Harvard Mental Health Letter

Seafood and brain development

Balancing mercury exposure against the nutritional benefits of fish.

Periodically a public debate flares about how much fish a woman should consume if she is pregnant or nursing. In the fall of 2007, for example, some members of the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition received a great deal of press attention after urging these women to eat more fish in order to nurture and protect their children's developing brains.

Almost immediately, other high-profile coalition members, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, criticized the advice, which contradicted existing guidelines from the FDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Those federal agencies had advised pregnant and nursing women to limit their consumption of certain fish because of the risk of exposing their babies to mercury. The controversy grew more heated after National Public Radio revealed that the coalition had accepted funding from the National Fisheries Institute, an advocacy organization for the seafood industry.

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