Feeding kids fish seems like a high-wire balancing act. On the one hand, it’s healthy as hell, offering quality proteins and fats in a lean (and tasty) package. On the other hand, it may be brimming of mercury, heavy metals or come with a side of foodborne illness. What’s a parent to do?
In short, relax and feed the kids fish. “I don’t think people should be as scared of fish as they are,” says Emily Oken, a professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School. Oken was one of several scientists who assessed the risks and benefits of children eating fish and published the results in a 2019 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Their recommendation: fish should be part of a child’s healthy diet, period.
Fish is full of protein but, unlike many other types of meat, it’s low in cholesterol-raising saturated fat. It also packs in a lot of omega-3, an unsaturated fat that helps the eyes and brain development and in the long term can protect against heart disease and cancer. Other nutrients in fish include iron, iodine, and vitamin D — all great for kids. Some studies have even suggested that feeding kids fish can protect them from developing food allergies and asthma later on.
So what about all that bad stuff with the heavy metals and parasites? Parents just need to be a bit picky. The upsides outweigh the risks, as long as parents take a little care with their choice of fish for the kids.
Fish Rule #1: Go Lower on the Food Chain
Little fish like anchovies absorb harmful chemicals and store them in their fatty tissues. When bigger fish, like sharks, eat the anchovies, those chemicals are transferred to the sharks’ flesh. The chemicals pile into higher and higher portions the higher up the food chain you look until those at the top — like polar bears and people — take on the biggest chemical load.
To choose fish with the lowest quantity of these chemicals, parents avoid large predator fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and bigeye tuna.
Fish Rule #2: Choose Fish With Less Mercury
While PCBs and dioxins can be found in many animal products, mercury is mostly found in fish — and it’s on the rise. Mercury is released into the air from volcanic explosions, forest fires, and when people burn coal. It settles from the air into water where microorganisms convert it into methylmercury, which is harmful to humans. Too much methylmercury in children’s diets has been linked to problems with memory, language, and visual-motor skills.
Experts recommend eating fish despite the increasing risk of mercury. “People who eat more seafood have more exposure to mercury, but they also in general have better health outcomes” Oken says.
The key is to choose fish with the least amount of mercury in it. Sardines, herring, cod, and tilapia, and shellfish like crab and oysters are all good choices, according to the FDA. When choosing a type of tuna, Oken says that canned chunk light tends to have less mercury than albacore white or large steak tunas.
Fish Rule #3: Mix It Up
When it comes to nutrition for kids, a diversity of options can help get them all the nutrients they need. The same goes when feeding kids fish.
Serving different types of fish at different meals can help kids gain all the health benefits while cutting back on the risk that they will be overexposed to any one contaminant. For instance, rather than sticking to tuna at every lunch, substitute salmon or white fish sometimes.
There’s some evidence that the way you prepare fish can affect the amount of contaminants you eat as well. Since some contaminants are stored in the fat, removing the skin and the fat just underneath the skin and baking or broiling the fish may help. But any way you can prepare the fish so your child will eat it should be safe, Oken says, as long as you’re mixing in different types.
Fish Rule #4: Sushi for Kids? Maybe Not
Tiny parasites that hitch a ride on food can cause food poisoning in anyone who eats it. This is one reason that people fear sushi — since it’s raw, it’s an especially comfortable host for these parasites.
Since sushi fish isn’t cooked, sushi chefs have to find some other way to kill the parasites. They usually do this by freezing the fish ahead of time. This freezing method is recommended by the FDA for preparing any type of raw seafood. As long as parents choose high-end sushi restaurants, their dinner has probably been prepared so that it is safe for kids, according to Oken. Still, the FDA recommends that children avoid eating raw seafood; parents who want to play it extra safe should only feed children seafood that has been cooked.
Fish Rule #5: Watch Out for Seafood Fraud
When shopping for seafood, you don’t always get what you pay for. That was the conclusion of a study that ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana carried out in 2018. They tested hundreds of fish in restaurants and stores around the country and found that a fifth of them were mislabeled. This means many parents may not always know what type of fish they are feeding their kids. “Oceana found fish that children are advised to avoid sold as safer alternatives,” says Beth Lowell, Oceana’s Deputy Vice President for U.S. Campaigns, “including king mackerel sold as grouper and tilefish sold as red snapper and halibut.”
Lowell suggests that parents ask more questions when they buy fish. Ask what species it is and how it was caught. Buy whole fish, rather than fillets, because they’re easier to identify. The study suggests that shopping at larger chain stores may help, because fish in these stores were less likely to be mislabeled than fish in smaller stores and restaurants. Most of all, parents should keep their antennas up for anything that seems ‘fishy’ in the wrong way. “If the price is too good to be true, it probably is,” Lowell says.
Fish Rule #6: Local Isn’t Always Best
For parents who buy locally sourced fish, or who catch fish themselves, it’s a good idea to check whether there are any regional advisories warning of contaminants or risks. The Environmental Protection Agency maintains a list of resources for finding fish advisories around the nation. If your region is on there, skip it.