October 06, 2007
More Fish For Pregnant Women?

More fish for developing fetuses?

Washington, D.C. ---- Today a Maternal Nutrition Group comprised of top professors of obstetrics and doctors of nutrition from across the country, in partnership with the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB), unveiled recommendations for seafood consumption during pregnancy. The recommendations come at a time when the debate about mercury in fish and an FDA/EPA advisory have created confusion for pregnant women, causing a reduction in their fish consumption. This leads to inadequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids resulting in risks to their health and the health of their children. This inadequate intake of fish is confirmed by data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which shows that 90 percent of women are consuming less than the FDA-recommended amount of fish.

The Group recommended that women who want to become pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding should eat a minimum of 12 ounces per week of fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, and can do so safely. The Group found that eating fish is the optimal way to gain the benefits of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Seafood is the richest dietary source of DHA and EPA in Americans’ diets. The Group also recognized that selenium, an essential mineral found in certain ocean fish, accumulates and appears to protect against the toxicity from trace amounts of mercury.

This advice is controversial and disputed by some. Also see here. Currently the US Food and Drug Administration recommends a maximum of 12 ounces of low mercury fish for pregnant women. But given the enormous range of mercury concentrations found in different fish species I think their advice should have been more nuanced. What is the justification for restricting salmon consumption to 12 ounces per week for example? Salmon is one of the richest omega 3 sources (and yours truly eats it 5 times a week on average) and salmon has very little mercury in it.

Omega 3 fatty acids are likely to boost baby intelligence, reduce the incidence of auto-immune diseases, delay Alzheimer's disease, reduce risk of macular degeneration, and reduce all-cause mortality. Omega 3s also appear to reduce depression and increase brain grey matter. Also, in practice the omega 3 fatty acids in fish seem to benefit babies more than the mercury might hurt them. My take: Omega 3 fatty acids deliver so many health benefits and fish sources are in such limited supply that we need seed companies to genetically engineer into grains the enzymes for making omega 3 fatty acids. Or how about transgenic pigs that make omega 3 fatty acids?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 October 06 04:52 PM  Brain Development

Brett Bellmore said at October 6, 2007 5:38 PM:

Is there a reason not to consume Omega 3 fatty acids in the form of guaranteed mercury free supplements? Rather than taking one step backwards with every two steps forward, (Or at least risking it.) by consuming it in natural form?

Randall Parker said at October 6, 2007 5:43 PM:


Cost. The DHA in supplements extracted from algae (look for neuromins on the label) cost a couple orders of magnitude more than getting the same amount of DHA from salmon.

HellKaiserRyo said at October 6, 2007 7:54 PM:

Occasionally, I plan to eat fish (instead of alpha-linolenic acid ladened walnuts). I want cost-effective vegan sources for EPA and DHA. Maybe you should discuss the implications for vegetarian/vegan women Randall. I wonder how they would react.

HellKaiserRyo said at October 6, 2007 8:04 PM:

I mean will vegans accept this recommendation for increased consumption of fish (or fish oil).

Brett Bellmore said at October 7, 2007 5:03 AM:

Randall, you must be able to get salmon a LOT cheaper than I can, or maybe you're just looking at particularly expensive DHA supplements. When I look at this one, for instance:


It sure *looks* to be cheaper than buying salmon. Granted, the salmon probably tastes better...

James Bowery said at October 7, 2007 8:16 AM:

I supposed it might be appropriate to post the text of my proposed "O-Prize" here:

The O-Prize

A technology prize to shift oil production to algae.
By Jim Bowery
Copyright July 3, 2006
The author grants the right to copy and distribute without modification.


The O-Prize is designed to realize the great potential of oil from algae with the lowest risk over the shortest time.

The potential of algae oil is to, in stages:

1) Enhance neurological development via nutritional supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and,
2) Provide an abundant renewable source of green or environmentally friendly fuel oil.

A fixed dollar amount is withdrawn from the prize fund each month to purchase algae oil from the lowest price source(s) certified for the target market. That quantity of algae oil is then resold to the target market and the funds are added to the prize fund. When the lowest price certified sources can compete with the target market, that stage of the O-Prize has finished.

The O-Prize is designed to let algae cultivation techniques mature in two stages, building both technology and popular support for both environmentally friendly and humanitarian purposes.

Stage 1: Omega-3 and Neurological Development

Increased production of algae oil has the potential to dramatically impact the quality of life of humanity by correcting problems with neurological development.

An academic consensus is building that our natural diet is far richer in omega-3 than our agricultural practices provide, and that this has contributed to problems with neurological development, particularly during childhood.

Algae oil isn't just any vegetable oil. Algae oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the primary source of which is now fish oil.

A good overview of the current thinking by George Monbiot, published in UK Guardian, is the article "Not Enough Fish In the Sea" containing this excerpt:

"So at first sight the government's investigation into the idea of giving fish oil capsules to schoolchildren seems sensible. The food standards agency is conducting a review of the effects of omega-3s on childrens' behaviour and performance in school. Alan Johnson, the secretary of state for education, is taking an interest(13). Given the accumulating weight of evidence, it would surprising if he does not decide to go ahead. Already, companies such as St Ivel and Marks and Spencer are selling foods laced with omega-3s."

"There is only one problem: there are not enough fish. In March an article in the British Medical Journal observed that we are faced with a paradox. Health recommendations advise increased consumption of oily fish and fish oils within limits, on the grounds that intake is generally low. However, we probably do not have a sustainable supply of long chain omega 3 fats.¯(14) Our brain food is disappearing..."

"Some plants - such as flax and hemp - contain omega-3 oils, but not of the long-chain varieties our cell membranes need. Only some people can convert them, and even then slowly and inefficiently(21,22,23,24). But a few weeks ago, a Swiss company called eau+ published a press release claiming that it has been farming "a secret strain of algae called V-Pure" which produces the right kind of fatty acids. It says it's on the verge of commercialising a supplement(25). As the claims and the terrible names put me in mind of the slushiest kind of New Age therapy, I was, at first, suspicious. So I went to see Professor Stein to ask him whether it was likely to be true. He could be said to have a countervailing interest: his brother is the celebrity fish chef Rick Stein. But he happened to have met the company's founder the day before, and he was impressed. The oils produced by some species of algae, he told me, are chemically identical to those found in fish: in fact this is where the fish get from them from. "I think they're fairly optimistic about the timescale. But there is no theoretical impediment. I haven't yet seen his evidence, but I formed a very strong impression that he is an honest man."

"He had better be, and his project had better work. Otherwise the human race is destined to take a great cognitive leap backwards."

Notice where fish get their omega 3 oils:


Indeed, the aforementioned Swiss company is hardly the first to discover algae high in omega-3 oils. Commercially available cultures of Nannochloropsis contain 30% by weight of EPA, the most crucial omega-3 oil for adult, while Pavlova contains nearly 20% by weight of DHA, the most crucial omega-3 for children. There are many other options provided by nature.

A viable prize criterion would be to purchase algae oil that is thereby certified vegan (by multiple certifiers to ensure no cheating or incompetence in certification) and contains EPA+DHA totaling at least 30% of the content. This allows a range of algae species and techniques from which producers may choose in order to maximize production efficiency while still being viable for the nutraceutical market.

Fish oil with 37% omega-3 currently retails for $50/liter. The initial cost of 30% omega-3 certified vegan algae oil will almost certainly exceed the associated wholesale price of comparable fish oil -- the price at which the O-Prize fund will be replenished from resale of the purchased algae oil, but the O-Prize incentive will reward efficient producers by guaranteeing a market for the lowest cost providers.

When the learning curve progresses to the point that omega-3 algae oil price competes with fish oil, stage 1 of the O-Prize will be complete.

Stage 2: Abundant Renewable Source of Green or Environmentally Friendly Fuel Oil

There has been much discussion about the potential of algae oil to replace fuel oils using a relatively small amount of the world's desert land areas -- the most widely publicized being the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's "A Look Back at the,U.S. Department of Energy's Aquatic Species Program: Biodiesel from Algae".

The most important conclusion from that review is that the high cost of algae production remains an obstacle to competition with petroleum diesel fuel costs; the main problem being the cost of environmental control for the algae:

Single day productivities reported over the course of one year were as high as 50 grams of algae per square meter per day, a long-term target for the program. Attempts to achieve consistently high productivities were hampered by low temperature conditions encountered at the site. The desert conditions of New Mexico provided ample sunlight, but temperatures regularly reached low levels (especially at night). If such locations are to be used in the future, some form of temperature control with enclosure of the ponds may well be required.

The high cost of algae production remains an obstacle.

The cost analyses for large-scale microalgae production evolved from rather superficial analyses in the 1970s to the much more detailed and sophisticated studies conducted during the 1980s. A major conclusion from these analyses is that there is little prospect for any alternatives to the open pond designs, given the low cost requirements associated with fuel production. The factors that most influence cost are biological, and not engineering-related. These analyses point to the need for highly productive organisms capable of near-theoretical levels of conversion of sunlight to biomass. Even with aggressive assumptions about biological productivity, we project costs for biodiesel which are two times higher than current petroleum diesel fuel costs.

There are many parties making equally many claims about how they have dealt with this fundamental problem -- ranging from new strains of algae to various "photobioreactor" designs that radically increase growth rates.

None has yet demonstrated the levels of economic efficiency approaching those sought by the NREL's twenty year study.

This is similar to the situation among private orbital launch companies prior to the X-Prize -- a variety of approaches claiming they could achieve cost breakthroughs.

Thus the need for a second-stage O-Prize to recognize and reward those who are making the most real progress toward the profound potential of abundant renewable green fuel oil.

The current wholesale price for diesel fuel oil is approximately $2/gallon. This is the price at which the O-Prize is likely to be reimbursed for certified algae biodiesel purchased during the second stage of the O-Prize.

Similar to the first stage of the O-Prize, when the algae biodiesel price competes with petroleum diesel, stage 2 will of the O-Prize will be complete.

Potential Underwriters of the O-Prize

First and most important to recognize is the fact that large underwriters of prizes generally follow leaders who underwrite smaller amounts. The most important thing is to get a prize fund operational at any level. This can then generate the interest necessary to draw the attention of larger underwriters.

Obvious early underwriters are:

1) Owners of sunny desert land who stand to enjoy increases in land value if the potential of algae biodiesel is realized
2) Small philanthropic groups supporting vegan and environmental causes
3) Small contributions from individuals with an interest

Later contributors include the higher profile organizations such as:

1) the X-Prize Foundation, which has already put up a prize for hybrid power vehicles,
2) the Gates Foundation, which may be particularly interested in the first stage due to the benefits promised for childhood neurological development,
3) various government agencies.

The ultimate size of the prize awards, and monthly purchase from lowest cost providers, needs to be adjusted to drive the learning curve through the targeted market barriers: fish oil and then petroleum diesel oil.

In both cases, operation expenses are likely to be dominated by the certification processes.

Brendan Gallagher said at October 8, 2007 7:07 AM:

According to an NPR report,(http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15005507), web at a recent news conference the
Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies organization acknowledged that they received
$60,000 from the National Fisheries Institute. They argued that this was not a
conflict of interest because the money was an “educational grant” used to
present the information. This presenting of the information also included
putting the panel together and paying for their travel expenses.

Several organizations and US government agencies have agreed
that there is a conflict of interest, do not support the increased fish
recommendations and are beginning to distance themselves from the organization.

My hope is that this controversy and what appears to be an
unethical use of information is what is reported, rather than the media
grabbing onto the headline that pregnant women should eat more fish.

Randall Parker said at October 8, 2007 6:14 PM:


They decided what their position was. The people taking this position are highly credentialed. $60,000 is a piddly amount when you consider how many were behind this recommendation. The idea that that the National Fisheries Institute could by these people for a total of $60k is ludicrous.

The simpler explanation is that once these people decided on their position they approached people who'd fund some promotion of it. How does this constitute influence buying? I do not see it.

Brendan Gallagher said at October 10, 2007 7:37 AM:

The $60k, is what is presently and observably on the table. Let's put the piddly cash payment to one side for a second. Every major US Health Organization from the FDA, the National Academy of Sciences,the Department of Health and Human Services and the American Academy of Pediatrics (a member organization of the HMHB, (bet that was an awkward moment at the board meeting)), categorically refutes these findings. If you go to the HMHB web site, and look at the 'press release' on this 'study' you will find a very strongly worded disclaimer clearly absolving member organizations:

"...Any statement that is supported by the HMHB Board in no way implies that it has been endorsed by our member organizations...")

So, to recap: The government and Most major health organizations disagree, The HMHB had to issue a disclaimer that member organizations mat not agree, and they promotional expenses and travel expenses of HMHB board members were paid for by the Industry lobby that would most benefit from the release of such a study. Yup, nothing fishy here...

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