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FDA, EPA advises pregnant, breastfeeding women, young children to eat more fish

Wednesday, June 25 2014 | Comments
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The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued updated draft advice on fish consumption for pregnant women, breastfeeding women and young children. 

The new draft advice is consistent with recommendations in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, with one exception. It provides minimum consumption guidelines of at least 8 ounces to 12 ounces of low-level mercury fish per week. The old guidelines, published in 2004, provided maximum consumption guidelines of up to 12 ounces of low-level mercury fish per week, but no minimum guideline.

The old guidelines were so effective in influencing women to limit fish intake due to the risk of mercury contamination that many pregnant women avoided eating fish altogether. For example, a study conducted in 2005 and 2006 of more than 1,000 pregnant women in the United States found that 21 percent of them ate no fish in the previous month and 75 percent ate fewer than 4 ounces a week.

The FDA and the EPA have concluded that the nutritional benefits of eating fish outweigh the concerns that the fish might contain mercury.

"Emerging science now tells us that limiting or avoiding fish during pregnancy and early childhood can mean missing out on important nutrients that can have a positive impact on growth and development as well as on general health," said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the FDA's acting chief scientist.

The new draft guidelines suggest that pregnant women, breastfeeding women and young children eat between 8 ounces and 12 ounces of low-level mercury fish per week.

Most fish sold in supermarkets fall into the low-level mercury category. These include canned light tuna, salmon, tilapia, catfish, cod, shrimp and pollock. Canned white tuna is most often albacore, which contains mercury levels almost three times higher than the smaller skipjack used in most canned light tuna, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Consequently, pregnant and breastfeeding women should limit their consumption of canned white tuna to 6 ounces per week.

Pregnant women, breastfeeding women and young children should avoid tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel, as these fish are associated with high mercury levels. Additionally, they should exercise caution when consuming fish caught in local waters, especially if the waters have not been monitored for mercury contamination. The agencies recommended limiting consumption of fish caught from waters that aren't monitored for mercury contamination to no more than 6 ounces per week for pregnant and breastfeeding women and 1 ounce to 3 ounces for children, Bloomberg reported.

Variety in the types of fish consumed is the most important advice the agencies offered, as mercury is present to some degree in all fish and shellfish, but the essentially omega-3 fatty acids and protein, vitamins and minerals found in fish play a major role in brain and eye development, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The FDA and EPA have asked for the advice of the FDA's Risk Communication Advisory Committee and comments from the general public before issuing final advice.

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