The Fish Dilemma: Omega 3 or Mercury?

I have to say, of all public-health/food-safety issues out there, whether or not to eat fish is one of the most confusing. Seems like every week someone's asking me about fish - usually a woman friend of child-bearing inclination - and seems like every week, there's a study that either says, in Column A: Eat Fish: It's Good For You! or in Column B: Beware of Fish: It's Bad For You!

Column A is informed by the notion that Omega 3 fatty acids are incredibly beneficial to health, and have been associated with lower cholesterol and other positive health attributes. Also, it's a great way to get good protein. Column B is informed by the fact that the larger a fish is, the higher it will be in mercury content (thanks to the interaction of the food chain and the human creation of heavy metals). So Fish Is Good because it helps women's health and the development of healthy fetuses. But Fish Is Bad because its mercury content can cause birth defects and developmental problems.

It is indeed a dilemma (English major geek-out tangent: I'm using "dilemma" incorrectly here. The true definition of the word is a choice between two bad things, neither of which is advantageous. Obviously, Column A is preferable, so this is more a quandry - a vexing question - than a true dilemma). And it's a great example of the problem public health has in regard to public education. The general public is not wrong in thinking that it is constantly hearing two different completely contradictory things. So what's a considerate mother-to-be to do?

Well, a coalition of health experts - a really big coaltion, from the US Agricultural Department to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists - has come out with a declaration: Eat Fish While Pregant.

The consensus verdict of the coalition is that, basically, the benefits outweigh the risks.

Great. Case closed.



Turns out the group received $60,000 from a seafood trade group to do the research. And their verdict is basically a lit-search review, not any new science. In other words, there's no new information on a retrospective study on fish consumption and birth defects or autism or anything. So it's a consensus opinion based on existing research. The same research that has been, up till now, inconclusive. So, basically, it's an opinion.

The upshot: while it's a great headline, I guess I'd still say the same thing to my possibly pregnant friends: Sure, have some fish. But go with the trout and the tilapia - low mercury, environmentally neutral farmed fish - and skip the shark, the tuna, or the swordfish.

Besides, none of my chef friends will eat swordfish anyway. Not for health reasons, though. They have their own reasons. Ewww.