Is my Food Safe? Heavy Metals in Fish

Welcome to post #7 in my “Is my food safe?” series! If you missed any of the others, you can find links and the webinar recording on this page.

Today, we will look into the heavy metals that can be found in fish!

What are Heavy Metals?

Heavy metals are elements with high density that are toxic in low amounts such as…

  • Mercury
  • Arsenic
  • Iron
  • Lead
  • Zinc

These metals in high amounts can have a negative impact on an individuals health and in large enough amounts can cause organ failure. But some heavy metals are an important part of health such as iron and zinc. These minerals are essential to our body in small amounts.

How do Heavy Metals get in Food?

Heavy metals are all over the earth. The steak you eat will have iron and nuts will contain zinc. Heavy metals are in soil, air, and water. As plants grown they absorb heavy metals from the soil and water and when a person or animal eats that plant they absorb the heavy metals too. If an animal eats plants with heavy metals that animal absorbs those metals and if that animal is eaten then those heavy metals get passed to the consumer.

This is why the best sources of iron are often meats because some animal was eating plants with iron its whole life and has a higher concentration in their meat then the plants.

Heavy Metals and Fish

When it comes to fish in the water it is no different than animals that live on the land. As fish eat algae that has absorbed heavy metals from the water, such as mercury, the fish absorb the heavy metal from the algae. Often times the biggest fish end up with high levels of heavy metals because they are higher up the food chain.

Environmental factors also have an impact on the amount of heavy metals found in fish. The materials used in agriculture, industry, and mining get into the water where fish live- causing them to accumulate heavy metals in their system.

Regulation of Heavy Metals

Heavy metals in food are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Heavy metals are all over and will end up in our food supply, so government is actively monitoring the levels of heavy metals in the food system and will step in if levels are too high.

The FDA does not only monitor food but also cosmetics and supplements to ensure that these don’t cause harmful levels of heavy metals to end up in the food supply.

What should I do about this?

There is no need for you to cut out fish because of this! Fish and seafood can provide key nutrients for

  • Heart health
  • Bone health
  • Decreasing risk for colon and rectal cancers
  • Supporting brain development during pregnancy and early childhood

It is recommended to consume 8-12 ounces of fish per week. This will provide you with a good source of:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA)
  • Omega-6 fatty acids
  • Iron
  • Choline
  • Iodine

The FDA suggests choosing fish that are lower in mercury to keep your heavy metal intakes as low as possible. Low-mercury fish include:

  • Salmon
  • Tilapia
  • Cod
  • Halibut
  • Herring
  • Mahi-mahi

…and more! Be sure to check out the link at the bottom of this post for more in depth info on recommendations.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day heavy metals aren’t all bad and some of them are even necessary for the body to function correctly. There is no denying that heavy metals in large quantities can be seriously dangerous but what we all have to realize is that these metals are a natural part of our environment and there is no way to fully avoid all of them.

For some high risk populations the small risk associated with eating some seafood may not be worth it, but in general we can trust the FDA to monitor the toxic levels of heavy metals for us.

Fish is nutritious! Focus on the reasons you should eat it rather than the reasons you shouldn’t. The benefits highly outweigh the consequences.

So what do I do? I eat fish, but I don’t eat it every day.

-Julie & The Interns

P.S. I point this out in each article, but its important to remember- our food is the safest it has been! I want to emphasize that I trust the process of foods being sold in the US with all of the quality control measures set forth by the USDA and the DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services), which includes the FDA and the CDC.

For More Reading Check Out These Articles!

Metals in your Food: https://www.fda.gov/food/chemicals-metals-pesticides-food/metals-and-your-food

Advice about eating fish, from the FDA: https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/advice-about-eating-fish

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