Why You Should Consume Seafood … Despite the Warnings

Food & Water

Many people have read the dire warnings about the health consequences of consuming fish and shellfish. These admonishments usually center on mercury contamination—most of which is produced by coal-fired facilities, chlorine production, and mining—which is converted to an organic form of mercury (methylmercury) by the action of various aquatic micro-organisms. This organic form of mercury comes to be located in marine animals and bioaccumulates as one ascends the trophic ladder as progressively larger animals consume smaller ones. Mercury is a real threat because it is linked to cognitive impacts in children (e.g., loss of IQ points, problems with attention, decreased memory function) and various health effects in adults (e.g., cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease). People are frequently told (through various media) to limit fish consumption to prevent mercury poisoning.
These warnings are most often directed toward pregnant women, with the intent of protecting the fetus. And, like most health sound bites, turn out to be overly simplified and mostly wrong.

Health is more nuanced than “do this” and “don’t do this”, and, as usual, the mercury story told in this country is based on faulty science, perpetuates an incomplete story, and leads to worse outcomes than if the health precautions were completely ignored. Therefore, despite the ever-present cautions, I would highly recommend you consume marine fish and shellfish, especially if you are an expecting mother, so long as you understand a few details. Read on.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain fatty acid crucial for human health. It is a fat that can be found in a variety of animal foods and some marine algae, occurring most abundantly in some ocean fish and shellfish. While adults suffer a range of problems when they consume a diet limited in DHA (e.g., depression, Alzheimer’s Disease, age-related cognitive decline), it is the fetal impacts I will highlight here. This fatty acid is necessary for brain development of the fetus and the growing child. Deficiencies in DHA affect intelligence, problem solving, and eyesight. I want to be very clear: low intake of DHA by the mother results in lower IQ scores and suboptimal brain development in children. This fat belongs to a class of lipids called omega 3, which are essential to obtain in the diet because the body cannot manufacture them. Like many essential items we derive from our diet, there are different forms that occur in plants than in animals. This is another case where the plant form (called alpha-linolenic acid, abbreviated ALA) must be converted through a complex process to create DHA. This conversion process is inefficient, and even in healthy adults only 5–10% of the consumed ALA ends up becoming DHA. Further, many factors inhibit this process, including high intake of omega-6 fatty acids, which are exceedingly common in the Standard American Diet and in vegetarian diets. Therefore, it is important to consume preformed DHA—which is the kind found abundantly in many fish and shellfish. But wait, aren’t these dangerous to consume?

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set guidelines for fish intake by pregnant mothers to protect the mother and, especially, the fetus from the effects of mercury. For decades, these warnings have limited the intake of foods that are an important source of DHA in the diet.
But, like the fat and cholesterol warnings, the mercury warnings also turn out to be based on cherry-picked data and an incomplete understanding of the topic.

Three major studies occurred in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s to ascertain the safety of consuming fish. Two of the studies demonstrated no negative impacts and one of them (the Faroe Islands Study) did. This latter study was used to demonstrate the harm of mercury contamination in fish and establish the warnings we are all familiar with. Because we are a reactive society that responds to fear-based recommendations, the warnings were so effective that a 2010 study found that pregnant women were not eating the suggested number of fish meals per week.

There are several pieces of this puzzle that must be explained to help you (the reader) understand why the dietary mercury warnings may be misguided. To begin, mercury is not directly toxic to the body, but instead wreaks its havoc by deactivating very important enzymes that contain selenium. These enzymes—selenoenzymes—function as antioxidants to protect fats and proteins from damage by oxidation. If the body contains ample stores of selenium, mercury cannot catastrophically interfere with these enzymes. In other words, selenium is protective of mercury toxicity. Of importance to this discussion is that many fish and shellfish contain abundant selenium in their tissues (or, put another way, the ratio of selenium to mercury is high). Through providing dietary selenium, these foods are not the danger we have been told regarding mercury. While single fish meals are not the issue here (it is the cumulative selenium and mercury ingested in the overall diet), it is useful to note that some fish, such as shark, contain little selenium compared with the mercury they provide (i.e., the selenium to mercury ratio is low). Therefore, such fish might best be limited without a good intake of selenium in diet. On the other end of the spectrum, fish such as tuna, flounder, pollock, and salmon supply much more selenium than mercury. (Note: plant foods such as Bazil nuts, sunflower seeds, and several grains can also supply substantial quantities of selenium and can be part of the overall strategy to protect the body from mercury in the diet).

Now, back to the studies used to demonstrate harm from ocean foods due to their mercury content. The Faroe Islands study turns out to be a terrible study to use for several reasons. Most importantly, the residents of the Faroe Islands were eating pilot whales (genus Globicephala), species that contain extremely high amounts of mercury in its tissues—far too much to be mitigated by the co-occurring selenium. Not to mention, this study had many other confounding issues, including (but not limited to) additional environmental toxins found in the pilot whale that could be responsible for the observed health issues, the study methods themselves, and the genetics of the resident population.

Another important part of this discussion that is not addressed by the warnings to limit fish and shellfish is that some foods help to bind ingested mercury and prevent its absorption by the body (the mercury is ultimately excreted during evacuation of the large intestine). This strategy changes the effective selenium to mercury content of the food as experienced by the body. These foods offer another layer of protection from mercury. Two important foods to mention (among several) are chlorella and plants containing insoluble fiber. Examples of the latter include fruits like strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. These foods are effective at trapping consumed mercury and carrying it out of the body. Chlorella (a blue-green alga) and the insoluble-fiber-rich foods can be ingested in the same meal as the fish and/or shellfish and prevent a large proportion of the mercury from entering the bloodstream.

As are often the case, the dietary recommendations supplied to the public in the United States are overly simplified and lack the necessary nuance reflected by the complexity of issues involved. Whether or not a person will experience harmful effects from ingesting mercury in food depends on many factors, including the species consumed, the intake of selenium in the diet, and the amount of insoluble fiber eaten in the same meal. Importantly, the avoidance of foods rich in DHA have consequences, especially to developing humans, that can limit full intellectual development (among other real risks).
The general tact in many dietary circles is complete avoidance of foods believed to be dangerous, despite the fact those foods supply critical nutritional elements that may be difficult to acquire in sufficient amounts elsewhere.

I suggest it might be advantageous to utilize strategies to minimize the harm from such foods, rather than avoid such foods outright (there is net benefit using this approach). Sustainably harvested fish and shellfish represent some of the only wild foods that can be acquired in the marketplace. These foods that are extremely valuable due to the DHA and selenium they supply, and other items not discussed here (e.g., vitamin D, zinc, magnesium, B vitamins). The story of mercury in fish and shellfish is a good example of what happens when we allow fear to rule our dietary choices.

Source: http://www.learningtarget.com/nosulfites/seleniumgraph.jpg

Tagged: seafood, mercury, health, healthy eating

By Arthur Haines
Original here

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Winters in Colonial America

A few excerpts from Peter Kalm’s “Travels in North America.”

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“But Wild Food Is…”

I lecture on wild food frequently, discussing various issues that concern this subject to a wide variety of people. For years, the information was received with interest and people appreciated learning about this part of our collective human history and what wild food can mean for human and ecosystem health. In the last year or so, there has been an increasing number of criticisms about the message of wild food. While these arguments center on important social issues, they are representative of a broader narrative that has become very pervasive and sometimes applied to topics that may not be core to the subject of privilege and power. In fact, it has become customary to disparage anyone who does not demonstrate perfect agreement with all arguments against those assumed to be in power—regardless of the intentions and merits of the arguments presented.

Here, I suggest that views linking wild food to power and privilege have, perhaps, been taken too far by those who seek social accountability. The two most frequently raised arguments are as follows.

1. “But Wild Food is Not Abundant Enough to Feed the World.”

That’s correct, the world is too populated and the wild places too fragmented to feed the entire world strictly on a wild food diet, even though anatomically modern humans consumed wild food exclusively for ca. 315,000 years (i.e., for over 97 percent of our time on this earth). Despite the fact that agricultural and industrial societies consistently degrade the land base through over-population and poor ecological practices, many believe cultivation and animal husbandry are the only strategies that should be used to feed the world’s population. Let’s discuss this idea a bit further.
I generally answer this concern (regarding the abundance of wild food) by noting that there is also not enough organically raised food to feed the earth’s population; however, no one is suggesting we should stop growing organic produce.


For them, agriculture is our cultural norm—and they always start from this context when discussing food availability (rather than our species’ biological norm—wild food). Because there is not enough undomesticated food does not mean those who can procure it should cease doing so. In fairness, this would mean that some hunter-gatherers would have to stop eating their ancestral diet (though, in general, the indigenous are considered to have rights to local wild foods, but other people living in the same area are not). It would also mean that those of us living in industrialized countries do not get to consume some of the only foods that leave the forests standing, the prairies untilled, and the marshes filled with water. The conscientious gathering of wild foods does not degrade landscapes.

Keep in mind, this argument could be used on a variety of scales. Should those who practice permaculture (a strategy that also cannot feed the entire world) consider ceasing their craft? Likewise, are there enough pumpkins to feed the world? Of course not, but some people still grow these foods and make them available to those who can pay without criticism. It may be important to offer here that there are not enough computers or iPhones for all the world to have one (but we are sure to keep such devices for waging our social concerns).

2. “But Wild Food is a Privilege.”

No, it is not. It is a birthright, one (unfortunately) that very few people today get to experience. It is the biologically appropriate diet of Homo sapiens, and without it, people experience a host of chronic diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, neurovascular disease, depression, digestive disorders) that were essentially absent in populations who consumed wild food (i.e., in hunter-gatherers). Because only some people can now acquire wild food, as any proportion of their diet, it is considered a social privilege by those who do not fully explore the topic at hand. By assuming wild food is a privilege, it can be regarded as something no one should have access to unless everyone has access to it.

Let’s us use a comparison to understand how this argument (that wild food is a privilege) might not be well-supported. Breast milk is the biologically normal food for a human infant (and, in part, for toddlers and young children). However, for a variety of reasons, many children are not breastfed. Approximately 19% of children (according to the most recent CDC breastfeeding report card) are not breastfed in the United States, and, instead, receive some type of formula through a bottle. Formula feeding has a variety of impacts, including an increased incidence of leukemia in people who received this form of nutrition as an infant (see below). Breastfeeding is sometimes influenced by education level, income bracket, ethnicity, and nutritional status of the mom. For example, poorer moms may need to work soon after birth and are not available to breastfeed their infants or pay for a breast pump, malnourished moms do not always produce adequate milk, and some minority women don’t breastfeed because they believe it creates the image of being poor. These issues mean that breastfeeding could be regarded (by those seeking to create a negative label) as a privilege of the wealthier people of European decent. Now, the manner in which human infants have always been fed can be considered a privilege (i.e., provided a negative label).

Using the breastfeeding example one more time, it can help illustrate an important concept in this entire discussion: historical normalcy. Recently, an article was published with the title of “Breastfed children have slightly lower risk of childhood leukemia”. The study demonstrated a 14–19% decreased risk of pediatric leukemia in breastfed babies. You may have missed how this title distorts the idea that humans have a biological norm. Breastfeeding is how Homo sapiens have always fed their infants (until quite recently). To create the image that breastfeeding has benefit misses the point entirely. It isn’t that breastfeeding has benefit, it is that deviating from our ancestral patterns has detriment. The title should have read “formula-fed children have a slightly higher risk of childhood leukemia”. We should start from the perspective of our biological standard, and then discuss deviations from this. Titles worded like this provide evidence of contemporary humans not understanding the ancestral context and how it relates to our health. Likewise, arguments that consider wild food to be a privilege fail to grasp this is how humans have nourished themselves and their offspring for most of our existence. It is not a privilege to consume wild food—it is the re-establishment of our natural diet.

I understand that many people, for various reasons, cannot consume wild food. I truly wish this were different. However, the way we view many issues is becoming harmful to respectful dialogue. When one group of people experience poor conditions, it doesn’t automatically mean that those who don’t experience those conditions are privileged. It may mean, in some cases, that those who experience poor conditions are simply unfortunate. Are cows who are pasture-fed and consume green plants privileged over those that are captive-raised and eat grain? I would emphatically state “no”, the grass-fed cows are receiving the diet they should experience, and the captive-raised cows are unfortunate. (Note: you may not like the example of cows, but it is quite relevant given that both cows and any human reading this are domesticated.)
I would love to have ostrich eggs to consume regularly, but my landscape doesn’t provide them. Are the residents of the Kalahari Desert privileged because this food source is available to them? Of course not.

People always want to apply negative labels—and many who do represent the world’s one percent (in terms of income and privilege). Further, they constantly suggest blanket strategies to solve the world’s issues. However, these rarely succeed in realizing tangible benefits because the lands and people are different. The juxtaposition of locally available foods and the diversity of world views held by the area’s inhabitants means that each region needs to find its own unique solutions to human and ecosystem health.

Suggesting that people follow a diet (of cultivated foods) that harms landscapes and creates chronic illness in such a high proportion of the population isn’t a solution that should be followed by anyone who has a better option, especially when you consider that sick people use more of the world’s resources.

And what about the privilege to purchase cheap food made from crops sprayed with harmful chemicals? These foods have significant external costs and create illness in humans and other-than-human persons who reside near and downstream or downwind of the fields the plants are grown in. Isn’t that a privilege worth discussing (one of no accountability)? I recently met a person who refused to purchase organically raised foods, despite knowing the harm that chemical agriculture causes, because they felt the higher cost associated with these foods represented privilege they did not want to partake in. Using social privilege concerns as a justification to pollute landscapes (when other options were present to the individual) is another example of how slanted this discussion of power has become.

While I do feel this conversation about wild food abundance and social privilege has value, the criticisms waged speak volumes to an attitude that is pervading the entire discussion of privilege and power, overlooking ideals such as personal sovereignty, ecological responsibility, and the need to apply regional solutions. Further, this attitude usually ignores our biological norms. I am not intending, with this writing, to suggest social hierarchy and the consequences of such be ignored. I am meaning to propose that when a conversation becomes more about condemnation than about finding solutions, it loses some of its original values and alienates people who would otherwise be allies.

By: Arthur Haines

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Being Prepared: Have You Covered The Basics?

Being Prepared: Have You Covered The Basics?

Let’s be honest, when it comes to preparedness matters, most of us tend to gravitate toward those aspects which bring us the most pleasure. In some cases, we neglect to involve our families in our plans and practice. I can tell you that I truly enjoy practicing bushcraft skills, cooking with the bare essentials over […]

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Hunter Gathering Cook

Hunter Gathering Cook

‘Dent-de-lion’: Hunting Lions, Salade Pissenlit & the Ultimate pickling liquid. One of the first questions asked by many a beginner when it comes to their first foray into the wild larder is ‘what easiest to begin with?’ The most obvious would be the stinging nettle, blackberries, elderflower and of course: the dandelion. Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) […]

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Tuned In

Tuned In

Learning anything is about being wrong and being taught correctly how to be able to adapt and accomplish a task easier therefore learning a correct way of solving any problems that lay in one’s path. To seek wisdom is wise. So apply that to primitive living, Bushcraft, even camping can open your minds eye to […]

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Stress Relief: There’s an APP for that…

Stress Relief: There’s an APP for that…

In this fast paced world we live in, it is far too easy to consume every waking hour within the confines of our vehicles, offices, or homes. Sure it’s convenient to sit on the couch in the evenings and on weekends, staring aimlessly at our computer screens, televisions, tablets and smart phones, but how many […]

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