If you sell seafood at your restaurant, you will inevitably come in contact with pregnant women concerned whether or not it is safe. During pregnancy the only thing you get more than designer baby clothes that the child won’t be able to appreciate is advice on what not to eat. Seafood is confusing to expectant mothers because it’s health benefits are touted as frequently as it is warned against. The key for servers is being able understand what the warnings are about and what seafood to caution against. Being able to concisely explain to expectant mothers what is and is not safe is relatively easy once you understand the reason for the warnings.
Seafood contains a great number of benefits for both mother and child. Seafood contains DHA a type of Omega-3 acid that actually helps with a child’s brain development. Seafood can also be high in calcium, iron, and vitamin D. It has also been linked to delaying premature births. For mothers, seafood is low in fat, but high in protein. The Omega-3s in seafood have even been shown to reduce post partum depression.
The warnings surrounding seafood during pregnancy relate back to one thing: mercury. Actually it is mercury and its highly toxic organic form methylmercury. Industrial plants, volcanoes, forest fires, and a number of other sources release Mercury. Mercury is so dangerous because it does not naturally biodegrade rapidly. Instead it accumulates in animals and organic matter. Mercury and methylmercury in high concentrations have been linked to a variety of birth defects. In adults it has been linked to a number of neurological disorders including loss of vision, loss of hearing and even death.
It is difficult to work through the contradiction on the surface. While seafood is good for pregnant women, seafood high in mercury is very bad. So the delineation is between seafood that is high in mercury and seafood that is not. Expectant mothers will often come to you with concerns. It is easy for a server to clarify if they know the simple explanation for how fish build high concentrations of mercury.
Mercury that has been released into the ecosystem will make its way to bodies of water. Once in the water, it is absorbed by algae. Small plant eating fish like plankton eat the algae and absorb the mercury. Then slightly larger fish eat the plankton and absorb the mercury from all the plankton they eat. Larger fish eat many of these fish and acquire the mercury they have absorbed. Mercury does not break down in these fish but rather accumulates through a process called biomagnification. With each progressive step up the food chain, the mercury risk becomes worse.
So the key to knowing which fish are safe is actually to know where they sit in the food chain. Fish like sharks, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, marlin, large breeds of tuna, and large trout are significant mercury risks. Other fish like catfish, wild salmon, shrimp, pollock, and canned light tuna are safe from high mercury concentrations. Environment plays far less of a role than diet. The easiest rule of thumb is just to recommend smaller fish, lower on the food chain, with shorter life-cycles.
As a server, you should take the time to check out the mercury levels of the particular fish you serve. One of the easiest places to check this information is on the FDA’s mercury monitoring website. It provides a breakdown by species according to most recent monitoring information. If you prefer to be more high tech about it, gotmercury.org is a great website to check out specific fish. It even has a mobile app for checking mercury levels when you dine out. For information on mercury and other contaminates I still recommend my “go to” site on all things seafood related: seafood watch.
For the average healthy adult, mercury levels in seafood are relatively harmless. We all have mercury in out body tissue. The level we receive through a varied diet is not likely to pose a risk. As with most health and nutrition issues, pregnant women have the most to be concerned about. Now you have the knowledge to inform them wisely.