The former food agency AFSSA, which recently merged with the occupational health agency Environmental and Occupational Health Safety to become ANSES, was asked to reconsider advice on eating fish in the light of recent research on the levels of omega-3 in different fish species and the levels of methylmercury and PCBs, which can have long term detrimental health effects.
After assessing the evidence, it has now advised that consumers eat fish twice a week, and that one eating occasion be a fish rich in omega-3 fatty acid and the other be a lean fish. Sources of fish – such as farmed, wild, and origin – should also be varied, it says; and fish which are known to accumulate a lot of PCBs, such as eel, barbel, bream, carp and catfish, should be eaten no more than once a week.
The new recommendations apply to adults and children over 10. It is suggested that younger children, whose developing nervous systems are susceptible to damage by contaminants, obtain omega-3 from species such as goatfish, anchovies or pilchard.
A role for functional foods?
The agency did not mention omega-3 containing functional foods for supplements in its consumer advice. Many suppliers of long-chain omega-3 (DHA and EPA) ingredients have strict controls on contaminant levels in their products, and members of Global Organisation for EPA and DHA (GOED) agree to adhere to a monograph on the quality of their products.
However in previous consumer guidance on dietary supplements, AFSSA has said that nutritional deficiencies are very rare in the general population, but that some groups, such as pregnant women and the elderly, could benefit from supplements or enriched foods. In these cases, however, the requirement should be seen as medical. It says that for the vast majority of the population, a balanced diet is enough to provide all nutrients necessary for health.
While the French guidance does advise varying the source of fish consumed, this is related to varying contamination risk rather than environmental concerns over fish stocks.
In the UK, on the other hand, the Food Standards Agency was widely commended last year after it included environmental considerations in its advice on fish consumption. It recommends that consumers seek out fish bearing eco-labels like the Marine Stewardship Council, try fish from different sources, read labels and be adventurous by trying different kinds of fish.
What’s rich omega-3?
ANSES has divided fish into three categories according to their omega-3 content.
Fish most eaten by the French with the highest omega-3 levels of 3g per 100g are salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring and smoke trout.
Medium species with 1.4g/100g include red mullet, anchovies, pilchard, sea bass, trout, sea bream, turbot, smelt, pike and halibut.
Lean fish, with 0.3g per 100g, include canned tuna, Pollock, cod, whiting, sole, ling, ray, hake, monk fish, plaice and dab.
AFSSA’s opinion on which the new ANSES advice is based is available in French at http://www.afssa.fr/Documents/NUT2008sa0123.pdf