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Seafood benefits outweigh risks, government says

By Christy Feig
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Americans eat about 16 pounds of seafood every year, and they've heard a lot of mixed messages recently about whether it's safe.

Some experts say that it's high in omega-3 fatty acids and that we should consume a lot of it. Others say it's high in toxic substances -- mercury, dioxins and PCBs -- and should be avoided. Now a new report from the Institute of Medicine, which advises the government on health policy, is trying to clarify the advice.

"The benefits of cardiovascular health from eating seafood, including farm fish, far outweigh the risk of cancer from environmental contaminants," said Dr. William Hogarth of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the group that commissioned the report.

Women of child-bearing age and children under 12 can eat up to 12 ounces of seafood a week without worrying about getting too much mercury, the report said; six ounces can be albacore tuna, and fish lower in mercury are also good choices.

All fish contain some mercury, but too much can cause delays in the developing brain of young children. Larger fish such as shark, king mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish tend to be highest in mercury because they eat smaller fish and consume the mercury in them as well. Albacore tuna is higher in mercury than canned light tuna because canned tuna is largely younger, smaller fish that haven't absorbed as much mercury.

"Other fish are much lower in methylmercury and provide benefits to the mother and to the child because of their content of the omega-3s that they provide, so there's a balance between risks and benefits," said Malden Nesheim, the chair of the Institute of Medicine committee

For other adults, adding fish to the diet could reduce the risk of heart disease. The report says that if they eat more than two servings of fish a week they should choose a variety to reduce the chance consuming excess contaminants that might be found in any single species.

The committee members say they aren't sure why fish reduces the risk of heart disease. It could be a direct effect of the omega-3s, or it could simply be that it is lower in saturated fats than other meats, and by adding more fish to the diet, individuals are eating less of the fattier meats

Additional evidence came from an October study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In the study researchers from Harvard School of Public Health found that even just eating 1 to 2 servings of fish a week reduced the risk of death from heart disease by 36 percent, and overall death by 17 percent. They say consuming 250 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids a day -- t he equivilant of 6 ounces a week of wild salmon or other oily fish -- could prevent heart disease.

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The confusion over seafood may have scared people out of eating something that is beneficial, one researcher said.