The good news is that eating fish is good for us. The bad news is that eating fish can be very bad for us. The bottom line is the benefits outweigh the risks.
In a study published Wednesday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis examines in depth the benefits and risks of fish consumption.
The guidance is welcome: According to a new survey for the Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy at the University of Maryland, almost 31 percent of the general public is concerned about amounts of mercury in fish and shellfish.
About one-third of Americans responsible for children's meals have reduced the amount of seafood they are feeding them. As a consequence, fish consumption has declined.
Looking specifically at the danger of stroke, nine Harvard Center for Risk Analysis experts with impressive credentials concluded that "any fish consumption confers substantial relative risk reduction compared to no fish consumption, with the possibility that additional consumption confers incremental benefits." Which is the specialists' way of saying the benefits far outweigh the risks.
As to coronary heart disease, professional opinion contends that "consuming small quantities of fish is associated with a 17 percent reduction in CHD mortality risk, with each additional serving per week associated with a further reduction in this risk of 3.9 per week."
Where a risk tradeoff does emerge is in the "brain food" aspect of eating fish, though the conclusions appear to have more to do with math than with nutrition.
One study of pregnant mothers agreed that while the effects of mercury exposure to babes in the womb were "not noticeable in an individual, subclinical effects can be large when summed over the population."
A second study examined the benefits of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on cognitive development. Although small in impact on the individual, as in the mercury study it concluded that they nonetheless had a positive impact across the board.
Basically, what they are trying to say is, on balance, eat fish -- it does you more good than harm.
Which any humble citizen of countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin, the Korean Strait, the Sea of Japan or the South China Sea would have told you in a nanosecond.
Here is a simple recipe to start you off.
Wild Salmon or Sea Bass Baked in Salt
-- Preheat oven to 400F.
-- Stuff 1 lemon, scrubbed and thinly sliced, inside the cavity of a 4-pound scaled and cleaned fish.
-- Spread 2 pounds of preserving or kosher salt over the bottom of a roasting pan, lay the fish on top and cover with 2 more pounds.
-- Turn 6 ounces of flour into a paste the consistency of half-and-half cream with water. Drizzle it all over the salt, dispersing it as widely as possible to cover.
-- Bake fish for 20 minutes. Let rest for five, then crack open the salt crust and carefully remove it all. Lay fish on a dish and remove its skin.
-- Serve drizzled with good extra-virgin olive oil and wedges of lemon.
"Because fish consumption confers both benefits and risks," writes Joshua T. Cohen of the Harvard School of Public Health, "the advisories issued by the U.S. federal government raise the possibility of a classic risk-risk trade-off: by avoiding one risk ... consumers who follow these advisories may be incurring another. ... Likewise, individuals who increase their consumption of fish because of this food's nutritional benefits may incur risks associated with (mercury) exposure."