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The fantasy of fish as "health food": actually, a dietary disaster.

"Eat more fish and seafood to protect against heart disease," many well-meaning, but misinformed, physicians and nutritionists recommend.

"Seafood is rich in omega-3 fatty acids," they state correctly but fail to warn against the hazards of ingesting the toxic flesh, polluted fatty tissues, or diseased organs that most marine creatures contain.

If omega-3 fatty acids are nutritionally beneficial, other sources are available that ordinarily do not carry the pollution associated with seafood. Whole-grain breads and cereals contain omega-3 in abundance; so do flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.

Seafood sales have risen more than 25 percent during the past [two] decades. Simultaneously, cholesterol problems, gastrointestinal ailments, and infestation diseases have increased.

The public's love affair with fish and other forms of seafood requires serious concern.

Shattering a Myth: Fish and Disease

Seafood may be responsible for many ailments which the medical profession has been unable to diagnose successfully.

(The following review is based on questions posed to authorities in the fields of nutrition, marine biology, medicine, and also from statistics of the U.S. Commerce Department.)

Q. What is the basis of the belief that eating fish can reduce heart disease?

A. Atherosclerosis is characterized by accumulation of fat deposits in the arteries, leading to clogging of blood flow and subsequent insufficient supply of oxygen to the heart. Advocates of adding an abundance of fish to the diet suppose that the presence of omega-3 will provide an antidote.

Fish and other forms of seafood are high in cholesterol. Whatever benefits omega-3 can provide are diminished by the addition of cholesterol into the bloodstream. When the serum cholesterol level is raised, the liver's ability to modify or eliminate the substance is diminished.

Q. Fish and seafood have always enjoyed the reputation of being low in cholesterol. How do they compare to other foods?

A. All animal-based foods contain cholesterol. Only vegetarian foods are cholesterol-free. The cholesterol content of seafood varies. Some varieties of fish and shrimp are second only to raw egg yolk in cholesterol content by weight. Somehow the myth persists that fish is cholesterol-free.

Q. Not long ago, pharmaceutical companies extolled the virtues of fish-oil pills to be taken with each meal to ensure against stroke and heart attacks. What happened to that fad?

A. Medical reports, based on well-founded studies, implicated fish oil as a serious problem for diabetics. Also, the substance proved to be dangerous for people who suffered "thinning" of blood caused by fish-oil ingestion.

Q. Many observers who favor fish consumption acknowledge the problems of pollution. They are optimistic, however, about the prospects of "fish farming," whose ability to control the condition of the waters in a controlled environment could eliminate contamination concern. How true is this assumption?

A. Mass breeding of fish can stimulate infection among the colonies. Fish farmers are attempting to protect their investments by feeding the stock antibiotics. Without doubt, these drugs will be passed on to fish eaters in whom antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria will eventually flourish.

Q. Many people are under the impression that seafood is low in calories. Is this enough to overcome other problems it poses in weight reduction? What about sodium content?

A. All forms of fish are high in sodium. Some forms of processed fish are making their appearance as "imitation" crab meat, lobster, etc. They are known as surimi in the trade and are made of white fish (pollock), which is extensively processed with infusions of salt. Imitation crab has been known to contain 841 milligrams of sodium in a 3 1/2-ounce serving--enough sodium to exceed one day's limit. Many species of fish are actually high in calories because of their fat content.

Q. How do fish and shellfish become contaminated?

A. The primary source of contamination is the environment from which the creatures are harvested. Many of the earth's waters are polluted with sewage that may contain human waste and other organisms.

Although cooking sometimes destroys germs, the likelihood of infection persists. Shellfish, especially, can be high in such organisms because their habitat is stationary and the breeding ground is ideal for proliferation of microorganisms.

Other sources, of course, are the processing methods that include poor food handling through the use of hands, utensils, and equipment. Improper temperature maintenance is another hazard in the production of such foods.

Q. There are rumors that many purveyors of fish and seafood are involved in "cover-ups" to camouflage spoilage. How prevalent is this practice?

A. Many cases of "freshening" seafood are legal and unhealthful. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits the use of sulfite treatment within prescribed limits. The agency also stipulates that the presence of sulfites be revealed on the label of packed shrimp, for example. Owners of fish-processing plants have been indicted for using nitrates to freshen rotting fish. Ruth Winters in her book, Poisons in Your Food, recounts such an incident in which a fish-processing firm was punished by a suspended sentence and a fine. The child who consumed the poisoned fish died.

Q. Are the reports of poisoning by the use of raw fish exaggerated?

A. The facts are that such illnesses are underreported. Worm infections are often missed by diagnosticians. A young man admitted to a hospital for appendicitis after he complained of violent abdominal pains was dutifully opened surgically for the removal of the infected organ. Instead, several worms were found in the neighboring tissues. He had eaten raw fish the previous day.

Q. Why are seafood products so much more susceptible to contamination than beef and chicken?

A. Perhaps the time lapse determines the speed with which the dead creature deteriorates. Beef and chicken are usually processed at the source of the slaughter. Fish die soon after they are removed from water, and the decaying process begins almost immediately.

Q. How prevalent is paralytic poisoning among seafood users?

A. Microscopic algae known as dinoflagellates, present in shellfish, produce a toxin that causes shellfish poisoning. The results are often fatal. The nerve poison is resistant to cooking. Sea creatures, such as mussels, clams, oysters, and scallops, are the most vulnerable to the ingestion of the poison-producing dinoflagellates.

Q. Can cholera be contracted from seafood? We know someone who returned from the Gulf Coast of the United States and soon afterward showed signs of the disease.

A. Cholera derived from the use of seafood is rare in the United States, although it has been reported to the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] in Atlanta. Usually, such cases are more prevalent in Asia and Africa, although imported fish and shellfish harbor such dangers.

Q. Many cases of hepatitis have bewildered the medical community because patients have previously shown no signs of liver problems or have not been exposed to the usual contaminants. Can fish in the diet be the cause?

A. Victims of hepatitis A may have been part of that mystery. Not being subjected to the drinking of polluted water, they did not realize that another source of infection could be fecal contamination from seafood that contained the virus.

Q. Has seafood ingestion been linked with "intestinal flu?"

A. Until recently, outbreaks of diarrhea in children and adults could not be clearly traced to food or environment. Health authorities in New York State are credited with linking the epidemic to contaminated shellfish. Cooking of seafood does not guarantee the elimination of the virus, now known as the Norwalk virus.

Q. How extensive is chemical pollution in the fish and shellfish supply?

A. At least one infamous chemical, dioxin, has been traced to industrial waste violations. Paper mills, for example, are chief offenders. They discharge dioxin into rivers, which eventually contaminate fish downstream. Other polluters have been identified among some of the nation's largest manufacturers. Striped bass and trout coming from the Hudson River, for example, are no longer considered safe for food consumption by the health authorities in New York State.

(Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared in Nutrition Health Review #58.)
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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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