Seafood netted some historic firsts in the nation’s new dietary guidelines.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee submitted a report in July to the secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services that recommends what Americans should include in their diets from 2020 through 2025, a task it has undertaken every five years since 1980.
“This is by far the strongest they’ve come out for seafood in all of the U.S. dietary guidelines history, and at virtually every point in the lifecycle from babies to pregnant and lactating moms to adults. I was really amazed,” said Dr. Tom Brenna, a professor of pediatrics, chemistry and nutrition at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas/Austin and at Cornell University.
Along with taking a whole life approach for the first time, Brenna said the advisers also considered nutritional requirements for children under 2 years of age.
“The general idea is that kids should be breastfed, that's the recommendation to six months of age. And starting at six months when you're introducing finger foods, solid foods, the recommendation is to include seafood right from the beginning,” he said.
Another first: The dietary panel did a deep dive into the reams of evidence proving seafood’s nutritional benefits.
“The omega 3s found in seafood are to a developing retina and brain what calcium is to bones. But it is not just the omega 3s, it is these great minerals that are in some cases rare in other foods,” Brenna explained. “The zinc and iron and selenium and iodine... and these are just not as high as they need to be in diets that are missing seafood.”
The new diet guidelines now need a stamp of approval by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture before they become policy. If passed as written, seafood would be required eating at, for example, women/infant/children’s (WIC) feeding programs and school lunches.
“If you read just the executive summary, the thing you would stick into the WIC program is seafood. It looks like the most important damn thing that women could be eating,” Brenna said.
“Twenty-five years ago, out of an abundance of caution, people were concerned about mercury. They said we don't know what the thresholds are for mercury or whether it's bad for neuro-development. It turns out after decades of research that the danger was not eating too much fish, it was eating too little fish. I could probably calculate the number of IQ points we've lost because of this policy. We've got to get people eating seafood as they used to, and we've got to make it a priority and a federal policy.”
The committee recommends eating 8 to 12 ounces of seafood weekly, particularly before, during and after pregnancy, and stresses that only 20 percent of adults and 6 percent of children meet the goal of eating seafood twice per week.
“Their report is one more piece of evidence that Americans of all ages should eat seafood more frequently,” said John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute. “As part of a healthy dietary pattern, seafood offers a lifetime of benefits from brain development among babies to heart health and a healthy weight for adults. The report even notes the link between diet-related diseases — which regular seafood consumption can help prevent — and increased susceptibility to the current global pandemic.”
The public has until Aug. 13 to comment to the USDA on the new guidelines, and competing protein producers will be lobbying for their products. Brenna urges seafood advocates to speak up.
“Frankly, I think that some of those voices seem to be missing. You have this great passion that is coming from the scientists, because we see how important it is,” Brenna said. “If the seafood industry sits by quietly, they are going to let this opportunity pass, both for the industry itself, and also for the health of all Americans. Because this is the time — the data are there, the committee has said this is important and now it has to get translated into federal policy. But it's a political process now and so the industry has to weigh in in a big way, and we have to get our senators and representatives on board.”
Deadline to comment to USDA is Aug. 13.