Pregnant women should be eating two or three servings of low-mercury fish per week – and most of them aren’t anywhere close, government officials said Tuesday.
The recommendation came in a joint announcement from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, and marks the first time a minimum amount has been stated.
In a press briefing with reporters, the FDA described 8 to 12 ounces per week as a “sweet spot” to maximize the benefits of health and development of a fetus and children while minimizing any potential risk of exposure to significant amounts of methyl mercury. That’s two to three servings per week depending on portion size.
“By following this advice we would not expect methyl mercury to be a concern for developmental harm,” Elizabeth Southerland, Ph.D., from the EPA Office of Water said in a press briefing.
The advice, based on a review of the latest science, is the first update since 2004, which set a maximum on recommended fish consumption of 12 ounces per week. Recent surveys suggest that 21 percent of pregnant women ate no fish in the previous month, the FDA said. Of those who did, 50 percent had less than 2 ounces and 75 percent had less than 4 ounces. These women are missing out on the health and developmental benefits that fish can provide.
“Fish is a high quality lean protein, low in saturated fat. Naturally rich in omega-3-fats, fish and seafood also contain vitamin D and selenium, supporting good health - especially for the heart and brain,” says, TODAY Diet and Nutrition Editor Madelyn Fernstrom. According to the FDA, other benefits that have been studied include improvements in IQ levels in children.
For most people, mercury in seafood isn’t a health risk. But the FDA warns that pregnant or breastfeeding women, those who may become pregnant and young children should avoid fish with high mercury levels because of concern that it could harm a developing brain. Fish absorb mercury, a neurotoxin, from streams and oceans – and large fish that eat other fish accumulate the highest levels.
The studies reviewed by the FDA looked specifically at fish consumption and didn’t focus on nutrients found in fish such as omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D – which are contained in many prenatal vitamins.
“It simply isn’t the omega 3 fatty acids that should be focused on, and that’s why we don’t believe that women would accrue the same benefits in terms of health and development if they were to use some of these supplements in place of fish,” FDA acting chief scientist Dr. Stephen Ostroff said.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women and children should avoid four types of fish highest in mercury: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. Albacore tuna, which can have higher mercury levels, should be limited to 6 ounces per week.
Instead, they should eat fish lower in mercury, such as salmon, shrimp, pollock, light canned tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod.
The good news? Most fish sold in the U.S. is fine. The off-limits fish represent represent less than 2 percent of all market shares in the U.S., according to Ostroff.
“Any woman who is concerned about the risk from fish should understand that most types of commercially available fish in the U.S. are toward the low end of the spectrum in terms of how much methyl mercury they contain,” Ostroff said. “Of the 10 most commonly eaten fish in the U.S., nine are toward the low end and eight are at the very low end in terms of their methyl mercury content."