and which fish we should be eating, but its economic and environmental impact as well.

Eating fish is an important part of a healthy diet. The benefits of eating fish rich in Omega 3 fatty acids are numerous and include protection against heart disease, cancer, neurological disease and obesity. Aside from Omega 3 fatty acids, fish also possess a number of other healthful nutrients such as vitamin D, selenium, and iodine.

However, when it comes to choosing what fish to eat, the majority of consumer information typically focuses on recommendations that limit exposure to methyl mercury. Typical warnings include contraindications for women who are pregnant, about to become pregnant and/or are nursing.

According to a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives titled “Which Fish Should I Eat? Perspectives Influencing Fish Consumption Choices,” the researchers point out that such focusing is too simplistic and leaves out other factors that are just as important.

For example, the study points out that depending on the source of information the public receives about the dangers (or benefits) of a particular fish species, it can lead to over-fishing of a species that in time becomes unsustainable to meet demands. This in turn can adversely affect communities economically that are invested heavily in the fishing market, as well as lead to ecological disruptions.

Furthermore, by focusing on avoiding “unsafe fish” denies the fact that to a greater or lesser degree, almost all fish are contaminated with environmental pollutants.

“Our research shows that there is no one perfect fish when considering nutritional value, toxicity rates and the environmental and economic impact,” says Emily Oken, MD and coauthor of the study. “Consumers are forced to decide what tradeoffs they are willing to make. But as a consumer standing in a store, it is difficult to understand the pros and cons of a fish purchase, because the amount of readily available information is limited.”

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This does not mean, however, that consumers should be deterred from eating fish until an all-encompassing guide is created that weighs the pros and cons of which fish in what concentrations and where it is from should be made available to the public.

“Despite caveats, fish is generally a healthy food; the challenge is providing advice that is both comprehensive and accessible so consumers don't give up eating fish out of frustration, says co-author Susan Korrick, MD.

One of the points the study makes is that the more fish consumed, on average, the more likely an individual is to be exposed to methyl mercury and other environmental toxicants and that consumers who eat fish frequently or consume highly contaminated species may exceed recommended exposure thresholds. Therefore, for now, moderation and smart choices appears to be the key toward balancing the benefits of fish with its potential risks.

For example, choosing fish that are the richest sources of omega 3 fatty acids would be more beneficial because it also means exposing yourself to less fish potentially contaminated with pollutants. According to the study, the U.S, Department of Agriculture lists weekly consumption of 6 ounces of shrimp, pollock, or salmon as providing an average of 35, 100, and 350 mg/day of the omega 3 fatty acid DHA. Salmon, therefore, ounce for ounce is a bigger health plus than the same amount of shrimp if their contaminant levels are relatively equal.

The point of the study is that for right now there is no one right answer for which fish a person should eat and that consumers are not getting all the information they need. But, it does not have to be that way and the authors are raising a call for government agencies to come together in generating clear and simple guidelines for the public that not only addresses a list of fish to eat (as well as those to avoid or minimize), but also information on how their fish choices can impact economies and environments so that the consumer can make an informed decision.

A copy of the report is available free online.

Image Source: Courtesy of MorgueFile

Reference: “Which Fish Should I Eat? Perspectives Influencing Fish Consumption Choices” Environmental Health Perspectives 120 (6), June 2012; Emily Oken et al.