The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just released a revised statement recommending that pregnant and breast-feeding women, as well as young children, should include at least two servings of low-mercury seafood every week. This is the first time a government agency has recognized the importance of the nutrients found in fish for cognitive development, and is a “baby” step for the health of future generations. It’s also too little too late.
The recommendation is not only too general, but it easily could have no impact on future children’s brain development. The recommendations make no mention of what nutrients found in seafood are important for brain development and discourage women from taking fish oil supplements, since the authors “…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.” However, the only nutrients found solely in fatty seafood that are strongly linked to cognition are the omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA. The other nutrients in fish, such as protein and B vitamins, are easily obtained elsewhere and seldom are low in pregnant women’s diets.
The recommendations also set no clear standards for what fish are the best choices, other than to choose low-mercury fish. Granted, the mercury warning is important, since many women have shunned seafood altogether because they weren’t sure what was wrong with fish, only that it was possibly bad. However, by not calling out the importance of the omega-3s and making specific recommendations for how many servings of fatty fish should be included in the weekly diet, the recommendation would easily allow a woman to falsely think she has met that quota with intakes far below it, placing her baby at risk.
Pregnant women need at least 220 milligrams of DHA a day. Salmon easily meets that limit with 2,400 milligrams per 4-ounce serving (two servings a week would average 600 milligrams of omega-3s a day). But tilapia is also recommended, even though it only has 150 milligrams or 6% of the omega-3s in salmon. Light canned tuna with only 300 milligrams, cod with 200 milligrams, and catfish with as little as 100 milligrams are recommended only because they are low in mercury. To make matters worse, studies also show that battering and frying fish eliminates the benefits of what few omega-3s are present. That is not mentioned in the recommendations.
The research on DHA’s benefits to brain and vision development has been accumulating for decades. As far back as the mid 1970s, these fats were suspected to be important for optimal pregnancy outcomes. Babies born to women who ate fatty fish rich in omega-3s while pregnant were shown to have higher I.Q.s and better behavioral development. By 1990, there was enough evidence that researchers were releasing preliminary recommendations that pregnant and breast-feeding women make sure they got enough of this important fat in their diets. The millions of babies born in the past 24 years were placed at potential risk of cognitive and vision problems because FDA and EPA drug their heels. I commend FDA and EPA for finally starting the process, but will it take another 24 years before they are willing to recommend specific seafood and supplements to ensure babies are given the best chance at optimal brain and vision development? Let’s hope not.
Elizabeth Somer, M.A.,R.D.