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Keeping Tabs on Tuna

After shrimp, tuna is the second most widely consumed fish in the United States. No wonder—canned tuna is cheap, convenient and a favorite of adults and kids alike. The downside is that some canned tuna has been found to be high in methylmercury levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Food & Drug Administration just released a new joint consumer advisory on methylmercury levels in fish. Previous warnings have cautioned pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, nursing mothers and small children, to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. The new advisory includes albacore tuna, as well as tuna steaks, on the list of fish with high mercury levels.

Cause for Concern

Mercury is found naturally in the environment, but it's also released through industrial pollution. It accumulates in waterways and is turned into methylmercury in the water. Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed, and it builds up in their system over time. When we consume fish laden with mercury, it remains in our blood system and can take over a year for levels to drop. That's why even women who aren't currently pregnant, but could become pregnant in the near future, should be cautious about mercury levels.

For several years, environmental advocacy groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG), have been raising a red flag to the government over the methylmercury level in canned tuna and the risk it poses to developing fetuses and young children. Without clear direction from the federal government on tuna consumption, it has been confusing for women to make smart choices, as fish is an excellent source of low fat, healthy protein and other nutrients. At the same time, mercury is harmful to the developing fetal brain or a young child's nervous system.

What's Safe?

Due to the higher mercury levels, the advisory suggests that women and children may eat up to six ounces (about one can) per week of albacore ("white") tuna. Tuna steaks tend to come from larger fish, which means that they have a higher concentration of mercury, so the same advice goes for them.

The FDA and EPA's advice has been to eat up to 12 ounces a week of a variety of fish and shellfish. The new advisory goes a step further this time and specifies which fish are safe to eat. It highlights shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish, which all have low mercury levels.

Remember, if you're eating tuna, choose safer canned light tuna more often, and limit your consumption of albacore and tuna steaks to one 6-ounce serving per week.

 

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