Mercenaries for Mercury

"A nonprofit group backed by the seafood industry urged pregnant women and nursing mothers to eat more fish than recommended by U.S. officials concerned that mercury contamination can hurt babies," reports Avram Goldstein. "The group, the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition, said women who avoid seafood to limit exposure to mercury deprive their babies and themselves of essential nutrients. Women should eat at least the 12 ounces a week suggested as a maximum by the government, the coalition said today at a briefing in Washington." The report was funded with $74,000 from the National Fisheries Institute, a client of the Burson-Marsteller PR firm. Another food industry front group, the Center for Consumer Freedom, chimed in with a news release calling for environmental groups to apologize for creating "panic" about mercury in foods. Longstanding health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, responded to the report by re-emphasizing their advice to avoid excessive fish consumption.


In October 2006, the Food and Nutrition Committee of the Institute of Medicine declared that eating fish and shellfish is associated with overall lower risk for developing heart disease. However, it called this finding “preliminary” since, “It is not certain whether this is because substituting the lean protein of seafood for fatty cuts of meat reduces consumers' intake of saturated fat and cholesterol or because of the protective effects of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in relatively high amounts in many fish species.” Given the inconclusive nature of the potential relation between long chain omega-3 fatty acids and coronary heart disease risk and the mercury and other toxins prevalent in fish, we need scientific evidence about whether fish are really good for your heart or if fish eating is merely not as bad for your heart as beef eating. This evidence should be used to frame public policy statements.

Amy Lanou, PhD, Claudio Nigg, PhD and I co-authored a study of nutritional data, including long chain omega-3 fatty acid intake, from the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial. We found that fish eating (i.e., omega-3 fatty acid consumption) strongly correlates with eating more dietary fiber and less saturated fatty acids. This means that fish eaters consume more fruits and veges and less red meat and dairy products than non fish eaters. We concluded that the associations observed in previous studies suggesting a benefit of fish or long chain omega 3 fatty acids are probably due to fish eaters having an overall healthier dietary pattern rather than a long chain omega-3 fatty acid specific effect.

Cundiff DK, Lanou AJ, Nigg CR. Relation of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake to Other Dietary Factors Known to Reduce Coronary Heart Disease Risk. Am J Cardiol. 2007;99.(9):1230-1233.