Don’t sweat mercury — eat your fish!

It’s time to tell people to stop being afraid of methylmercury.

This may sound like a radical statement, considering over the past decade many consumers have been leery of eating too much seafood out of fear of methylmercury poisoning, especially in children and pregnant women.

The majority of seafood buyers and sellers worldwide are aware on some level of the health messages that children and pregnant or nursing mothers should limit their consumption of fish known to have high levels of methylmercury.

What most consumers don’t understand, however, is why most ocean fish is really OK to eat — whether you’re pregnant or not — and why it really is safe to feed that tuna fish sandwich to our children.

The key word here is “selenium.” Most of us, including yours truly, are not chemists, so I’ll leave out the technical details, but the thing to remember is selenium is something our body needs, and mercury keeps us from getting it.

New research conducted by the University of North Dakota proves that most ocean fish we eat, while containing mercury, also contain a lot of selenium. Thus, when we eat the fish, we take in mercury, but we take in extra selenium too that offsets the harmful effects of methylmercury. That means the mercury will never be able to do the damage we’re afraid it will do, according to the research.

The bottom line: other than large marine predators, like pilot whale, some shark species and a few (but not all) breeds of swordfish, pretty much any common ocean whitefish is fine. That includes haddock, cod and tuna. Salmon is perfectly safe, too. This is good news for companies that produce and sell these fish, which have taken hits over the years by overblown and incorrect advice to the seafood-eating public.

If only the public understood this better, and there’s the rub. As my colleagues have pointed out in similar commentaries, it’s tough to get memorable, mainstream marketing campaigns out there to get Americans interested in seafood.

It was just a few scary reports decades ago that set off the mercury-in-fish fear-mongering, and we still have a long way to go to convince consumers not to be afraid of fish. Here’s my radical statement: Don’t wimp out on fish, it’s your future.


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