FDA Says Pregnant Woman Should Eat More Fish; Consumer Group Disagrees

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The FDA and EPA announced yesterday a joint recommendation that women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or might become pregnant should eat more fish. The developmental and cognitive benefits from eating seafood far outweigh the risks of heavy metals and contaminants—such as methylmercury—the fish may contain, health officials say, and research shows that the majority of U.S. women currently aren't getting enough of this healthy protein.

Specifically, the guidelines recommend that women eat at least eight but not more than 12 ounces (about two to three servings) of fish per week while pregnant, breastfeeding, or thinking about becoming pregnant. They should choose seafood that is lower in mercury—such as shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish, and cod—and should eat a variety of different types. This is an update on the FDA's 2004 guidelines for pregnant women, which advised eating no more than 12 ounces but did not recommend a minimum, but it's also consistent with the USDA's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The new recommendations also state that pregnant women should have no more than six ounces a week of canned albacore (a.k.a. white) tuna, which is higher in mercury, and should avoid altogether four of the highest-mercury species: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, swordfish, king mackerel, and shark. Women who eat local, wild-caught fish should also ask about local mercury advisories.

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One reason the FDA updated their advice is that after surveying more than 1,000 pregnant women in the United States, it found that 21 percent had eaten no fish in the past month. Half had eaten less than two ounces a week, and 75 percent had eaten less than four.

Women often skip fish because they're worried about mercury levels, FDA acting chief scientist Stephen Ostroff, M.D., said in a press release, "but emerging science now tells us that limiting or avoiding fish during pregnancy and early childhood can mean missing out on important nutrients that can have a positive impact on growth and development, as well as on general health."

Those important nutrients include omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain and heart health (both mom's and baby's). Fish are also high in vitamins D and B2, iron, zinc, and potassium, and are a good source of high-quality, low-fat protein.

But not everyone is happy with the new recommendation, which is currently in draft form awaiting a 30-day public comment period. The Mercury Policy Project, a consumer watchdog group that sued the FDA earlier this year over concerns of not requiring labels on high-mercury fish, says the government is still failing to warn women about the risks of mercury levels in fish, specifically tuna.

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"Tuna is the second-most consumed fish in America after shrimp, and more than a third of our mercury exposure comes from eating tuna," says Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project. "And we know that there are plenty of tuna lovers who have a favorite lunch or dinner. They easily eat it more than once or twice a week, and no one has ever told them about the mercury risks."

Bender believes that "the FDA cares more about protecting the market share of the fishing industry than protecting pregnant women and their developing babies," and that a 130-pound pregnant woman who eats six ounces of albacore tuna a week—or several servings of canned light tuna—could easily exceed the government's recommended levels of mercury. The FDA itself has acknowledged that mercury content in canned tuna can vary, and a 2011 Consumer Reports analysis found that levels varied widely among the 42 cans tested. (As a result, Consumer Reports recommended that pregnant women avoid canned tuna entirely.)

In response to these criticisms, the FDA stresses its recommendation that women should eat different types of fish, not all tuna, all the time. "If there is variety in your diet in terms of the type of fish consumed, any concern about the occasional can that may have a higher than indicated level of mercury should be negligible," Ostroff said in a press briefing yesterday.

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One thing is for sure: Mercury aside, fish are good for us (and our future children) and most of us aren't eating enough. Per the new guidelines, aim for eight to 12 ounces a week if you're pregnant or breastfeeding—and if you're concerned about the tuna controversy, eat less chicken of the sea and more of other lower-mercury species. Catfish, anyone? 

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