Dr. Robert Cook - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Robert Cook

Is Mackerel Bad For You?



Short answer

Eating mackerel can be beneficial due to its high content of omega-3s, lean protein, and essential nutrients. However, certain types, such as king mackerel, contain high mercury levels and should be avoided by vulnerable groups. Diverse seafood choices and adherence to FDA and EPA recommendations can mitigate mercury and pollutant risks. Atlantic mackerel is a healthier choice when consumed in recommended amounts.



Recommended Alternative

Long answer

Mercury Levels in Mackerel and Health Implications

Fish is an excellent source of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital for cardiovascular and brain health. Mackerel, in particular, is often lauded for its high omega-3 content. However, concerns about mercury contamination in fish have caused many consumers to question the safety of including mackerel in their diets. In this sub-section, we delve into the mercury content in mackerel and its potential health implications.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that can be toxic to humans. It is released into the environment through industrial processes like burning coal and can accumulate in streams and oceans. Fish absorb mercury from the water they swim in and the organisms they eat. Over time, mercury can build up in their bodies, a phenomenon known as bioaccumulation.

Mackerel, being a predatory fish, can have varying levels of mercury. The concentration of mercury in fish often depends on its lifespan, size, and position in the food chain. Since mackerel species like king mackerel are larger and live longer, they tend to accumulate more mercury than smaller, short-lived species like Atlantic mackerel.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have categorized fish into categories based upon their mercury levels to assist consumers in making safer seafood choices:

  • "Best Choices" (eat two to three servings a week)
  • "Good Choices" (eat one serving a week)
  • "Choices to Avoid" (highest mercury levels)

According to the FDA, Atlantic mackerel is categorized under "Best Choices," whereas king mackerel is listed under "Choices to Avoid" for women who are or might become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children due to its high mercury content.

Consuming high levels of mercury can have serious health implications, particularly for young children and fetuses, whose developing nervous systems are very sensitive to the effects of mercury. In adults, high mercury exposure can impair neurological function, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Tingling or numbness in the hands and feet
  • Loss of coordination
  • Visual and hearing disturbances
  • Impaired speech, hearing, and walking
  • Muscle weakness

It is important to note that moderate consumption of fish with lower mercury levels, like Atlantic mackerel, is associated with reduced risk of heart disease and is an essential part of a balanced diet. A report from the American Heart Association published in Circulation highlights the health benefits of consuming omega-3-rich fish at least twice a week.

For individuals who enjoy mackerel, it is crucial to select lower-mercury options and adhere to recommended serving sizes. For those with higher risk (pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and children), it's advised to consult with healthcare providers for personalized recommendations.

To minimize mercury intake while still reaping the health benefits of mackerel and other fish, diversifying seafood choices is an effective strategy. Alternating between different types of low-mercury fish can help maintain a nutritious and safer diet.

Nutritional Value of Mackerel: Omega-3s and Beyond

Mackerel stands out in the fish world as a nutrient-dense option, packed with an array of health benefits. This section explores what makes mackerel a nutritional powerhouse, focusing on its Omega-3 content and other valuable nutrients.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Mackerel is incredibly rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are crucial for maintaining heart health, normal brain function, and an anti-inflammatory response within the body. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of mackerel provides an impressive 2.6 grams of combined EPA and DHA, accounting for more than the minimum daily recommendation of 1.1 to 1.6 grams for adults as advised by health authorities.

Protein: It's also an excellent source of high-quality protein, which is essential for muscle repair, immune function, and the production of enzymes and hormones. This same serving size delivers around 20 grams of protein, contributing significantly to the daily protein requirements.

Vitamins: Mackerel boasts high levels of vitamin B-12 and niacin (vitamin B3), playing a vital role in energy metabolism and maintaining healthy skin and nerve cells. Vitamin D is another key nutrient present in mackerel, promoting bone health by aiding calcium absorption.

Minerals: This fish is not just about Omega-3s and protein; it also provides essential minerals such as selenium and iodine. Selenium acts as an antioxidant protecting your cells from damage, while iodine is crucial for thyroid function and metabolic health.

  • EPA and DHA: 2.6 grams per 100 grams
  • Protein: Approximately 20 grams per 100 grams
  • Vitamin B12: 7.0 mcg per 100 grams (about 292% of the Daily Value)
  • Niacin (Vitamin B3): 8.5 mg per 100 grams (about 53% of the Daily Value)
  • Vitamin D: 16.1 mcg per 100 grams (about 80% of the Daily Value)
  • Selenium: 36.5 mcg per 100 grams (about 66% of the Daily Value)
  • Iodine: Varies in content but generally high

Research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests that the intake of fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as mackerel, is associated with reduced rates of cardiovascular disease. Moreover, a study in Neurology indicates that dietary intake of fish like mackerel could be linked to lower levels of cognitive decline thanks to their DHA content.

However, it's essential to consider the source of your mackerel, as different environments can affect the nutritional content of the fish. For example, mackerel caught in polluted waters may have higher levels of contaminants like mercury. Opting for mackerel from cleaner waters and reputable sources is crucial for leveraging its nutritional benefits safely.

In summary, mackerel offers a wide array of nutrients that are beneficial for various aspects of health. When included as a part of a balanced diet, the macro and micronutrient profile of mackerel can contribute to overall wellness and disease prevention, providing more than just Omega-3s but a substantial combination of proteins, vitamins, and minerals. The inclusion of mackerel in the diet should be balanced with considerations of its source to minimize potential risks from environmental pollutants.

PCBs and Dioxins in Ocean Fish: Mackerel's Contamination Concerns

When discussing the safety and potential health risks of consuming mackerel, it's crucial to address the concerns surrounding pollutants such as Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins. These contaminants are industrial byproducts that can end up in our oceans and subsequently, in the fish that inhabit them. Mackerel, as an ocean fish, is not immune to these concerns.

PCBs are a group of man-made organic chemicals that were widely used in electrical equipment, surface coatings, inks, adhesives, flame-retardants, and paints. Despite the ban in the 1970s in the United States, PCBs persist in the environment due to their long half-life. Dioxins, on the other hand, are a byproduct of various industrial processes, notably the manufacturing of herbicides and paper bleaching. These compounds can linger in the environment for a long time and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals, including fish.

1. Bioaccumulation and Biomagnification:

  • Due to bioaccumulation, PCBs and dioxins can reach higher concentrations in fish than in the water they inhabit.
  • Biomagnification further increases this effect, as these toxins are passed up the food chain. Larger, predatory fish like mackerel often have higher levels of these substances than smaller fish.

2. Health Risks:

  • Exposure to high levels of PCBs and dioxins has been associated with a variety of health issues including, but not limited to, immune system suppression, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, and an increased risk of certain cancers.
  • For pregnant women, high levels of these contaminants can affect fetal development. In addition, they can be passed to infants through breastfeeding, leading to potential developmental problems.

3. Regulatory Oversight and Recommendations:

  • Food safety authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have set guidelines and advisories to help minimize exposure to PCBs and dioxins.
  • These agencies recommend varying consumption based on fish species, as some are more likely to contain higher levels of contaminants.
  • Consumers are often advised to eat a variety of fish types to avoid excessive intake of any one particular pollutant present in a single type of fish.

4. Variability in Contaminant Levels:

  • Not all mackerel carry the same risk; the level of PCBs and dioxins can differ based on a mackerel's species, age, size, diet, and the waters in which it swims.
  • Atlantic mackerel is typically lower in contaminants and is often recommended over king mackerel, which has been known to have higher pollutant levels.

It's important to note that while there are contamination concerns with mackerel, health agencies balance this against the fish's nutritional benefits, which include high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Being informed about these concerns and following consumption advice from reputable sources can help mitigate potential risks associated with PCBs and dioxins in mackerel.

Recommended Serving Sizes and Frequency for Mackerel Consumption

Mackerel is a nutrient-rich fish, lauded for its high content of omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and various vitamins and minerals. However, like all things in nutrition, moderation is key. Let's delve into the recommended serving sizes and how often you can enjoy mackerel in your diet.

The American Heart Association suggests eating two servings of fatty fish like mackerel per week. This recommendation is grounded in the goal of acquiring enough omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial for heart health. A single serving of fish is generally considered to be 3.5 ounces cooked, or about ¾ cup of flaked fish.

When it comes to mackerel, here are the specific guidelines:

  • Regular Mackerel: For adults, a serving size of approximately 3 to 4 ounces (85 to 113 grams) is recommended, enjoyed twice a week.
  • Smoked Mackerel: Since smoked mackerel can be higher in sodium, it's wise to consume smaller portions, about 2 to 3 ounces (57 to 85 grams) per serving.
  • King Mackerel: Due to its higher mercury content, King mackerel should be consumed less frequently. Pregnant women and young children should avoid it entirely, while others should limit their intake to no more than 6 ounces (170 grams) per week.

It's also important to consider the preparation of mackerel. Baking, grilling, or steaming are healthier methods that don't add extra fat or calories and can help retain most of the fish's nutritional benefits.

For certain populations, recommended servings may vary. For instance:

  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women should aim for 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of seafood per week, from choices that are lower in mercury.
  • Children should consume fish once or twice a week, starting at age 2, but in age-appropriate serving sizes. As a rule of thumb, serve 1 ounce at age 2 and increase the portion by an ounce for each additional year of age.

Overall, the key to mackerel consumption is balance and awareness of the type of mackerel you're eating. By following the recommended serving sizes and frequency, you can incorporate this flavorful and nutritious fish into your diet while minimizing any potential risks associated with contaminants like mercury.

To ensure the advice you follow is the most current and takes into account your personal health circumstances, it's wise to consult with a registered dietitian or healthcare provider. These professionals can provide personalized recommendations based on the latest dietary guidelines and your health status.

Sustainability of Mackerel Fishing and Environmental Impact

Fish consumption has long been associated with various health benefits, but the sustainability of fishing practices is a growing concern for consumers who wish to make environmentally responsible choices. Mackerel is a popular fish known for its rich omega-3 fatty acid content; however, the sustainability of mackerel fishing hinges on several factors that can have profound impacts on marine ecosystems.

Assessment of Mackerel Stocks

The sustainability of any fish species is heavily dependent on the status of its stocks. Overfishing can lead to dwindling populations, which not only affects the food chain but also the long-term viability of fisheries. According to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), certain mackerel stocks have experienced overfishing, prompting them to suspend certification for fisheries that were not managed in line with sustainability practices. Conversely, MSC has also certified sustainable mackerel fisheries where stocks are robust and fishing practices meet their strict standards.

Fishing Methods

The environmental impact of fishing for mackerel also depends on the methods employed. Common mackerel fishing techniques include purse seining, trawling, and longlining. Each method has its environmental concerns, such as bycatch (the unintentional capture of non-target species), habitat destruction, and the carbon footprint of the fishing operation. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that purse seining, when poorly managed, can lead to significant bycatch, which is detrimental to the ecosystem.

Eco-Labels and Consumer Choice

Aware consumers play a critical role in promoting sustainability by choosing eco-labelled products. Labels like the MSC blue fish label provide assurance that the fish comes from a sustainable source and certified fishery. These labels are also intended to motivate fisheries to adopt sustainable practices in pursuit of certification. The MSC assesses the impact of fishing on the environment and audits fisheries to ensure they adhere to sustainable fishing practices.

Legislation and Management

Governmental and international regulations are critical to the sustainability of mackerel fishing. Quotas, seasonal closures, minimum catch sizes, and protected areas are some of the tools used to manage fish stocks sustainably. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), although primarily focused on tuna, also oversees mackerel fisheries and works to establish regulations that balance commercial interests with the need to preserve fish populations.

With the growing concern for the ocean's health, the sustainability of mackerel fishing remains a multi-faceted issue that requires ongoing attention from consumers, fishers, and regulatory bodies. By understanding the complexities involved, we can make choices that contribute to the long-term health of marine ecosystems and the species that inhabit them.

Frequently asked questions

Atlantic mackerel is recommended for children and pregnant women as it's listed under the FDA's 'Best Choices' category. This species is typically lower in mercury, making it safer for these sensitive groups. It is advised that pregnant women and children avoid King mackerel due to its higher mercury levels.

Yes, mackerel can be a part of a weight management diet due to its high protein content, which can promote satiety and help regulate appetite. Being rich in healthy fats also means it provides sustained energy. However, portion control and preparation methods should be considered to avoid excess calorie intake.

Consumers can look for eco-labels like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) blue fish label to identify sustainably sourced mackerel. Additionally, researching the source and fishing methods or purchasing from reputable suppliers committed to sustainable practices can also help ensure the mackerel is sustainably sourced.

Mackerel is an exceptionally rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, which support heart and brain health. It also provides a substantial amount of high-quality protein and essential nutrients like vitamin B12, niacin, vitamin D, selenium, and iodine. Compared to many other fish, mackerel offers a higher concentration of these nutrients, making it an excellent choice for a nutrient-dense diet.

Ask a question about Mackerel and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • tingling or numbness in hands and feet
  • loss of coordination
  • visual and hearing disturbances
  • impaired speech, hearing, and walking
  • muscle weakness

Possible long-term side effects

  • immune system suppression
  • reproductive disorders
  • endocrine disruption
  • increased risk of certain cancers
  • developmental problems in infants and fetuses
  • cognitive decline

Ingredients to be aware of


  • reduced risk of heart disease
  • essential for muscle repair
  • immune function
  • production of enzymes and hormones
  • high levels of vitamin b-12, niacin, vitamin d
  • contains selenium and iodine
  • reduced rates of cardiovascular disease

Healthier alternatives

  • atlantic mackerel
  • other low-mercury fish species
  • diverse seafood choices

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Wild Planet Wild Mackerel

  • Rich in Omega-3
  • Organic olive oil
  • Skinless & Boneless
  • Convenient tinned fish
  • High-protein snack
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 01-11-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 01-11-2024

Random Page

Check These Out!