Eating fish may appear to be a double-edged sword in terms of health, especially if you pay attention to all the latest food news and research.
For all the studies touting the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids (of which fish is an excellent source), there seem to be just as many about the negative effects of fish consumption—most notably because of mercury poisoning.
Mercury—a natural element found in coal, soil, and rocks—is emitted into the atmosphere largely by coal-burning power plants and improper waste disposal. When it rains, that mercury in the atmosphere drains into waterways, where bacteria in the ecosystem convert it into a toxic compound known as methylmercury. This becomes a real problem when it enters the food chain, and becomes more and more concentrated as it’s consumed by larger predators in a process called biomagnification.
As you can imagine, biomagnification isn’t the best news for those of us at the top of the food chain, and it’s the reason why the FDA doesn’t recommend eating large, predatory fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. (Updated recommendations for expectant and breastfeeding mothers and parents of young children add marlin, orange roughy, and bigeye tuna to the avoid list.)
Most adults can handle trace amounts of methylmercury without serious health risks, but health issues arise when more mercury is absorbed than the body can be eliminate (which varies among individuals). Chronic exposure can damage the brain, heart, lungs, and the immune and nervous symptoms, resulting in symptoms like impaired vision and speech, dizziness, fatigue, an inability to concentrate, and a loss of coordination and motor skills.
But there is good news, too—producers of fish products are starting to be more and more mindful of mercury levels. Canned tuna company Safe Catch, for example, developed proprietary technology to quickly and accurately assess mercury levels, and now tests every single tuna to make sure it meets strict standards before using it.
Through its testing, the company found that tuna from the same school that shared the same characteristics of size, age, and diet varied drastically in terms of mercury content. Because of this, Safe Catch felt that testing every fish was the only way to enable everyone to reap the health benefits of eating tuna without having to worry about toxicity.
Safe Catch’s Wild Albacore Tuna (and the no added salt variety) are held to a limit that’s three times stricter than the FDA’s mercury action limit, and its Elite Wild Skipjack Tuna is 10 times stricter. Safe Catch’s Elite product was also deemed the “right tuna for pregnancy” by the American Pregnancy Association as it’s the only canned tuna that meets Consumer Reports’ low mercury criteria for women of childbearing age and young children.
Expectant and breastfeeding mothers face a particular conundrum regarding seafood consumption. The EPA and FDA advise them to eat two to three servings (eight to 12 ounces) of low mercury fish a week because it “supports fetal growth and development” while also warning that fetal systems are extremely vulnerable to methylmercury from seafood. Exposure can “adversely affect unborn infants' growing brains and nervous systems,” potentially impacting cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor skills, and visual spatial skills. Clearly, it’s very important for new mothers and parents of young children to understand how brands source and monitor mercury levels in their seafood.
Safe Catch sustainably sources its wild-caught tuna from managed stocks. Once tested, the fish is hand-cut, raw-packed, and then slow-cooked once to preserve omega-3 oils (as opposed to the conventional twice-cooked method in which nutrient-rich oils are often lost during the precooking process). The fish is packed in its own natural oils and juices—without fillers or additives—so you don’t have to drain any excess liquid. The result is a deliciously flavored and meaty-textured tuna steak that can be eaten straight from the can or added to your favorite recipe.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho