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Studies tout health benefits of seafood and downplay risks

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
- Steven Hedlund
November 01, 2006

The health benefits of eating a variety of seafood twice a week outweigh the risks of exposure to methylmercury, PCBs and other contaminants, according to two major studies released by the Institute of Medicine and Harvard School of Public Health on Oct. 17.

The first study, "Seafood Choices: Balancing Benefits and Risks," was conducted by the IOM's Committee on Nutrient Relationships in Seafood.

This group was formed in 2004 to review previous research on the health benefits and risks of eating seafood to help Americans make educated dietary decisions.

"Seafood … can substitute for other proteins higher in saturated fat and often improves the overall nutrient content of the diet," said Malden Nesheim, committee chair and a nutrition professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., at an Oct. 17 press 

"For most of the general population, following [the U.S. Department of Agriculture's] dietary guidelines when making seafood choices will balance benefits and risks."

"The average person can consume more fish than they do," added Susan Krebs-Smith, a committee member and chair of the National Cancer Institute's Risk Factor Monitoring and Methods Branch in Bethesda, Md.

The report, which was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, echoed the FDA's methylmercury advisory, warning nursing mothers, pregnant women, women planning a pregnancy and children age 12 and younger to avoid eating swordfish, shark, tilefish and king 

The advisory also says they can safely consume up to 12 ounces of seafood, including up to 6 ounces of albacore 
tuna, per week.

Teenage and adult men, women not planning a pregnancy and especially adults susceptible to cardiovascular disease may reduce the risk of the disease by eating seafood regularly (i.e. two 3-ounce servings per week). Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States.

The report also recommended that those who consume more than two servings per week eat a variety of seafood to diminish exposure to contaminants from a single source.

"Seafood is safe and nutritious," said William Hogarth, director of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, at a separate Oct. 17 press briefing.

The IOM's Committee on Nutrient Relationships in Seafood also urged federal and state agencies to work together to better communicate the health benefits and risks of eating seafood to consumers.

The second study, conducted by an independent team of Harvard researchers and published in the Oct. 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that adults who ate seafood once or twice a week reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 36 percent and cut their risk of total mortality by 17 percent.

What's more, "omega-3s are healthy for a developing baby's brain," said Dariush Mozaffarian, the study's lead author and a Harvard cardiology professor.

The Harvard study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The seafood industry hailed the studies' findings. The National Fisheries Institute, U.S. Tuna Foundation and Food Products Association issued a joint statement that the IOM report "should ease consumer concerns about mercury in fish and encourage Americans to eat fish at least twice a week."

Environmental groups, including the National Environmental Trust, Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, Environmental Defense and Oceana, criticized the IOM report for failing to consider the environmental impacts of consumers' seafood choices. The groups also criticized the committee for including only one consumer representative, Jennifer Hillard of the Consumer Interest Alliance of Canada.

"We eagerly anticipated this report," said Gerald Leape, NET's VP of marine conservation, at an Oct. 17 press conference. "But when it came to life, we were disappointed because it's unbalanced."

- Steven Hedlund

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