The FDA has revised its guidance on fish consumption


The Food and Drug Administration has revised its 2017 guidance on fish consumption.

Photo of seafood in a deli case. Lynda Banzi/MDedge News

The revision touts the health benefits of fish and shellfish and promotes safer fish choices for those who should limit mercury exposure – including women who are or might become pregnant, women who are breastfeeding, and young children.

Those individuals should avoid commercial fish with the highest levels of mercury and should instead choose from “the many types of fish that are lower in mercury – including ones commonly found in grocery stores, such as salmon, shrimp, pollock, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish, and cod,” according to an FDA press statement.

The potential health benefits of eating fish were highlighted in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Department of Agriculture 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and in 2017 the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency released advice on fish consumption, including a user-friendly reference chart regarding mercury levels in various types of fish.

Although the information in the chart has not changed, the FDA revised its advice to expand on the “information about the benefits of fish as part of healthy eating patterns by promoting the science-based recommendations of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

The advice calls for consumption of at least 8 ounces of seafood per week for adults (less for children) based on a 2,000 calorie diet, and for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, 8-12 ounces of a variety of seafood per week selected from choices lower in mercury.

“The FDA’s revised advice highlights the many nutrients found in fish, several of which have important roles in growth and development during pregnancy and early childhood. It also highlights the potential health benefits of eating fish as part of a healthy eating pattern, particularly for improving heart health and lowering the risk of obesity,” the press release states.

Despite these benefits – and the recommendations for intake – concerns about mercury in fish have led many pregnant women in the United States to consume far less than the recommended amount of seafood, according to Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

“Our goal is to make sure Americans are equipped with this knowledge so that they can reap the benefits of eating fish, while choosing types of fish that are safe for them and their families to eat,” Dr. Mayne said in the FDA statement.

In response to the revised guidance, John S. Cullen, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said that all women should be counseled to eat a well-balanced and varied diet including meats, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and grains, and pregnant women should limit their intake of fish and seafood products to 8-12 ounces, or about 2-3 fish meals, per week.

Pregnant women may eat salmon in moderation, but should avoid raw seafood of any type because of possible contamination with parasites and Norwalk-like viruses, he said, adding that seafood like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, Bigeye (Ahi) tuna steaks, and other long-lived fish high on the food chain should be avoided completely because of high mercury levels.

“While the AAFP did not review the revised advice to the dietary guidelines, family physicians are on the front lines encouraging healthy nutrition for pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children. It’s an ongoing, important part of the patient-physician conversation that begins with the initial prenatal visit,” Dr. Cullen said in a statement.

Similarly, Christopher M. Zahn, MD, vice president of practice activities for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said the FDA/EPA updated guidance is in line with ACOG recommendations.

“The guidance continues to underscore the value of eating seafood 2-3 times per week during pregnancy and the importance of avoiding fish products that are high in mercury. The additional emphasis on healthy eating patterns mirrors ACOG’s long-standing guidance on the importance of a well-balanced, varied, nutritional diet that is consistent with a woman’s access to food and food preferences,” he said in a statement, noting that “seafood is a nutrient-rich food that has proven beneficial to women and in aiding the development of a fetus throughout pregnancy.”

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