Tuna, Mercury and Kids. What to Do?

Canned Tuna

image: CSPI

Many kids have a hard time with fish. They don’t like the taste, the smell, or the texture. But there is one exception – canned tuna. Most children enjoy tuna sandwiches and salads. But there is a problem.

What you need to know:

Tuna is a healthy cheap source of nutrients for adults and children alike. It is a good protein source and has good levels of Omega 3. But it also has a serious downside. Tuna is a big fish. Its body retains various pollutants it picks up in the ocean. The most dangerous one is methyl mercury.

Excess consumption of methyl mercury can lead to mercury poisoning, a serious disease that can cause permanent brain damage along with issues in other organs. Pregnant women and small children are most susceptible.

The thresholds for safe consumption has been set by the EPA in the past, but some groups are concerned that even lower levels of exposure may be problematic. Consumer Reports urged the FDA to add warning labels to canned tuna, but was met with a nay. Recently, CSPI explored tuna in school lunches.

It turns out that canned tuna is by far the largest single source of mercury in the US diet. It accounts for nearly one-third of our total exposure. We need to be careful with our tuna consumption.

What to do at the supermarket:

Choose light tuna (Skipjack, Bluefin, Yellowfin, Ahi) , not white tuna (Albacore, Longfin). Light tuna has just one third the amount of mercury as white tuna. Always prefer tuna packed in water, not oil.

For kids under the age of 8, limit tuna consumption to once a month. For older children – twice a month is fine.

Try to explore other fish types – sardines are a wonderful source of nutrients and because they are so small, they are not contaminated.

  • Jaclyn Liquori

    Once a month? I don’t know about that. I’m lucky to have a 3-year-old that prefers tuna and broccoli over typical junky kid food. I don’t know if I want to refuse her when she asks for tuna, which is typically 3x or so a month. She loves it and eats a whole 6oz can plain.

    • be a parent

      You’re the parent. Part of being a parent is making decisions for your children that they may not like or understand. I think it’s a little funny that what you get out of this article is that you may have to refuse your child the tuna she loves. I can only imagine what else little princess is allowed to do/have simply because she wants it.

      • Jaclyn Liquori

        And I find it funny that you make an assumption of my parenting based on one comment on one blog.

        • Salamancer

          Way to be defensive.

      • Elisabeth

        We’re all doing the best we can with the information we have. Just keeping up with this blog is a great first step. Let’s keep it positive, support and lift each other up!

    • http://www.fooducate.com/ Fooducate

      try introducing sardines.

      • Jaclyn Liquori

        None of us are a fan. I’ll just start buying the single serving cans, that way she can still have it when she asks, but she’s still eating less.
        I might try some canned salmon also since she likes that fish quite a bit.
        Do you know if the texture is very different from fresh?

    • Jen Guernsey

      There are some yummy canned and prepackaged salmons…maybe that will do the trick. Salmon is apparently relatively low in mercury. For some helpful data, try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_in_fish.

  • Elisabeth

    I was just looking at sardines at the grocery store yesterday and thinking that I really don’t have any great way to prepare or eat them. I often see them recommended as an alternative to tuna but they’re such a strong tasting and smelling fish. Does fooducate have suggestions or recipes?

    • Sidekickk

      Put mashed avocado on toast and top it with sardines! Alton Brown has a great recipe

      • Elisabeth

        Oh! Good idea-I’ll try that. I love avocados!

  • Noah

    I usually eat Starkist Light Tuna in Water about 3 -5 times a week!! Should i be scared? I am a 24 year old male and very active (if that makes a difference)

    • Morticia

      According to all this super scary tuna misinformation here at fooducate you should be dead by now Noah. Maybe tuna isn’t as poisonous as professional scare merchants want us to think? If you are worried you might want to pre-pay funeral expenses and pick out a real nice casket for yourself. That saves your loved ones so much trouble getting you in the ground and all. Over the years a lot of people who have eaten tuna have died you know.

  • carol

    Unfortunately, canned tuna, especially the light (vs. white) varieties have much less omega-3 fats. Most of what little fat they do have is cooked off during processing (canned fish is overcooked for your safety, but results in loss of all fats, including omega-3s). A better choice, if you have to use canned fish, is salmon, which has 5x the omega 3 (similar to the higher-mercury tunas)… at least 1000 mg per 3oz serving, vs. 200 mg in canned light tuna. Generally, if you want omega-3s you need to pick a fatty fish.

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  • mfp142

    FOODUCATE: I would love to see an update on this story for 2014. My kids LOVE all seafood and the canned AND fresh seems adulterated, including all the “farmed” fresh salmon. This is a huge story…would love to see you guys manhandle it (lol).