Should the 2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend specific seafood to boost consumption?

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty / Radist
Source: Getty / Radist

Related tags Seafood Fish Dietary guidelines

Seafood industry stakeholders and public health advocates want more clarity in the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans around how much seafood children and pregnant women should eat to reap its potential cognitive developmental benefits, but they diverge on the best messaging to lift low consumption rates.

At a public meeting Aug. 11, representatives from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National WIC Association asked the USDA and HHS to recommend in the upcoming guidelines specific fish that are higher in desirable omega-3s and lower in methyl mercury, exposure to which could damage the cognitive development and performance of infants and children.

However, industry stakeholders pushed back during the meeting and asked that the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans instead emphasize the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s findings, published earlier this summer, that there are no adverse effects of eating seafood during pregnancy or early childhood.

How the agencies respond could significantly impact the seafood industry as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years and slated for publication this year, are the basis for federal nutrition policies, including what is served at schools, in prisons and through food assistance programs.

DGAC reinforces legacy advice despite new science

Decades after the US government first warned in the 1990s that pregnant women and children avoid or limit certain seafood at higher risk of mercury contamination, the current dietary guidelines advisory committee was the first to undertake a systemic review of seafood’s potential impact on neurocognitive development.

The committee’s review of 13 studies, including six articles from three randomized control trials, did not yield sufficient evidence to draw meaningful relationships between seafood consumption and cognitive, language and communication development. However, it did find favorable associations with consumption during pregnancy and some infant cognitive development.

Notably, and perhaps more immediately important to industry and public health advocates, was the committee’s finding that there were no adverse associations with consuming seafood – a point that could reassure pregnant women and children who have been frightened away from eating seafood because of messaging that it could contain dangerous levels of mercury. This, combined with confusion around what seafood is less or more likely to contain mercury, has contributed to many Americans eating less than the recommended weekly allotment.

Given these developments, the current committee reinforced the recommendations of the 2010 and 2015 committees “with slight modifications,”​ including that two or more servings of cooked seafood per week are recommended for ages 2 years and older to ensure intake of key-nutrients, and as a part of an overall healthy dietary pattern with servings varying by size based on age.

It also reiterated earlier committees’ recommendation to select fish and seafood “with emphasis on species higher in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and with low methyl mercury … following Federal and local seafood advisories.”

This recommendation is the crux of the current division between health advocates and seafood industry stakeholders.

A list could guide consumers to most beneficial seafood options

Mainstream Americans’ concern and confusion about mercury contamination in seafood and the different levels of desirable omega-3 fatty acids in different species prompted the Center for Science in the Public Interest to call for a list of fish to avoid due to their methyl mercury content and those to consume to maximize omega-3 intake.

“It would be a mistake to simply defer to recommendations [of fish to consume] by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency as they fail to identity [species] that are both lower in methyl mercury and higher in omega-3 fatty acids,”​ Jessi Silverman, a policy associate and registered dietitian at CSPI, said during the public meeting.

“For example,”​ she explained, “FDA and EPA list cod, light tuna, shrimp and salmon as best choices, but an individual who switches from eating 4 oz per week of cod and light tuna to eating the same amount of salmon and shrimp would more than triple their weekly intake of omega-3 fatty acids while reducing methyl mercury exposure eight-fold.”

Guidelines should emphasize no adverse effects from seafood consumption

While well-intentioned, some industry stakeholders fear that a list might restrict or continue to discourage Americans from eating the recommended amount of seafood and experiencing its full benefits.

“Despite these benefits, American seafood intake remains woefully low. Only 20% of adults and 6% of kids meet the recommendation to eat seafood twice a week. In order to promote and increase intake of this unique beneficial protein, we offer three areas of improvement for communicating the science,”​ Rima Kleiner of the National Fisheries Institute, said during the meeting.

“Our first recommendation is that the 2020 guidelines clearly reflect the findings of the committee’s scientific review showing no adverse effects of eating seafood during pregnancy or early childhood,”​ she said. “While the committee report states the importance of seafood omega-3 for brain development, it also includes overly complex and confusing language around eating seafood during pregnancy”​ that could “result in a reduced intake of seafood overall.”

‘The evidence says the harm to mothers’ babies is from not eating enough seafood’

University of Texas Dell Medical School pediatrics professor Tom Brenna, who also is on the board of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, echoed Kleiner’s concern that confusing language and recommendations that do not fully mirror the committee’s scientific assessment could drive consumers away from seafood.

“USDA and HHS should muster the courage to follow the foundational evidence and be transparent and inclusive. The evidence says the harm to mothers’ babies is from not eating enough seafood,”​ and that there is no risk from eating seafood, he told agency representatives during the meeting.

As a former member of the 2015 DGAC and expert in the area of nutrition health and seafood, he said he was “alarmed”​ that the DGAC recommendations for seafood consumption “does not follow this evidence.”

Specifically, he took issue with the “legacy advice to consume up to 12 oz of seafood per week and particularly citing mercury as a criteria for selecting seafood. To the contrary, the DGAC systemic review in our group found increasing neurocognitive benefit and negligible harm at levels of seafood consumption many fold higher than 12 oz and up to 100 oz per week.”

He added that the FDA’s recommended limit on seafood in the 1990s was grounded in “an abundance of caution in the paucity of data of a hypothetical neurotoxic effect of mercury at the levels found in America’s seafood.”

Since then, he said, the growing body of research “squarely refutes the 12 oz limit,”​ which he said, “drives avoidance of seafood to levels well below the 8 oz per week that evidence says is key to the neurocognitive development.”

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