Wednesday Wonders: Mercury in Fish

March 2, 2011

Q: I try to keep a high protein diet, but don’t like to eat very much poultry or red meat. I am not a vegetarian and rely heavily on fish as a main source of protein. I am concerned that I ingest too much mercury. What kinds of fish do you suggest I buy that is low in mercury and easy to find at my local Whole Foods? — Martha, NYC

A: Hi Martha!

This is an excellent question. Fish is a great option for a high quality protein source that is low in saturated fat and can give you the added bonus of omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit your heart and can help lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol.

The USDA recognizes that fish is part of a healthy diet; therefore, in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines they recommend at least 8 ounces of fish per week, which is two standard size servings. The fact that you already love fish puts you ahead of the game! It is important to  be cautious about the mercury content in fish, but it really is only a significant health concern for young children and women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. If you do not fall into these categories, then the nutritional benefits of eating fish outweigh the risks.

It is important, however, to understand the mercury content and other environmental contaminants in the fish you eat. In general, larger, predatory fish that have lived longer have higher mercury contents because they have had more time to accumulate the toxin. Some examples of predatory fish with high mercury content are swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and shark, so if you are concerned about mercury, avoid these fish. We always hear about tuna’s high mercury content, but canned chunk light tuna is actually low in mercury, so choose that instead of the higher mercury albacore tuna. Also, bottom feeders are much lower in mercury than the larger fish, so think of them when you are choosing your cuts of fish at Whole Foods.

Here are some common low mercury choices you will be able to find during your grocery shopping: anchovies, calamari, catfish, crab, haddock, flounder, cod, sole, salmon, tilapia, oysters, sardines, and freshwater trout.

If you have a Wednesday Wonder you’d like answered, email me at jessica@nutritioulicious.com!

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  1. Great post; I’ve faced the same quandry when trying to incorporate fish into my diet.

    Folks using smart phones (I think only iPhones, though) may also find the Seafood Watch app useful: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_iPhone.aspx It was developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium to guide consumers in purchasing more-sustainable types of fish, but it also includes information about potential health risks. A Health Note appears for any fish known to have high mercury content (or other contaminants like PCBs).

  2. Companies that follow sustainable practices will have lower mercury and higher Omega 3s as well. For example we fish in the North Atlantic where the Albacore are smaller and the water is clean, therefore lower in Mercury. We also use the Pole and Troll method of fishing which eliminates Bycatch, keeping the ocean in tact! The Monterey Bay Aquarium website listed above is a great resource for this type of information. Thanks!