Sushi is a healthy food which offers great nutritional benefits. However, the FDA has in the past warned about consumption of large, predatory fish which have a higher level of mercury and other contaminants. In an update press release, the FDA has advised in a draft form that pregnant and breastfeeding women, those who are hoping to become pregnant, and young children may need to increase their increase their seafood intake, as long as the fish consumed are low in mercury and are properly cooked. The FDA and EPA have counselled in the past to avoid certain types of seafood and have even recommended limits to consumption, but this is the first time that they are recommending a minimum amount of seafood for new parents, expectant mothers, pregnant women, and small children. In part because of fears over health risks, these groups have had limited seafood consumption, below the levels advised by the FDA to the general public. While this is great news for seafood lovers, it must be advised that the FDA is still cautioning pregnant women and young children to avoid raw fish. This is because pregnant women and young children “often lack strong immune systems and are more at risk for foodborne illnesses.”
The draft, titled “Fish: what pregnant women and parents should know”, will, when finalized, replace the former advice, issued in 2004. The key message of the draft, which can be found at the FDA page is as follows, “Eat 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week from choices that are lower in mercury. The nutritional value of fish is important during growth and development before birth, in early infancy for breastfed infants, and in childhood.”
Seafood is of great health benefit in that it can contribute to a full and balanced nutritional profile, which is exactly what mothers and their young children need. But that does not mean that all seafood is safe. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, along with persons who are at higher risk for contaminants such as those with a weakened immune system need to exercise caution in choosing the right fish. At this point, the FDA is still advising that certain types of fish be avoided: tilefish, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and white tuna, although tuna is acceptable in moderation. With the exception of tilefish, these are all large, predatory fish at the top of the food chains and who accumulate a much higher quantity of mercury than smaller species of seafood, such as salmon, shrimp, cod, and other popular choices. While other seafood will give nutritional and developmental benefits, caution must be exercised with freshwater fish, which even cooked can be problematic depending on fish advisories. Remember, due to the risk of parasites in freshwater fish, freshwater fish should never be used for sushi.
Keep in mind, at this point this information is all in draft form, and the FDA will be seeking public consultation before their final advice. As it stands, the current advice is that “women who are pregnant or breastfeeding consume at least 8 and up to 12 ounces of a variety of seafood per week, from choices lower in methyl mercury.” For seafood lovers, that’s great news. For sushi lovers, the rule remains the same: if you are in an at risk group, avoid raw fish. If you would like more information on health risks of seafood, you can check out the draft updated advice at their webpage or, for more sushi related information, our guide to the potential health risks of sushi at our ‘Sushi and Health’ page.