Omega-3 fatty acids have been a fixture on our public-health radar for years now, but some consumers are still wondering whether this power nutrient is all it’s cracked up to be. All the research says it is – but overblown warnings about naturally-occuring mercury in seafood are keeping Americans from getting enough of it in their diets.
There’s a good reason why omega-3s have been the star of so many health stories. Studies show that these long-chain fatty acids are an effective tool for fighting heart disease, boosting brain function, improving moods, and reducing joint inflammation from arthritis. For pregnant women, the benefits are even more remarkable: Mothers who get the most omega-3s during pregnancy have babies with the highest IQs.
Health-conscious consumers are asking a logical question: How can we be sure we’re getting enough of these super vitamins? Evelyn Tribole, author of "The Ultimate Omega 3 Diet," says fatty fish like salmon and tuna are the best sources of these healthy fats. (Plants like flax contain an inferior version that isn’t as readily absorbed by the body.) As Tribole notes, however, most people are not eating enough fish to max out their omega-3 benefits.
The average American daily diet contains just 85 milligrams of omega-3s, while the optimal daily dose is closer to 650 milligrams. (It’s easy to meet the recommended allowance by eating just two servings of salmon or tuna per week.)
But the Montreal Gazette reported yesterday that people are afraid to eat more omega-3-rich fish because of the hype about microscopic mercury levels:
Increasing our intake of omega-3 fats is obviously desirable, but how do we do it? The best dietary source is fish, but many people have problems with consuming the recommended two to three servings of fatty fish a week. They may worry — unjustifiably, as it turns out — about contamination with mercury or PCBs.
The Gazette is right. Mercury toxicity fears over store-bought seafood are "unjustifiable." But as we showed in our "Tuna Meltdown" report, there’s a lot more to this story when the advantages of omega-3s are factored in: Scare tactics about the so-called “dangers” of eating seafood are so exaggerated, they’re actually harming the health of the most vulnerable Americans.
A new working paper from economists at Tulane University and the Australian National University found the same thing by analyzing consumer purchasing data. Shoppers have reacted to mercury scares by avoiding seafood altogether, despite all the health benefits of seafood consumption.
Activist groups like Greenpeace, Oceana, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have manufactured and exploited these fish fears so much that low-income mothers have put their babies’ brain development at risk. But the million-dollar question is this: Should anyone expect competent nutrition advice from the agitators trying to save the skipjack from your lunch table?
We didn’t think so either.