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Date of Issue: March 04, 2009


Ah, a toxic web we could - or not - weave for dinner

A local wag used to wax eloquent on what to eat or not, depending on which advisory was du jour.

Drink wine! It’s good for your heart!

Don’t drink wine! It’s bad for your liver!

Eat meat! Meat protein is good to reduce your weight!

Don’t eat meat! Meat protein is bad for your arteries!

Don’t pay any attention to advisories! They just make you gasp!

Balance seems to be the key to good health. Here’s the first and likely the last Sandscript advisory on good, healthy living: Don’t eat or drink too much of any one thing, exercise at will, avoid doing bad things to your body, and your body will thank you by keeping doing what’s it’s supposed to be doing by going on.

With that last bit of non-literary advice in mind, here are some missives to absorb from the experts on food and drugs.

Mercury

Mercury is more than just that pretty liquid metal found in thermometers. Through atmospheric deposition, mercury ends up in the oceans of the world. The heavy metal is found in miniscule parts of little fish. Bigger fish eat the little fish, accruing more mercury in their systems. Bigger big fish eat moderately big fish, and so on. At the top of the food chain, we eat the biggest of the big fish and reap the bounty of mercury, which is a poison that can cause serious human health problems.

The flip side of all the mercury and fish matter is that our finny friends also contain omega-3 fatty acids, which is the good-stuff according to the latest health notices.

Eat fish = good. Eat fish = mercury, which = bad.

So how much is too much mercury?

Hold on for some fed-speak.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits. However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. For most people, the risk from mercury resulting from eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system.”

So the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises us to not eat “shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish” because of high mercury levels found in the flesh of those fish.

“Do eat up to 12 ounces of fish and shellfish per week that is lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. Another commonly eaten fish, albacore (‘white’) tuna, has more mercury than canned light tuna,” according to the FDA/EPA. “So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces of albacore tuna per week.”

Oh, and the feds say to “check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week.”

Let’s hope that you, too, have reached the “huh?” zone by all that advise.

To reiterate Sandscript food advice: Don’t eat or drink too much of any one thing to maintain a healthy diet.

New fish scare

Ciguatera is one of those nasty fish diseases that is apparently striking more and more seafood consumers.

Not here, of course. Restaurant owners, fish house operators and charter captains in our region have reported no cases of any disease from their products, nor have any local consumers. 

And ciguatera is rarely fatal, although those who come down with it often wish for death, what with the vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and extremity tingling. Think massive food poisoning here for the unfortunate few who succumb to the mysterious ailment.

Ciguatera can be found in a bunch of local fish — barracuda, grouper, kingfish, jacks, snapper, hogfish and some Spanish mackerel — but has not been reported anywhere close to Anna Maria Island.

And the poisoning is quickly cured if quickly identified.

The problem with the toxin is that most sufferers figure they’ve come down with food poisoning and expect it to go away given a few miserable days.

Sometimes that’s true. Unfortunately for some folks living in northern Gulf of Mexico states, it may take months before ciguatera says sayonara.

According to MSNBC reports, a Texas woman had some broiled grouper at a fish restaurant last summer. It was great. Then something happened. She’s just now feeling better, and only after what was pretty much a Google-based self-diagnosis of her ailment.

Ciguatera “afflicts at least 50,000 people a year worldwide — and the real number may be 100 times that many,” according to news reports. “While ciguatera fish poisoning is largely unknown in most of the United States, several recent cases have attracted growing concern. They hope a greater awareness will help alert consumers and doctors and improve treatment of the incurable illness caused by coral algae toxins that accumulate in large tropical reef fish.”

Remember that “large tropical reef fish” translates into grouper and snapper and amberjack in our waters.

“Ciguatera fish poisoning often is missed, even though it is the most common seafood-toxin illness reported in the world, said Richard Weisman, a toxicologist and director of the Florida Poison Information Center. ‘If you go to the Caribbean Islands, you can’t find anybody who hasn’t had it,’” MSNBC reports.

The news service added that “several unspecified outbreaks of ciguatera linked to grouper and amberjack compelled the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to expand guidelines warning about the risk of ciguatera in fish caught in the northern Gulf of Mexico last year.”

Ciguatera poisoning is something of a stealth illness, according to a Miami neuropsychologist — whatever that is — who said, “You can’t tell from the way it looks. You can’t tell from the way it tastes. There’s nothing you can do in terms of storage. There’s nothing you can do in terms of cooking.”

Data collection for the disease is all over the spectrum. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have honed their estimates of ciguatera poisoning, based on actual number of 16 outbreaks affecting 73 people in 2006, to an estimate of 2 percent to 10 percent of those affected actually logging a report.

As with all things scientific and unexplained, more studies are under way.

Not unexplained is the cause of the disease, which is a red tide-like toxin. Why the disease is becoming more prevalent is, of course, postulated to have something to do with climate change and global warming.

“Some scientists believe that ciguatera is moving north as ocean waters warm,” MSNBC reports, “and that increased numbers of hurricanes and tropical storms may cause disturbances in coral reefs that make them more hospitable to the toxic algae.”

Mercury in tuna fish. Disease in grouper sandwiches.

Makes you want to hide under the covers and eat peanut butter sandwiches, doesn’t it?

Oops.

Sandscript factoid

All the fish falderal about what’s safe to eat and what’s not prompts two words:

Eat mullet.

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