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Mercury Falling: Young Women Are Making Smarter Seafood Choices

The small restaurant is quiet during the late afternoon lull.  A young pregnant woman walks in and seats herself, promptly ordering a smoked salmon fillet when the waiter comes over.  Two women at a nearby table suddenly halt their conversation and stare at the pregnant woman.  “What is she thinking?” says one woman to the other.  “Doesn’t she know that mercury in fish can harm her baby?”

Moms-to-be are constantly being told what they can and cannot eat. Luckily, expecting moms are taking the initiative and educating themselves on what is actually good for their babies. This young woman is not putting her baby in danger – on the contrary, she is making an intelligent, informed decision to eat seafood that is low in mercury and healthy for her and her child.

We have long known about the benefits of eating fish, but we must ask ourselves: is it worth the risk of exposing your body to mercury? With access to the vast amounts of current research on seafood and health, we fortunately don’t have to make the choice between eating fish or not eating fish. A recent EPA study has found that blood mercury levels have dropped significantly in young women of childbearing age in the in the last decade, but they are not eating less fish. They are simply making smarter choices about their seafood.

Blood mercury levels are dropping

The recent study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency found that blood mercury levels in women of childbearing age dropped 34% in the decade between 2000 and 2010, with the most significant drop occurring between 2001 and 2004. Another noteworthy find – there has been a 65% drop in young women who have levels of mercury considered high enough to be a health concern. Since exposure to mercury in the United States comes almost exclusively from eating contaminated fish and shellfish, the logical conclusion would be that women just are not eating as much fish.  But this is not true.

The EPA study reported that women are not eating less seafood as compared to a decade ago. Women are making more informed choices and opting for low-mercury options. With easy-to-use seafood guides available online, in brochures, and on our smart phones all consumers now have the power to make more informed choices.

The nutritional benefits of low-mercury fish

With so much current information available on seafood that is both low in mercury and sustainable, it is possible to capture the benefits of eating fish without harming your body or the environment. Fish and shellfish are an excellent source of high-quality protein and contain many vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids while being low in saturated fat. Fish consumption during pregnancy has been associated with high cognitive scores in young children, indicating that mothers eating seafood during pregnancy are passing on the nutritional benefits without the mercury.

Currently, people consume an average of 3 ½ ounces of seafood a week. The U.S. government’s dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume at least 8 ounces per week.  The American Heart Association recommends eating two or more servings of 3 ½ ounces of fish per week to reduce risk for cardiovascular disease. The USDA guidelines say that the health benefits of eating a variety of seafood outweigh the risks associated with consuming trace amounts of mercury.

Fortunately, we do not have to give up the many health benefits of fish for fear of mercury. We can opt for a smarter option – eating fish AND avoiding the species that are high in mercury. There are many varieties of seafood that are high in omega-3 fatty acids and lower in mercury. These include salmon, herring, sardines, Pacific oysters, trout, Atlantic and Pacific mackerel, flounder, crab, light canned tuna, catfish and my personal favorite –  anchovies. The amazing thing is that you can find all of this low-mercury seafood in sustainable “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” rankings by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. They even have a host of delicious recipes to choose from if your chef is in need of ideas.

The federal government recommends that people do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish because of high mercury levels.  These are older, predatory fish that feed on smaller fish. Most of these smaller fish contain trace amounts of mercury. After consuming thousands of these little fish, the mercury begins to accumulate the muscle tissue of these bigger fish – and that’s the part that we eat.

The EPA and states recommend that people check local advisories before eating fish caught from local waterways and following guides such as this one for San Francisco Bay Area Fish and Shellfish. There are higher levels of methyl mercury (what mercury converts to in water) in the bay left behind as a legacy of the extensive mining during the Gold Rush era. It’s really good to support local fisheries, especially sustainable and environmentally friendly ones, but health takes priority. It is particularly important for women of childbearing age and children to follow these guidelines. Children and fetuses are still developing and are therefore more sensitive to contaminants like mercury.

Campaign to protect public health- bullet point list

Organizations are trying to get the word out to consumers. A goal of the EPA for their 2011-2015 Strategic Plan is to protect public health by making fish and shellfish safer to eat. Their approach includes several key elements such as including reducing the level of mercury that enters natural ecosystems and to improve public information of fish contamination risk.

They have already taken great strides towards these goals in the past couple of years. Some of their recent accomplishments include:

  • Proposing new effluent guidelines for steam electric power plants, which account for more than half of all toxic pollutants discharged into streams, rivers and lakes from industrial facilities in the U.S.

  • Issuing the Mercury and Air Toxics standards for fossil-fuel fired power plants, though compliance may take up to four years.

  • Conducting an extensive national outreach campaign, including distributing millions of advisory brochures, translating information into seven different languages, and providing materials to more than 150,000 doctors and healthcare professions.

  • Working closely with state and tribal partners on developing and communicating risk and benefit messages related to consuming fish.

We are seeing their efforts pay off!  This most recent study proves that people ARE listening.  Mothers-to-be are able to give their bodies the rich health benefits of fish without fearing that mercury will harm their babies.

A healthier future for consumers

More and more, consumers are educating themselves and making intelligent choices for themselves and their loved ones. At Pucci Foods, our goal is to inspire people to make better food choices. By choosing us as your seafood distributor, you will show your clients how much you care about them and their families.

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