Hooked on tuna? Go Canadian!

Tuna gets a bad rap- Canadian tuna, that is.

Warnings abound about the risks of eating tuna due to the potential consequences of  ingesting mercury.  Even Health Canada  offers advice on the types of fish that should be eaten less often and tuna is at the top of the list.  Yet somehow Canadian tuna from British Columbia,  which is not a culprit as its mercury counts are extremely low, never gets singled out by the federal government as a smart choice.

First a little about mercury.  It’s a natural substance but due to worldwide  contamination of our ecosystems, it has become  a global problem.  One form, called methylmercury, is of particular concern for pregnant and breastfeeding women and small children.  It’s found in particularly high levels in certain fish and seafood – large fish that prey on much smaller fish.  Over time, the mercury accumulates. Fresh or frozen tuna, shark, swordfish, marlin, orange roughy and escolar – a.k.a. butterfish–  along with canned white albacore tuna are among the offenders.

The mercury exposure can have major effects on neurological development including the brain of the fetus  and young children.  Decreased intelligence,  ability to learn, attention span and language development  are among the possible consequences of  exposure to high levels of methylmercury  for these population groups.

But for the rest of the population, mercury exposure is not usually a problem. Yet the hype surrounding mercury has led to  fear of fish – not just those with high mercury levels.  Many people, especially pregnant women,  steer clear of all fish and seafood – foods that  provide a range of nutrients with disease-fighting power.  The omega-3 fats contained offer an assortment of health perks right through the life cycle including benefits for neurological development of both babies and young children.

Researchers have found that for pregnant women, the benefits of eating omega-3 –rich fish outweighs the risk of mercury exposure – if they limit their mercury-rich choices.
So back to tuna’s bad rap.  Health Canada suggests limits for Canadians with lower amounts for women who are or may become pregnant and children. Both fresh and frozen tuna along with canned white albacore tuna are included.

But nowhere on this federal government’s website does it mention that tuna from British Columbia is not a  mercury concern and need not be limited.

For years, the Canadian tuna industry has struggled with how to get the word out that it shouldn’t be lumped together with other tuna.  Unlike tuna from other parts of the world, tuna from the north Pacific are small which results in very little mercury accumulation  (U.S North Pacific tuna is also low in mercury).

Finally, though, there is some good news to report. After reviewing  data collected over 10 years by the Canadian Albacore Tuna industry,  Health Link BC which provides health information for those who live in British Columbia, has decided it’s time to set the record straight.

In the website’s advice about mercury, in October Health Link BC added the following:
Note: Canadian albacore tuna (fresh, frozen and canned) has been well tested for mercury and is considered safe to eat. The mercury level in these fish is lower than other albacore tunas. To find Canadian albacore tuna, look for the statement “Product of Canada” on the label.

It’s about time. But it’s not enough as this industry deserves better.  Their fishing methods have led to many accolades.  Their sustainable fishing methods have been recognized by a number of organizations including the Seafood Watch Program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Vancouver’s Ocean Wise Program.

BC tuna is available across Canada. You can order frozen loins or canned white albacore tuna online and also find the canned varieties in health food stores across the country.

But consumer demand is needed to get more widespread distribution. Asking for B.C. albacore tuna in stores is a way to start.

It is indeed a very delicious way to meet your omega-3 quotas.

Have you avoided any fish due to fears of mercury contamination? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Categories: Children's Health, Food Safety, Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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4 Comments on “Hooked on tuna? Go Canadian!”

  1. Barbara Martyn
    November 8, 2013 at 7:13 am #

    I am thrilled to know that our Canadian tuna is much healthier than other varieties. Do you know of a supplier that would ship to Ontario?

    • November 8, 2013 at 11:21 am #

      Thanks for your comments, Barbara. It is indeed great news about Canadian tuna but it’s a shame that the tuna industry in B.C. doesn’t get more support federally in getting this news out to Canadians across the country. As for suppliers, you can look online as there are a number who will ship to Ontario. As well, Costco.ca does sell frozen tuna loins. Enjoy!

  2. Barbara Martyn
    November 21, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

    After an extensive look on-line and in supermarkets, I have found B.C. Tuna at Whole Foods in Markham Ontario for anyone looking in the Toronto area!!

  3. November 21, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

    That’s great news, Barbara! Thanks for passing this on. I will check other Whole Foods locations as well.

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