Where’s the perspective?

By

Steven Hedlund

Published on
December 7, 2010

There’s always more than one side to a story. It’s Journalism 101, right? But the list of mainstream media outlets offering a imbalanced account of seafood and its health implications is seemingly growing by the week.

This week, the popular U.S. magazine Consumer Reports is warning its 7 million-plus subscribers to avoid eating tuna if you’re pregnant, nursing or young. Apparently, it’s big news. For example, CBS Radio, with its nearly 40 million listeners, had it as the No. 2 story on Tuesday morning, topped only by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s arrest in London.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll quickly realize that it’s not big news — Consumer Reports not only provides no new information but also fails to put in perspective the health risks associated with consuming fish relatively high in methylmercury.

None of the 42 samples of canned and pouched tuna Consumer Reports tested exceeded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s allowable limit of 1 part per million (ppm) of mercury. Instead, Consumer Reports based its warning on the Environmental Protection Agency’s reference dose (RfD) for mercury, claiming that consumption of 2.5 ounces of white (albacore) tuna or 5 ounces of light (skipjack) tuna a day is unsafe for at-risk populations.

But Consumer Reports failed to specify that the RfD is a measure of daily exposure over the course of a lifetime, and that EPA’s reference dose is based on consumption of freshwater fish, which contain far less selenium (a mineral that’s thought to counteract mercury’s harmful effects) than saltwater fish.

What gets lost in the mix is the importance of balancing the omega-3s found in fish with the omega-6s found in vegetable oils, eggs and other foods. The typical American diet has a 20:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s; a 4:1 ratio is ideal. We got a long way to go.

A study published in the November edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that most women would rather avoid eating fish altogether than potentially harm themselves or their babies. Most of the 22 pregnant women from the Boston area who participated in the study knew fish may contain mercury, but only a few knew that fish contains docosahexaenoic acid, the beneficial omega-3 fatty acid found in oily fish such as salmon and tuna.

Spitting out tidbits of dietary advice without balancing out the story or putting the health risks in perspective does more harm than good. Consumer Reports’ tuna-consumption warning to pregnant and nursing women is just the latest example of a mainstream media outlet failing to get the story straight when it comes to seafood.

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