It seems funny now that 30 years ago, sushi was still something of a trendy novelty only embraced by rich girls and health nuts (best immortalized by the lunch scene in The Breakfast Club). Today, it would be difficult to imagine a supermarket or mid-sized town in America without a single sign of maki. Yet despite its ubiquitousness, women with a bun in the oven have been told for decades to avoid eating sushi by family doctors, pregnancy experts, and even the Google result kingdom of self-diagnosed horrors, WebMD. (It should be noted, however, that sushi is commonly consumed during pregnancy in Japan, and these fears have been focused almost exclusively in the US.)
The main arguments cited for pregnancy-long abstinence are the high levels of mercury in some types of seafood and the increased risk of exposure to bacteria that could result in severe food poisoning (and potential complications from the antibiotics used to treat it). Food poisoning concerns also swirl around soft cheeses and other raw meats and vegetables, but the nervousness surrounding mercury levels is particularly tied to sushi and raw fish. Even the US Environmental Protection Agency warns that "Methylmercury exposure in the womb, which can result from a mother's consumption of fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury, can adversely affect a baby's growing brain and nervous system," including "impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills."
But a new study published yesterday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition might assuage these persistent, and perhaps overinflated, concerns. The results of the three-decade-long research project, conducted by the University of Rochester's department of Public Health Sciences, suggest that pregnant women can eat a hell of a lot more fish before totally turning their babies' brains into sludge. The study followed more than 1,200 mother-child pairs in the Seychelles islands from pregnancy until toddler age and found no developmental issues in children born to women who were eating an average of 12 fish-based meals per week—a proportion of consumption much higher than that of the typical American woman.
Isn't mercury bad for us no matter what? Yes, but the researchers hypothesize that the health benefits offered by eating fish—such as omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to be anti-inflammatory and great for brain function and language development—outweigh the possible detriment associated with mercury exposure.
So to be pretty clear, Edwin van Wijngaarden, PhD, co-author of the study, says in a press release that "These findings show no overall association between prenatal exposure to mercury through fish consumption and neurodevelopmental outcomes."
In June, the Food and Drug Administration changed its recommendation for pregnant women from advising very limited consumption of fish (twice a week or less) to a minimum of two or three servings per week of fish known to be low in mercury, such as shrimp, salmon, and pollock.
If you've been lying on your couch massaging your belly and dreaming of California rolls, feel free to game on. But you may not want to get them from the grody sushi spot down the block—food poisoning still has no mercy.