On December 12, The Washington Post published excerpts from a fascinating Food and Drug Administration draft report about fish that contradicts what environmental activists and government regulators have been saying for years. If the FDA’s report becomes official policy, the conventional wisdom urging women of childbearing age to eat less fish will be turned completely upside-down. And the federal government’s seafood advisory will be rewritten or withdrawn.
It’s about time.
Despite constant warnings, it turns out that the fish we buy at the supermarket and order in restaurants is perfectly safe to eat. And the health benefits we get from fish far outweigh any potential risks.
Science has advanced a great deal since the current advisory was issued, and the FDA is doing the right thing by bringing its advice up to date.
Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are something of a miracle nutrient. They protect us against heart disease, stroke, age-related macular degeneration, memory loss, and even the spread of some cancers. A pregnancy diet plentiful in Omega-3s also translates to a measurable boost in a child’s brain power. And the alleged risks? After decades of fearful predictions about mercury poisoning, the medical literature still doesn’t contain a single case related to an American eating fish sold in a supermarket or ordered in a restaurant. Not one.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Consider Japan, where people eat eight times as much fish as Americans. While their blood-mercury levels are higher than ours, it doesn’t seem to matter. The Japanese live longer, they have lower rates of stroke, heart disease, and infant mortality. Their children outperform ours academically. Even inside the hyper-concerned Environmental Protection Agency, the only hint of a seafood-related mercury health risk is a study of people who eat pilot whale meat – not fish. Few Americans snack on Shamu.
It’s becoming difficult to justify a government advisory that steers Americans, especially mothers-to-be, away from the fish counter. Extra caution about mercury may seem sensible, but it has unintended consequences. And they’re not pretty.
According to retail purchasing data from AC Nielsen, more than 4.4 million of the poorest U.S. households stopped buying canned tuna between 2000 and 2006. Canned tuna is generally the only Omega-3-rich food these low-income households can afford. The data show that they weren’t buying salmon or sea bass instead. They weren’t buying any fish at all.
More than a quarter-million children were born into those 4.4 million underprivileged American families. Without Omega-3s during their fetal development, these children are 29 percent more likely to have abnormally low IQs. That’s according to research funded by our own government and published last year in the British medical journal “The Lancet.”
That study examined 8,900 British moms and their kids, making it by far the largest investigation of its kind. The results? Babies whose mothers ate the most fish demonstrated superior results in IQ, motor-skill, and other developmental tests. The study’s lead author, a National Institutes of Health doctor, told Newsweek that the government seafood advisory “cause* the harm it intended to prevent” because it doesn’t factor in the health benefits of eating fish. In fact, the brainiest children in the Lancet study were the ones whose mothers ate more seafood than the advisory permits. So women can actually give their kids a leg up by ignoring the government advisory.
Now the FDA is poised to do an about-face in the interest of protecting children’s health. Better late than never.
We can expect environmental activists to cry foul, as some already have. The fear of mercury in fish has been the central lever in green groups’ campaigns to end the burning of coal for electric power. (Coal-fired power plants emit tiny traces of mercury into the environment.
Most Americans don’t care where their electricity comes from, but we’re scared about threats to our kids’ health. Even nonexistent ones.
It’s an unusual thing when our government admits an error in judgment, especially one with dire health consequences. Whether or not we like decisions handed down from the feds, we’re usually stuck with them. As politically unpopular as it may be for the FDA to correct its faulty advice, doing so will certainly help our nation’s most vulnerable children. That should be reason enough to swing the pendulum back in the direction of common sense.
Our mothers always told us that fish was “brain food.” They were right.