Seafood Health Benefits Outweigh Toxic Risks, Scientists Say

WASHINGTON, DC, December 7, 2005 (ENS) - Eating seafood reduces risk for sudden death due to heart disease – the primary killer of Americans – by up to 90 percent say scientists and health care professionals, citing new research on the relationship between seafood consumption and human health.

Eating a small amount of seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as shrimp, tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish daily can cut the risk of death due to heart disease by 20 percent, according to studies released at the Seafood and Health conference in Washington this week.

Sponsors of the conference include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries), the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of Fisheries, Iceland, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“The scientific evidence explored today is clear and solid: eating more fish and shellfish will lead to a healthier, smarter and longer-lived U.S. population,” said Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries Service. “While there are risks associated with everything we consume, the health benefits gained from omega-3 fatty acids in fish and shellfish far outweigh the risks from contaminants for the vast majority of the population.”


Bill Hogarth, Ph.D. is the assistant administrator for fisheries at the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the Department of Commerce. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The information linking seafood and health comes as NOAA announced that Americans ate a record 16.3 pounds of seafood per person in 2004.

Scientists cited research showing that omega-3 fatty acid consumption by pregnant women and infants – either through breast milk or supplemented formula – leads to higher intelligence in toddlers and young children. This finding indicates that pregnant women and nursing mothers should increase consumption of seafood that is high in omega-3 fatty acids, researchers said.

This advice is at odds with the warnings issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that pregnant women and nursing mothers should avoid fish containing high levels of methyl mercury, a toxin that can cause neurological damage to developing fetuses and young children.

Mercury bioaccumulates in large ocean-dwelling fish, such as swordfish, shark, some types of tuna and king mackerel. Eating seafood is the leading cause of exposure to methyl mercury.

The FDA should urge states to require advice about mercury in fish that is easy to understand to be posted at seafood counters, according to a speaker from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Such notices would warn pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, and young children not to eat swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish, and to limit their consumption of fresh, frozen, and canned white tuna.

CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal told conference delegates, "The current advisory on mercury in fish is very complex and was clearly not intended for the general public."


Fish on display at Seattle's Pike Place Market (Photo credit unknown)
“FDA should ask urge supermarkets to put clear information right at the fish counter, where pregnant women or those serving young children can easily see it," said DeWaal. "That way, pregnant consumers don’t have to avoid the fish counter, but can easily choose alternative seafood that doesn’t carry the risk.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Mercury Policy Project, and the environmental group Oceana also are calling on the FDA to emphasize point-of-purchase advisories on mercury in seafood.

California already uses point-of-purchase notices, and several major grocers, including Safeway and Wild Oats, post versions of their own. But DeWaal says a standardized message would be beneficial to state policymakers, retailers, and consumers alike, many of whom are confused about the risks posed by mercury in seafood.

The mineral selenium is useful in neutralizing the toxic effects of mercury conference delegates heard from Nicholas Ralston, a biomedical research scientist with the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota.

Studies have shown selenium to neutralize mercury toxicity in the body, said Ralston. The major studies that have found mercury toxicity in humans also found that the levels of mercury exposure exceeded the levels of selenium present. "Commercial ocean fish are uniformly rich in selenium and therefore protect humans from any mercury toxicity," Ralston said.

Ralston said that selenium intake can reduce the risk of certain cancers, such as prostate cancer, by up to 50 percent. Sixteen of the top 25 sources of selenium come from ocean fish.


Paul Wilson, manager of Arrowhead Catfish Farm in Columbus, Mississippi, guides a basket containing 2,000 pounds of catfish into a transport truck that will haul the fish to a processing plant. (Photo by Stephen Ausmus courtesy USDA)
Scientists at the conference criticized a study published last year about levels of contaminants such as PCBs in farmed salmon because they said the study failed to inform that toxin levels found in the study were 1/100 of the tolerance level established by the FDA for safe human consumption. Also, whole fish, including the skins, were examined in the study, elevating toxins in the results even though people generally do not consume the skin, they said.

“Unfortunately, reports focused on scares tend to dissuade people from eating fish altogether, when the benefits of seafood outweigh the risk much more often than not,” said Eric Rimm of the Harvard School of Public Health. “Consuming too much of any food can be unhealthy; balance is the key.”

Rimm said that “scare” campaigns can do a disservice to the public because they cause confusion and discourage fish consumption at a time when Americans are at historic risk for coronary heart disease. “We must educate consumers about balancing benefits and risks so that individuals and families can put the risks into perspective and make informed decisions,” he said.

The FDA recommends that Americans incorporate at least eight ounces of seafood, or two servings, into their diets per week. But a new national study conducted by the Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture at the University of Maryland shows that only 17 percent of Americans meet this guideline and 11 percent of Americans never eat fish.

Additional studies reported today also suggest that eating seafood reduces inflammation, corrects heart arrhythmia, prevents weight gain, prevents heart failure, prevents stroke and diabetes, increases the body’s healing abilities, increases speed of information processing and attention span in children, lowers blood pressure and heart rates.