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Go Fish (Even if You’re Pregnant!)

tuna_sushi_0123My most recent leisure read is Steven Shaw’s Asian Dining Rules: Essential strategies for eating out at Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Korean, and Indian restaurants.

I love food (and culinary cultures) as much as nutrition, so this was a perfect find.

The first chapter — devoted to sushi — includes a short aside titled “Pregnant Sushi.”  I thoroughly enjoyed it and wanted to summarize the main points for you:

  • In the United States, raw fish is considered a no-no for pregnant women.  In Japan, it is considered “part of good neonatal nutrition.”  Just in case, I researched this on my own and, sure enough, the Japanese Ministry of Labor, Health, and Welfare only cautions pregnant women to eat fish high in mercury sparingly.  There is no mention of “raw fish” as a food to avoid during pregnancy.
  • Raw mollusks (especially clams and oysters) are responsible for approximately 85 percent of seafood-related foodborne illnesses.
  • “If you take raw and partly cooked shellfish out of the equation, the risk of falling ill from eating seafood is one in 2 million servings; by comparison, the risk from eating chicken is one in 25,000.”
  • Foodborne illnesses from fish are mostly caused by cross-contamination or inadequate storage conditions, not by virtue of eating a raw piece.
  • Fish served in sushi restaurants has been previously flash frozen, which kills parasites as effectively as cooking.
  • “Most of the fish likely to have parasites, like cod and whitefish, are not generally used for sushi.  Fish like tuna are not particularly susceptible to parasites because they dwell in very deep and cold waters.  Sushi restaurants typically use farmed salmon to avoid the parasite problems wild salmon have.”

The author makes a strong point when he states that “the Japanese government is fanatical about public health… you can be sure that, were there documented complications resulting from pregnant women eating sushi in Japan, there would be swift government intervention.”



  1. julie said on August 6th, 2009

    I’ve wondered about why they advise no sushi. Japanese seem to be about the healthiest people around, I think it’s just assumed that we’re too dumb to understand the difference between high mercury and low mercury fish, so they just tell us to avoid it altogether. I think pregnant women are treated like brainless incubators. If you travel to other countries, pregnant women often drink a glass of wine on occasion, while we Americans are told “no, never, very bad”. I’ve actually heard from doctors that SMALL amounts of alcohol aren’t dangerous for preggies, but they just don’t think people understand the moderation thing, so they advise none. And then you have people ready to throw pregnant women in jail for child abuse for a glass of wine.

  2. Andy Bellatti said on August 6th, 2009

    Very insightful comments, Julie. I agree that in the United States there appears to be extreme paranoia and fear in the advice given to pregnant women.

    I even see this with recommendations like “don’t even THINK about feeding your children fish until 12 months… or 2 years!” Meanwhile, if you go to Native tribes in the Amazon, children are being fed fish as young as 6 months (usually after the parent partially chews it up for them).

    I’m not advocating for parents to feed their children chewed-up fish, but rather making a point that a lot of these apparent “red alerts” are over the top.

  3. liz said on March 20th, 2010

    what about listeria risk?
    Listeria is the reason uncooked fish is not advised in Australia (although not sure if this is tested or an assumption).

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