Kids and Seafood: Good and Safe Choices

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How to Feed The Kids Fish without a Side of Mercury
You want to give your children safe and healthy food, naturally.  Seafood is healthy, with all kinds of good lean protein with low saturated fat.  Fish also has minerals and vitamins like iron and zinc, Vitamins A, B, and D.  And then you keep hearing about those nice omega-3 fatty acids, which can enhance brain development and help your kids’ behavior, vision and learning.  So, why not feed your children seafood all the time?

Like with any other food, moderation is key to good health; however, with seafood, there are other issues to consider.  Contaminants like PCB’s and mercury have made some fish very dangerous for children’s growing bodies.  Also, over-fishing and wasteful fishing practices are making some types of fish socially irresponsible to serve, not to mention closer to extinction.  The Atlantic Cod was once plentiful and now is so severely depleted that it is almost impossible to find.

So what is a responsible parent to do?  Here are some facts you should know before making dinner tonight.

Mercury and PCBs
Mercury does occur naturally in the environment, but usually in very low doses.  Mercury is also the by-product of industry and coal-fired power plants, and in those cases, the levels of the pollutants can be quite hefty. The problem with mercury is that when it goes up in smoke from factories and electric plants, it mingles with moisture in the air and then falls to earth as rain.  Mercury then enters the water system, flowing into rivers and lakes, where fish live.  Here’s where it gets even worse.  Bacteria in the water change the mercury into its lethal cousin, methyl mercury.  Fish eat and absorb the methyl mercury when they feed on small aquatic creatures that feed on the bacteria and in turn the mercury.

Mercury has been shown to have detrimental effects on the central nervous system, the kidneys, and immune systems.  The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that ” Mercury in all of its forms is toxic to the fetus and children, and efforts should be made to reduce exposure to the extent possible to pregnant women and children as well as the general population.” (Pediatrics2001).

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were developed to be lubricants and insulators for electrical equipment.  The Environmental Protection Agency banned them in 1977 as carcinogens.  However, PCBs don’t break down, so once they enter a waterway, they are there forever.  PCBs accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals, so fish with higher levels of fat tend to have PCB contamination.  The highest levels of PCBs have been found in bluefish, wild striped bass, and Atlantic salmon (especially the farmed raised variety), but keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration has not even gotten around to testing many types of fish and shellfish.

You can cut down on possible PCBs in your fish by trimming the fat or broiling the fish and allowing the drippings to fall through a rack.  Do not use the drippings to make sauces.

Over-fishing and Non-Sustainable Fishing
In order to guarantee fish for the future, we as consumers must make our wallets speak out for sustainable fishing practices.  Recently, researchers have reported that two-thirds of all commercial seafood is being over-fished.  One study showed that 90% of all fish stocks are depleted. (NatureMay 2003)

Commercial fishing is also wasteful.  Remember why we have the “dolphin-safe” logo on cans of tuna? Many species of fish are caught up in nets that are thrown back, but by the time they are released, they are already dead.  Some fisheries report that almost a quarter of the fish they catch are tossed back. Furthermore, some fishing practices, such as dredging, in which a huge weighted net is dragged across the ocean floor, pull up coral and anything else that makes its home at the bottom of the ocean.

What Fish Are Safe and Responsibly Caught

  1. Wild Pacific Salmon

Look for the Coho and Pink varieties.  It can also be called chum.  You can find it fresh or frozen.  You can also use the canned salmon.  Canned salmon is usually an easy substitution for canned tuna, which is high in mercury.

Avoid chinook or king salmon, as well as sockeye salmon.  These have elevated PCB levels.  Also, do not use Atlantic salmon, which is usually farmed. Atlantic salmon has very high levels of toxins, and the farms have additional issues with pollution.

  1. Tilapia

Tilapia is a light, mild fish that can be used in any recipe that calls for fish fillets.  Always buy fresh fillets, as most frozen fillets come from China, where pollution is a problem.  Tilapia is almost always farm-raised, so it is important to make sure you know where the farms are located.  US tilapia farms operate according to strict standards, as do farms in Ecuador and other Latin American countries.

Also, Tilapia is a safe choice as tilapia are vegetarians.  Most fish that have problems with higher levels of toxins are larger species that feed on smaller fish.  Tilapia avoids this problem by feeding on seaweed and algae.

  1. Northern US and Canadian Shrimp

Shrimp is the most popular seafood choice in the US, but it is important to choose shrimp from either Canadian waters or US farms.  You can also be safe with Oregon shrimp, which is also called cocktail or ocean shrimp.

Everyone thinks Gulf shrimp when they think of shrimp, but trawling practices are not only destroying the Gulf of Mexico’s floor, but also depleting the shrimp stocks there.  US farms are popping up, and they are following safe and sustainable practices that are much better than farms in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where regulations are virtually non-existent.

  1. US Farmed Crayfish

Also known as crawfish, crawdad, or freshwater lobster, crayfish look like little lobsters, and they have a sweet taste that substitute well for lobster or shrimp.  Crayfish are farmed in Louisiana, so obviously if you live in the Southeastern US, they are easier to come by, but several companies offer frozen and fresh crayfish that you can order and have delivered to your home. If you get them fresh, make sure that you are buying them alive, much like lobster.

  1. Farmed Bay Scallops and Blue Mussels

Bay scallops are small and sweet, so kids tend to like them.  You can find them year-round frozen, or you can buy them fresh in the early spring.  Blue mussels may not seem like a kid-favorite, but they can be a great substitution for clams or oysters in pasta dishes.  You can get mussels canned, frozen, pre-shucked or fresh.  If buying them fresh, remember to look for the shells to be closed.  Once the shell opens, the mussel is dead.  Steamed mussels can be quite an adventure for older kids.

Obviously, there are many other types of fish out there that can be served to your children, but as previously stated, the FDA has not tested many species of fish and shellfish. A good website to check out is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.  The Aquarium has extensive listings of all varieties of fish and shellfish, how it’s caught, and if it is considered safe and environmentally friendly.

To avoid food allergies, pediatricians recommend waiting until age 3 before introducing your children to shellfish.  Also, you should limit seafood to once a week.  The recommended portion size is 3 ounces for kids less than 32 pounds, and 4.5 ounces for older kids up to 67 pounds in weight.

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