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Tuna Mercury Levels in Kids' Diets

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Updated on Jul 16, 2013

Is your child eating too much tuna fish? According to a recent report done by the Mercury Policy Project (MPP), the answer is probably yes. The report found that consuming albacore tuna just once a week can actually cause a child’s exposure to exceed the “reference dose” established as safe by the U.S. government.

The report’s author Edward Groth, Ph.D., says parents can do a lot to help lower their kids’ mercury levels. If you’ve got a tuna-lover on your hands, take a look at these tips:

Don’t downplay the risk

It’s easy to assume that if you ate tuna all the time as a kid, it must be safe for your children as well. But don’t be so sure. “Research done over the past decade or so has now shown, beyond much doubt, that there are real adverse effects of the mercury in tuna and other fish, at levels of intake far lower than was known even 10 years ago,” Groth says. “Science has advanced, and we now know that what was once considered harmless actually poses a significant risk.”

Choose your fish wisely

Keep your kid away from high-mercury fish, such as swordfish, shark and albacore tuna, but don’t avoid fish completely. Stick with fish that are low in mercury, such as shrimp, salmon, scallops, tilapia, oysters, clams, mussels, catfish, sole, flounder and pollock. The good news? Most fish sticks—a popular kids’ food—are made from pollock and other low-mercury fish.

How much is too much?

Does this mean that kids can’t eat any tuna, ever? Not quite. It just means that parents should take care not to overdo it, and that they should choose light tuna over albacore. Groth says that children who weigh less than 45 pounds can consume up to three ounces of light tuna each month—approximately the amount in one sandwich. Children who are over 45 pounds can have three ounces every two weeks.

Don’t stress over Omega-3s

Some parents believe the Omega-3 benefits of tuna outweigh the risks from mercury, Groth says, but it’s possible to get Omega-3 from fish without all the mercury. Most salmon has more than 10 times the Omega-3s as light tuna but less than a fifth of the mercury levels. Many other types of fish have a ratio that is three to 50 times better than the best kind of tuna.

Get creative with lunch

Peanut butter sandwiches are banned in many schools because of allergies, and tuna fish seems like the obvious runner up. But there are plenty of protein-rich alternatives to peanut butter and tuna fish. Try making sandwiches from lean meats, canned chicken, canned salmon, egg salad or veggie burgers. If none of these tempt your child’s palate, try thinking outside of the box with a lunch of salad with feta cheese and chickpeas, leftover chicken drumsticks, black bean quesadillas or whole grain noodles with pesto sauce.

The bottom line? Cut the albacore tuna, and limit the light tuna. Prepare other healthy, delicious foods that will make your kid forget tuna. “Kids eat what their parents teach them to like,” Groth says.

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