07 May 2008

guest blog: fish: mercury, pollutants, contaminants, oh my!

This guest blog is part three of a 4-part series about the benefits of dangers of eating fish, and how to consume it responsibly. Janet Watkins is a freelance writer living and blogging from the Midwest at www.insidewords.blogspot.com.
Please contact me if you are interested in writing a topical guest blog.

Sardines and saltine crackers with a can or two of Vienna sausages on the kitchen table could only mean one thing at my house—Dad and Uncle Italy were going night fishing. They would get us kids to dig for night crawlers (brown earthworms) for bait. Tackle box, rods, flashlights, thermoses of water and coffee were loaded into Dad’s 1955 Chevy and then he would drive off into the night in pursuit of male sibling bonding and a good catch of silver bass, catfish, and on less favorable junkets sheep head.

As a child I didn’t like sardines. There was something about seeing those poor little beheaded fish lying in a can of oil that caused my face and nose to turn up in disgust. Yuck. What a contradiction since seeing larger species of fish dressed in cornmeal and frying in hot oil never bother me at all!


Contaminants, Mercury and Pollutants
Sardines were my Dad’s favorite snack. They are one of the least contaminated fish you can eat. According to the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals (ARHP) sardines rank 5th among seafood with very low contaminant levels. Good news as they are some of the most heart healthy “brain” foods you can eat. But other species of fish, particularly the larger more mature varieties can contain high concentrations of PCBs, dioxins and other pollutants. Industrial and municipal discharges, agricultural methods and storm water runoff– including rainfall that rinses contaminants into the land, streams and rivers bioaccumulate in the skin, organs and other fatty tissues of fish. Many pollutants settle on the water’s floor and adversely affect bottom-dwelling fish like- wild striped bass, bluefish, American eel, and sea trout– all ten to be high in PCBs.

Mercury
Mercury occurs naturally, but also comes from smokestacks mining and other industrial processes. As it moves from the air and settles in our waterways it turns into methyl mercury and absorbed by fish. Larger and older fish have a longer time to build up mercury than smaller and younger fish. Predatory fish at the top of the food chain broadly have higher levels of mercury. Without question or debate mercury toxicity poisoning from fish is a health threat. It is threatening to prenatal development and pregnant women are advised to avoid and use extreme caution when eating fish. Young children’s fish consumption should be smaller than adults. It is recommended 1-2 ounces for toddlers and 2-3 ounces for older children. Shrimp and “chunk-light” canned tuna canned are best selections to serve children. They contain lowest mercury levels.

Contaminants Impact on Health
Mercury, PCBs and dioxins build up and concentrate in our bodies over time. Eating contaminated fish may result in effects that are minimal to birth defects and cancer. It takes 5 years or more for women in childbearing years to rid their bodies of PCBs, 12-18 months to significantly free their body burden of mercury. Mothers who consume contaminated fish prior to becoming pregnant may have children who are slower to develop and learn.

To eat, or not to eat fish, that is the question?
It is about now that you may be thinking, “I’ll forego eating fish …”—a logical place to end up in this fish drama. But studies and statistics support the overwhelming benefits that come from eating fish cannot be ignored. Returning to that Harvard School of Public Health study shows a modest amount of fish per week reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by 36%.

Fish is high in protein low in fat and rich in Omega-3 fatty acid. Following the marine food chain, algae make one type of Omega-3 fatty acid. It is consumed by zooplankton and stretched to form two other types of Omega-3 acids. Zooplankton becomes the food for finfish and shellfish, resulting in a high concentration of Omega-3. The benefits show up in cardiovascular health and are important for prenatal and postnatal neurological development. There is also evidence that it may reduce tissue inflammation and alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Other maladies omega-3 may play a beneficial role include cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), depression and irritable bowel syndrome.

5 comments:

Aja Tahari Marsh said...

Here here! I only recently discovered my love for sardines. So stigmatized by our society, I was afraid of them for no good reason. Then I had them at Otto, fresh cooked with lots of lemon and garlic and capers as an appetizer.

Then I had them again, from a can, mashed with lemon juice, salt, pepper, pine nuts, sundried tomatoes, maybe some olives?, a little parmesan cheese, splash of balsamic vinegar, and some red chili flakes. This mixture was put atop some hearty bread I threw in the broiler with some olive oil on it. Then back into a warm oven to heat the whole thing up. Serve with a little light green salad on the side. Oh man, so delicious.

And they're so high in protein and low in fat and so easy and convenient. Great too if you don't love the strong taste of tuna, sardines are similarly 'meaty', but with a more mild 'white-fish' flavor. And darn it all if they aren't uber-convenient.

Janet Watkins said...

Aja, thank you for that recipe! I buy the sardines packed in oil olive, mash them up with chopped shallots, throw in a teaspoon of dijon mustard and spread the mixture on skillet toasted Ezekiel raisin bread.

I like your additions of capers and pine nuts and plan to try it soon.

My Mom used to say "your tastes will buds change, and I'd like what I once thought was disgusting." She of course was right. I acquired a taste for sardines and can eat them tossed on top of a green salad, now.

Janet Watkins said...

Aja, thank you for that recipe! I buy the sardines packed in oil olive, mash them up with chopped shallots, throw in a teaspoon of dijon mustard and spread the mixture on skillet toasted Ezekiel raisin bread.

I like your additions of capers and pine nuts and plan to try it soon.

My Mom used to say "your tastes will buds change, and I'd like what I once thought was disgusting." She of course was right. I acquired a taste for sardines and can eat them tossed on top of a green salad, now.

crikito said...

i'm terrified of sardines but i'll give them a shot...will let u know if i survive lol

Anonymous said...

A really quick treat is to eat sardines with sharp cheddar and crackers, sliced red onion and brown mustard. Delicious!

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