Opinion

FoodPolitik: iPhones and Phonies

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company

It’s common knowledge that there are minuscule amounts of mercury in fish. But it’s a fundamental rule of toxicology that the dose makes the poison. After all, drinking too much water can kill you.

So the bottom line is, how much fish is safe to eat? There’s a lot of noise surrounding this question, and it depends on who you ask. But thankfully, there’s now an app for that.

The HowMuchFish.com app is a handy seafood calculator that uses government data. And it turns out that you can practically eat a school of many kinds of fish and not have to be concerned about any potential harm.

A 150-pound person can eat 15 pounds of calamari, 7.5 pounds of salmon, or 28 cans of light tuna a week without worry. Meanwhile, a single can of tuna provides 248 percent of the body’s daily need of selenium, 87 percent of the daily protein need, and a 92 percent of the daily need for omega-3s.

We’ve all heard of the importance of omega-3s for heart health. But fish also provides benefits for developing fetuses. Scientists reported in the respected journal The Lancet in 2007 that mothers who consumed the most fish had children who did the best on IQ tests, and vice versa. (That’s why fish is known as “brain food.”) They concluded: “[A]dvice to limit seafood consumption could actually be detrimental.”

And just as importantly, there are absolutely zero cases of mercury poisoning due to commercially bought seafood in the medical literature. That is, unless you count Entourage star and drama queen Jeremy Piven, who backed out of a Broadway show in late 2008 claiming his blood mercury levels were several times too high after he followed a high-sushi diet.

As you might expect, Hollywood stars can’t be relied upon for credible medical advice. (Remember, Piven just played a doctor in Heat.) When “Good Morning America” had Piven on to tell his sob story, it also quoted a real expert, the director of toxicology at the UC Irvine Medical Center, who said: “It is very easy to have mercury levels 5-6 times the upper limit of normal by eating lots of fish, and this does not result in any objective evidence of mercury poisoning.”

Unfortunately, one Hollywood hack isn’t the only one pushing the “deadly fish” meme. Greenpeace is one of the more notorious offenders, publishing an “advisory” warning young children and women of childbearing age not to eat tuna and other fish.

These scare tactics have a profoundly negative effect on children from low-income families. Canned tuna is one of the cheapest sources of omega-3s, yet 4.4 million U.S. households earning $30,000 or less completely eliminated their purchases of canned tuna between 2000 and 2006. About 260,000 children were born in these households during that time. They missed out on a lot of omega-3-rich brain food.

Greenpeace says kids should avoid tuna. But legitimate science points in the other direction.

Don’t take my word for why you shouldn’t trust Greenpeace advisories. Just ask Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore.

Moore left Greenpeace and later decried the group as “Anti-human”; “anti-technology and anti-science”; “pro-anarchy”; “anti-free-enterprise”; “basically anti-civilization”; and “a band of scientific illiterates who use Gestapo tactics.”

That last point is especially pertinent — Greenpeace recently destroyed a crop experiment in Australia because it didn’t like the use of biotechnology. (Thankfully, the police raided Greenpeace’s Sydney office soon after.)

So, no, Greenpeace isn’t looking out for pregnant mothers and children as much as it’s looking out for its own agenda. Greenpeace uses fish as an excuse to attack the coal industry, claiming that the mercury in fish is due to industrial pollution. (It might surprise you to learn that much of the mercury is actually naturally occurring, coming from sources such as underwater volcanoes.)

On one side of the debate, you have respected scientists pointing out that pregnant women should be eating more fish and that the benefits far outweigh the miniscule risk.

And on the other side, there are environmentalists and a Hollywood clown telling fishy tales. Guess which side should be eating more brain food?

So head on over to HowMuchFish and download the iPhone app. (It’s free.) You won’t be anti-civilization like Greenpeace if you don’t, but you will miss out on a useful tool (and conversation topic) the next time fish is on the menu.

Rick Berman is president of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit www.BermanCo.com.