Newswise — The sooner people start eating more fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon and tuna the better. Having fallen out of favor due to past mercury warnings aimed at pregnant women, new data show that consumers are doing their bodies a disservice if they continue to avoid this food. That's among the conclusions of a panel of experts speaking here at the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting.

Americans are eating five ounces a week of fish high in healthful omega-2 fatty acids; seven ounces less than recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported Robert Collette of the National Fisheries Institute. Figures showed 14 percent of women of childbearing age eat no fish at all, a troublesome number when considering that omega-3s are known to be crucial to a developing fetus.

The known benefits of omega-3s are growing. They now include improved mental health and fetal infant development, and cancer-preventing anti-inflammatory effects, improved heart and vascular health, visual function, and respiratory function. Moreover, fresh studies from Harvard Medical School noted here suggest that increased intake of omega-3 helps sudden heart problems like heart-attacks, and also those with a longer onset time.

George Gray of the Harvard School of Public Health is about to release a study that explores the cost-benefit question of omega-3 fish and mercury.

His research team found that overall public health would decline if all consumers reduced their fish consumption by the same 17 percent that women did when the government released its report linking fatty fish to high mercury content. If consumers instead increased their same fish consumption by a whopping 50 percent there would be a marked increase in the collective life expectancy.

"Our results surprised us," said Gray. "While the numbers themselves can vary, the end result —a net gain in public health when fish consumption goes up and a net loss when it goes down—is the same every time. No question," he added.

Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, also of Harvard Medical School and who headed the heart attack study, described the issue.

"The critical point is that, even with mercury, we're getting an enormous and invaluable benefit from omega-3. Of course, we'd get even more" benefit by lowering the mercury content, he said. It's a point which has not gone unnoticed.

Among the more exciting projects in the works is taking canned light tuna and its low mercury content and an adding a boost of omega-3. IFT fish safety expert Charles Santerre of Purdue University is helping to drive the concept.

"The mercury controversy will continue. We've got to work hard to improve the good message and provide means to promote it," Santerre concluded.

The IFT Annual Meeting + Food Expo®, running now through July 20, is the world's single largest annual scientific meeting and technical exposition of its kind. Rated among the largest shows in America*, the meeting delivers comprehensive, cutting-edge research and opinion from food science-, technology-, marketing- and business-leaders.

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Founded in 1939, and with world headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, USA, the Institute of Food Technologists is a not-for-profit international scientific society with 26,000 members working in food science, technology and related professions in industry, academia and government. As the society for food science and technology, IFT brings sound science to the public discussion of food issues. For more on IFT, see

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Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo