Q New research says pregnant women should eat more fish. What?s the green perspective? Can we eat albacore tuna or not?
A I have a beef with studies. Not with people in lab coats conducting important research on important topics, but with the way the results get twisted around and taken out of context so badly that most of us are left wandering the grocery aisles in confusion. Yesterday's news said bacon would kill me; today it says 10 slices a day will cure pink eye. Help!
I get especially cranky when they mess around with a subject like fish. It's hard enough for people to remember which halibut is the bad one (Atlantic) and which fish aren't on their last fins (see Seachoice.ca).
Then, last month, the Washington Post ran a front-page piece entitled Mothers Again Urged To Eat Fish. According to the article, pregnant and breastfeeding women should ignore government warnings about mercury in fish and eat more than three servings of the swimmers a week.
The finding came from a group called the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition, a non-profit with a long and impressive list of members, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy for Pediatrics, to name a few.
The article advised pregnant women that skimping on omega-3-heavy fishies could lead to their babes being born too small and too early and perhaps growing up to flunk IQ tests. And moms who don't get enough omega-3s during pregnancy could suffer from more depression before and after giving birth. It was enough to convince many expectant mothers to dust off those cans of tuna long shoved to the back of their cupboards.
But as mothers across the country started upping their consumption to safeguard their growing babies, the fish really started to hit the fan. Turns out the coalition leaders hadn't actually consulted the 150 medical and government groups in their membership circle.
In fact, the chair of the American Academy of Pediatricians said they were "appalled" by the findings, that they weren't in fact backed up by real science. Several other weighty bodies, like the CDC and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, called the findings bogus.
The Food and Drug Administration basically told the New York Times, "Dude, we've seen pretty much every study out there on this topic and we haven't seen shit-all that would make us change our recommendations."
Things grew even fishier when it emerged that the Healthy Mothers Coalition was actually getting cash from the fish lobby. Kind of like when the Tuna Foundation gave nearly 50 grand to the University of Maryland to develop its dodgy Realmercuryfacts.org site last year.
Jeez, even the conservative Washington Post now admits it would never have put the story on the front page if it had known the study wasn't backed by the coalition's heavy hitters. Alas, for a lot of people who read that first article and never heard a peep about the ensuing controversy, the damage has been done. See where I get my beef about studies?
But let's go back to your final question: should you eat albacore tuna? Health Canada peeps say not to eat more than four servings a week (this after a toxicologist from Ottawa U tested 60 cans of tuna and found that a good 13 per cent exceeded Health Canada's mercury limits), but the U.S. government says one portion a week is more than enough if you've got a bun in the oven. I'm a big fan of the precautionary approach. I'd stay away from albacore altogether and eat light -- not white -- tuna once in a while if you have a craving. However, BC-based Raincoast Trading line-catches albacore tuna and claims it seeks out younger tuna (with less heavy metal bio-accumulation) and tests all its cans so they contain less than .1 or max .2 parts per milliion (well below the government level of .5ppm).
FYI, the Chicago Tribune found that 15 per cent of light tuna consists of high-mercury varieties, so you'll be playing a little Russian roulette. At the end of the day, why would anyone eat high-mercury fish regularly when there are plenty of other omega-rich alternatives on ice? Stick to smaller species like sardines, anchovies and tilapia (unless that tilapia comes from Asia) , which are all rich in brain-nourishing omega-3s, low in toxins and generally high-ranked on sustainability lists. (But again, info on sustainability is ever-changing. Check Sea Choice or Seafood Watch online for details.)
Environmental Defence's OceansAlive.org site has an awesome consumption advisory tool that charts how much of each fish you can safely eat per week if you're a woman/man/older child/younger child. There's even a fish oil supplement guide that tells you which brands meet the strictest standards for safe levels of contaminants, so you can get your omegas from clean sources.
Better yet, get your omegas from flax or hemp oil . No, they're not quite the same type of omega-3s, but they are really good for you and you can consume them without killing your conscience or draining the seas.