Dr. Hibbeln is a clinical psychiatrist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and renowned expert on the effects of seafood and their omega-3 fats on mood health and child development.
As he wrote, “I am pleased that the FDA and EPA advisory to pregnant women has finally been updated to encourage fish consumption for the neurodevelopmental benefits for their children.”
He continued, “This has been nearly a decade worth of effort [and] represents a paradigm shift in [U.S.] science policy on the importance of nutrition for [child] neurodevelopment.”
What has changed?
For the first time, the top Federal food safety and health agencies jointly propose that young children – and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding – eat at least two servings of low-mercury seafood every week.
The proposed advisory comes from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It provides this advice for young children and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding:
- Eat 8-12 ounces of a variety of fish a week.
- That’s 2 or 3 servings of fish a week.
- For young children, give them 2 or 3 servings of fish a week with the portion right for the child’s age and calorie needs.
The agencies’ joint 2004 seafood advisory only set an upper limit – 12 ounces or about three servings – on the amount of seafood that young children and pregnant or breast-feeding women should eat.
In contrast, the proposed recommendations encourage young children and pregnant or breast-feeding women to eat at least two servings (about eight ounces) of low-mercury seafood per week.
Unfortunately – and without good scientific justification – the agencies still recommend that young children and pregnant or breast-feeding women eat no more than 12 ounces of seafood (low-mercury species) per week.
To see why we say that these limits lack scientific justification, see “Seafood-mercury fears are (mostly) groundless”, below.
The agencies cite salmon (farmed or wild), shrimp, cod, tilapia (only farmed tilapia is sold), and light canned tuna as examples of low-mercury seafood.
(We take issue with some of the agencies’ recommended species, which we know Dr. Hibbeln and other fatty acids experts share … see “Farmed salmon, catfish and tilapia are not ideal”, below.)
As it happens, all of our seafood is low in mercury, for two reasons:
- We feature species that are inherently low in mercury (salmon, sablefish, sardines, and shellfish).
- We offer only younger, smaller (therefore, minimal-mercury) halibut and albacore tuna ... two predatory species than can accumulate more mercury than average. Accordingly, Vital Choice halibut and albacore tuna have much less mercury than FDA data suggests (see our Mercury Chart).
Why do FDA and EPA now encourage a minimum fish intake?
The new guidance was prompted by an FDA analysis showing that one in five pregnant women in the United States eat little or no fish, and far less fish than the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend.
Unfortunately, these warnings were widely misunderstood, according a joint Harvard-Danish study led by Dr. Emily Oken. As Dr. Oken wrote, “After dissemination of federal recommendations, pregnant women … reported reduced consumption of fish …” (Oken E et al. 2003).
This seafood shortage in their diets matters because, as the FDA said, studies show that children born to women who consume more fish have higher I.Q.s and better cognitive development than children born to women who eat little or no fish.
As FDA’s acting chief scientist, Dr. Stephen Ostroff, told The New York Times, “Studies very consistently demonstrate that among women who consumed more fish during pregnancy — or at least the amounts we’re currently recommending — that there were improvements in children.” (NYT 2014)
(For example, see “Findings Verify Safety and Value of Higher Maternal Fish Intake” and related reports in the Omega-3s & Child Development section of our news archive.)
Dr. Ostroff explained the new minimum-intake recommendation in an FDA Consumer Update titled New Advice: Some Women and Young Children Should Eat More Fish:
“We’re updating our advice because the latest science strongly indicates that eating 8 to 12 ounces per week of a variety of fish lower in mercury during pregnancy benefits fetal growth and development”.
Click here to read the agencies' Q & A on the new proposals.
Seafood-mercury fears are (mostly) groundless
The U.S. FDA and EPA continue to recommend only “low mercury” species to children and pregnant or breast-feeding women.
They advise children and pregnant or breast-feeding women to avoid four high-mercury species, and limit intake of albacore or “white” canned tuna.
The new FDA-EPA proposal says this:
Avoid 4 types of fish: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel.
- These 4 types of fish are highest in mercury.
- Limit white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week.
Sadly, federal agencies have not adapted their advice to reflect the research – including a compelling 2008 FDA analysis – showing that the mercury in virtually all ocean fish (and all commonly consumed species) is a non-issue.
A strong preponderance of the human and lab research shows that most seafood is safe for children and adults to consume as frequently as desired … and these varied studies demonstrates this in a compelling, mutually reinforcing fashion.
For more on this important but overlooked research, see “Most Fish Rank as Very Safe on New, Selenium-Based Standard”, and the “Why is seafood so clearly safe, despite mercury?” section of our Purity page.
In fact, the only fish shown to pose any mercury-poisoning risk are the few, uncommonly consumed species that are high in mercury and low in selenium.
This small category only includes marine mammals (whales, seals), certain fresh-water fish, and a very few ocean fish (such as shark) that are not commonly consumed in America.
In late 2008, a draft FDA report laid out the evidence from all of the best studies, and confirmed what we’ve been reporting: virtually all ocean fish and shellfish are safe to eat routinely (See “FDA Analysis Supports More Fish for Moms and Kids”).
The FDA analysis cited large, credible studies conducted by university and government researchers (e.g., in the Seychelles Islands and the UK), which clearly show that children who eat fish-rich diets display better brain performance than kids who eat fish-poor diets and they suffer no adverse effects.
The only studies showing any (slight) developmental harm from eating seafood (i.e., in the Faroe Islands and New Zealand) involved kids who ate large amounts of whale, seal, or shark … species high in mercury and/or PCBs but low in selenium.
Omega-3 fish oil excluded from new advisory
The FDA noted that the proposed advisory does not apply to fish oil supplements, even though they are concentrated sources of the omega-3 fatty acid called DHA, which is proven essential to brain, eye, and immune-system development and is often added to infant formulas.
The agency based its exclusion of fish oil on two points:
- The evidence linking higher fish intakes to better child development is stronger than the evidence regarding fish oil.
- Fish oil lacks the wide variety of nutrients found in seafood and proven important to child development, such as vitamin D, iodine, and minerals. (See “Growing Brains Lack Iodine”.)
As The FDA's Dr. Ostroff told the The New York Times, “We don’t believe women would accrue the same benefits in terms of health and development if they were to use supplements in place of fish.” (NYT 2014)
Frankly we find the agency’s stance hard to justify, because there is substantial evidence that fish oil benefits children’s brains. See “Fish Oil Linked to Higher IQs in Kids” and related reports in the Omega-3s & Child Development section of our news archive.
Also, some women may dislike fish, and it can be hard for some families to afford or obtain adequate amounts of good quality (i.e., non-fried and fatty, omega-3-rich) fish … or to get finicky kids to eat it.
Farmed fish are not ideal
As we said, we have problems with some of the agencies’ recommended species … problems that we know Dr. Hibbeln and other fatty acids experts share.
Dr. Hibbeln is a leader among expert scientists trying to highlight a very unhealthful imbalance in American's diets … too few omega-3 fatty acids and far too many omega-6 fats from vegetable oils.
While wild and farmed salmon have comparable levels of omega-3s, farmed salmon is generally much higher in omega-6 fats (Megdal PA et al. 2009).
And other farmed fish – especially trout, catfish, and tilapia – are relatively low in omega-3s and high in omega-6s … an imbalance that makes them far inferior to wild fish. See “Tilapia Taken to Task” and “Farmed Fish Possess Unhealthful Fat Profiles”.
This is why the FDA-EPA advice to women and kids should not recommend farmed fish … or at least give preference to wild fish.
America’s sickening omega imbalance
In short, if you consume too few omega-3s and too many omega-6s your brain, heart, and inflammation control system can’t function properly, and your risk of cancer and other major diseases rises substantially.
The available evidence indicates that people thrive best – and reduce their risk of major diseases – on diets providing about three parts omega-6 fats to one part omega-3 fats.
But Americans’ relative intakes of omega-6s to omega-3s shifted dramatically in favor of omega-6 fats over the past 100 years … a trend that accelerates sharply starting in the late 1960’s.
As a consequence, the average American’s diet now provides 10 to 20 parts omega-6s to one part omega-3s … a ratio far higher than it should be or has ever been in human history.
This radical dietary shift resulted partly from a decline in Americans’ consumption of omega-3 fatty acids … but mostly from a radically higher intake of omega-6 fatty acids from cheap vegetable oils.
Cheap, high-omega-6 vegetable oils – mostly corn, soy, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower – started replacing butter and lard in the 1960’s with the as yet unrealized goal of reducing heart disease risks.
To learn more about this critical and scientifically validated – but criminally neglected – finding, see “America’s Sickening Omega Imbalance”, “Know Your Omega-3/6 Numbers”, and articles in the Omega-3 / Omega-6 Balance section of our news archive.
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