In U.S., Fish Widely Eaten is Largely Safe

Updated recommendations on fish consumption have been compiled by the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency, which examine the mercury levels in various types of fish.

It’s important to note that the new recommendations are for young children and women who are breastfeeding, pregnant or may become pregnant. And the guidelines make clear that regular consumption of the many varieties of fish deemed safest is indeed very safe, even for these higher-risk demographics.

The agencies recommend that women of childbearing age eat every week two to three servings of “best choice” fish (types with the lowest mercury levels). Children should eat one to two servings of this category weekly. For adults, a serving is 4 ounces of uncooked fish; for children aged 4 to 7 years, a serving is half of that, or 2 ounces.

Best and good choice fish
“Best choice" fish includes canned light tuna, cod, crab, haddock, lobster, shrimp, salmon, tilapia and many other types. The FDA says that the "best choice" category includes 90% of all the fish eaten in the U.S.

One serving weekly of "good choice" fish is recommended. These types include yellowfin and albacore tuna, Chilean sea bass, snapper, halibut and mahi mahi.

An FDA analysis of fish consumption data found that 50% of pregnant women surveyed ate fewer than 2 ounces of fish per week, far less than the amount recommended. Because the nutritional benefits of eating fish are important for growth and development during pregnancy and early childhood, the agencies are advising and promoting a minimum level of fish consumption for these groups: a total of 8 to 12 ounces per week.

However, all fish contain at least traces of mercury, which can be harmful to the brain and nervous system if a person is exposed to too much of it over time. The maximum level of consumption recommended in the final advice is consistent with the previous recommended level of 12 ounces per week. The new advice is also consistent with the 2015 - 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Fish to avoid
The "Fish to avoid" category includes king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, bigeye tuna and Gulf of Mexico tilefish (while Atlantic tilefish is considered a “good choice” fish). A good rule of thumb is that larger fish with longer lifespans tend to accumulate more mercury. But the FDA and EPA have taken the guesswork out of choosing which fish to eat by providing a print-friendly downloadable chart for your convenience. The FDA encourages consumers, health professionals, educators and retailers to print, post and share the Fish Advice chart, which categorizes over 60 different types of fish based on their average mercury levels. It is reprinted here:

Click the chart to view a larger pdf version

When updating the advice, the agencies took a cautious and highly protective approach to allow consumers to enjoy the benefits of fish while avoiding those with higher levels of mercury, which is especially important during pregnancy and early childhood. The average mercury content of each type of fish was calculated based on FDA data and information from other sources.

Locally caught fish
For fish caught recreationally, consumers are urged to check for local advisories where they are fishing and gauge their fish consumption based on any local and state advisories for those waters.

If no information on fishing advisories is available, eat just one fish meal a week from local waters and also, avoid other fish that week. Consumers should clean and trim the fish they catch of fat and skin, since locally-caught fish may contain contaminants besides mercury that can be reduced by proper trimming and cooking. For example, broiling instead of frying can reduce some contaminants by letting fat drip away from the fish.

USFDA, Jan. 18, 2017, "FDA and EPA issue final fish consumption advice," http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm537362.htm

USDA, Jan. 18, 2017, "Eating Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know," http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm393070.htm

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