Nutrition Articles

Casting Your Net On Seafood Safety

Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?

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Take heart, fish lovers! While the safety issues surrounding the consumption of fish are legitimate, don’t let them spoil your seafood catch.

The Benefits
There are many health benefits from eating seafood. It is an exceptional source of high quality protein and essential vitamins and minerals, but is generally low in calories, saturated fat and sodium. Many varieties of fish contain the very beneficial polyunsaturated fat called Omega-3 fatty acids, which help fight heart disease and stroke by lowering blood pressure and triglycerides. New research is beginning to show that these healthy fats may also reduce the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis, asthma and colitis, as well as help treat depression and bipolar disease.

The Dangers
For most individuals, commercial fish and recreationally caught fish are safe to eat. However, many fish contain varying levels of substances that are thought to be toxic to the body. These substances include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and methylmercury (MeHg).
  • According to the US Department of Agriculture, farm-raised salmon have a higher overall fat content than wild salmon, yet both varieties are similar in Omega-3 content. Since farm-raised salmon contain more fat, they may be contaminated with more PCBs and other pollutants and pesticides. Farm-raised salmon are also fed fishmeal that may be contaminated with PCBs.
  • Methylmercury occurs naturally in the environment and nearly all fish contain traces of it. Larger fish, such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish contain the highest amounts.
Guidelines for Those at Risk 
While most fish are safe to eat, consumption of some types of fish may present serious health concerns for women who might become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children. Therefore, the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Environmental Protection Agency have issued the following guidelines for these individuals. By following these guidelines, these women and young children can receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish, yet reduce their exposure to the harmful toxins:
  • Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
  • Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Five of the most common are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
  • Another commonly eaten fish is albacore (white) tuna, but it has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
  • Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local water, but do not consume any other fish during that week.
  • To reduce exposure to PCBs, trim the fat before broiling, baking, or grilling fish. All of these methods are preferable to frying because they enable the PCB content in the fat to cook off.
  • Though more costly, choosing wild and canned Alaskan salmon over farmed-raised salmon will help to decrease the PCB contamination.
  • When feeding fish and shellfish to young children follow the guidelines listed above, but serve smaller, child-size portions.
General Guidelines for Others 
Don’t be scared away from the vast fish and seafood smorgasbord. Indeed, nothing in life is risk-free. Limit the "big fish" (shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish), enjoy tuna in moderation, and watch for local fish advisories. Reel in and enjoy the rest, for you can’t beat the taste and healthy benefits!

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Member Comments

  • tuna's mercury content is very close to a shark's. I would eat that in moderation too.
  • Love to eat my fish.
  • So, all swordfish is bad? I buy it at my local farmers market (from the NJ shore)...so so delicious.
  • bubakapusta-since I am allergic to real crab, I've looked into fake crab quite a bit. As I have learned depending on where it comes from it can be flavored with real crab (not as bad of a reaction, but my mouth gets blisters), but mostly it is artificially flavored.

    It is manufactured from many types of fish - most commonly pollack, but sometimes from things like shark and swordfish which can be higher mercury. The plus side for fake crab aside from the alternative for people with an allergy, is that it is lower in cholesterol. On the down side, is the it is highly processed, sometimes contains fillers like potato starch, wheat, tapioca, egg, or sugar, unknown mix of fish, and is pretty high in sodium (for 3 oz 715 vs canned in water tuna 287) and some has MSG. Because the type of fish need to produce surimi (processed white fish) is low fat so it will stick together, it is also not high in Omega-3. Also compared to real crab, the fish paste version is higher in carbs and lower in protein. The food program Unwrapped has a video on the process in making this - very interesting.
  • What about crab? Artificial crab? and Lobster?
  • I love eating fish. I know that as a diabetic it is essential for me to eat fish at least 3 times a week. I will save the article to keep me apprised of making safe fish choices.
  • Good article. I had to laugh when they said to choose wild salmon over farmed--I already do that for a totally different reason, the environment! XD Huzzah on a win-win situation there.

    For anyone else like me who loves seafood, check out Seafood Watch ( http://www.monter
    eybayaquarium
    .org/cr/seafo
    odwatch.aspx ). It has a ton more information about the safest seafood to eat for you and the environment and might help you next time you go grocery shopping in your area :)
  • This was a great article! I try to eat fish at least once a week- I do eat Albacore when eating tuna.
  • Good article on seafood safety, thanks! I like albacore tuna, and since it also comes in 3 oz cans in water, I'm going to have one can per week, just be extra safe.
  • Good thing my dad's allergic to sharks so we don't eat that, even though some of us in the family don't have the same allergic. Our fishes here are fresh but this article made me wonder if what we always buy has high level mercury and those fishes not listed in the article. Looks like I need to make my own research :) Thanks for the great article!
  • DAVIDHOMERE
    THANK YOU FOR THESE GREAT INFORMATION ABOUT FISH. I HAD NO CLUE. I ATE FISH MORE THEN TWICE A WEEK ; AND EVEN SOME OF THE FISHES YOU MENTIONED IN THE ARTICLE. I AM GOING TO DO THE RIGHT THINGS NOW.
  • I'm in the UK and tinned tuna is either in brine or oil. Am I correct in assuming the light tuna you refer to is the same as ours in brine?

    Cas

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

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