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Consumer Challenge: Making Head or Tail of Fish and Mercury

Tuesday, October 23, 2007; Page HE01

Should pregnant women eat fish?

That's a question Lean Plate Club members often ask, policymakers continue to mull and scientists debate.

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So when the nonprofit National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition recently advised pregnant women to eat at least 12 ounces of fish per week -- in contrast to the 12-ounce upper limit advised by the federal government -- it appeared to represent a shift in thinking. The new recommendation led some to ask: Could the benefits of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids in fish outweigh the dangers of methyl mercury with which most fish are contaminated?

The new advice was written for the coalition by a group of 14 scientists known as the Maternal Nutrition Group, who spent five years reviewing the scientific findings about the risks and benefits of fish. They met in Chicago for a day last summer to write their recommendations.

After I wrote an article for The Post almost three weeks about the Healthy Mothers recommendations, I received a handful of calls and e-mails faulting me for not reporting that the scientists involved had been paid up to $1,500 plus travel expenses by the National Fisheries Institute to attend the Chicago meeting and that the Healthy Mothers group had also sought $60,000 from NFI to set up a Web site to publicize the new advice -- omissions that I regret.

The flap made me wonder: What makes the debate about fish so heated? And if scientists remain so at odds about eating seafood during pregnancy, what should consumers do?

To try to answer these questions, I've spent the last couple of weeks interviewing numerous scientists, doctors and environmental experts and reading as many scientific papers and reports about methyl mercury, omega-3s, fish and pregnancy as possible. To my surprise, I found a lot of scientific agreement that I hope will help guide your decisions about seafood. (And for those who don't eat seafood, there are other options below.)

First and foremost, eat fish low in mercury whether you're pregnant or not. There's wide agreement on this. Fish is rich in protein, generally low in calories and packed with omega-3 fatty acids, and generally lower in contaminants. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Heart Association and the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines are among the expert sources that advise Americans to eat about two meals of fish per week for health benefits ranging from heart protection to help with weight control. This advice is also consistent with the guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and, yes, the Healthy Mothers coalition.

Omega-3s are especially important for pregnant women because these essential fats are key to fetal brain development. "You want optimal function and every brain cell that God created for you," says Philippe Grandjean, a Harvard School of Public Health adjunct professor who heads a long-term study of the risks and benefits of seafood consumption in the Faeroe Islands.

There's also evidence that omega-3s improve mood, which could help with the prevention and treatment of depression, including postpartum depression. These fats also appear to decrease the risk of having a preterm baby. That's important because a recent March of Dimes study found the cost of treating preterm and low-birth-weight babies reached nearly $6 billion in 2001 alone.

"The benefits of omega-3s are a slam dunk," says San Francisco physician Gina Solomon, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "Their benefits are quite clear."

But what about the methyl mercury in seafood?

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