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Panel: Seafood Benefits Outweigh Risk

But Institute of Medicine Report Repeats Warnings for Pregnant Women and Children
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 17, 2006 -- The health advantages of eating seafood outweigh the risks for most Americans, a report by government-sponsored experts concludes.

The report was issued Tuesday by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Its conclusions could help lay to rest ongoing fears that contamination from pollutants like methyl mercury and microbes like bacteria and viruses make seafood consumption unsafe.

Still, experts repeated warnings from the FDA that women who are pregnant or may become pregnant or are breastfeeding, and children up to age 12, limit their intake of some seafood and avoid others altogether.

The seafood industry has complained that such warnings have driven much of the public away from consuming fish, though it is touted as a high-protein, low-saturated-fat food source. The IOM panel issued the report at the request of a division the U.S. Department of Commerce, which promotes American business interests domestically and overseas.

"The average person can consume more fish than they do," says Susan M. Krebs-Smith, PhD, a panelist who is chief of the risk factor monitoring and methods branch of the National Cancer Institute.

Seafood Benefits

Some studies have concluded that regular seafood consumption can cut heart disease risk by virtue of omega-3 fatty acids in fish and some shellfish. But though it acknowledged those studies, the IOM panel warned that the cardiovascular benefits of eating fish remain by and large unproven.

The report did not take into account a new Harvard University study, published in this week's issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, concluding that regularly eating salmon and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids can cut risk of death from heart disease by more than a third.

The study, based on a review of previous research, also concludes that the benefits of eating salmon on the heart greatly outweigh what some studies have pegged as an increased cancer risk owing to dioxin contamination found in farm-raised fish.

"If you consume a variety [of fish], then you’re not going to get a high intake of anything" toxic, says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, a researcher who conducted the study and briefed reporters today in Washington.

Seafood Risks

Both the Mozaffarian and the IOM experts say they agree with FDA guidelines issued in 2004 urging women who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding to limit consumption of most fish to 12 ounces per week.

The advisory, which also applies to children under 12, was issued amid concerns that methyl mercury contamination could put fetuses and young children at risk for brain development problems.

The FDA also urged those women to eat no more than 6 ounces of canned "white" albacore tuna per week and to avoid entirely four fish species -- shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel -- because of high mercury levels. The magazine Consumer Reports earlier this year recommended that pregnant women avoid canned tuna altogether.

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