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In Plain Sight

Pregnant and Poor? Eating Healthy Just Got Harder

Image: Cemetria Graham with newborn son Jayce ay Sheltering Grace Ministry, a home for homeless pregnant women and new mothers in Marietta, GA

Cemetria Graham with newborn son Jayce at Sheltering Grace Ministry, a home for homeless pregnant women and new mothers in Marietta, GA. Graham had to modify her diet due to new guidelines on the consumption of canned tuna while pregnant. Robin Rayne Nelson / for NBC News

Eating healthy while poor and pregnant just got harder.

Prices of fresh meat and seafood are rising, chipping away at the number of affordable protein choices available to low-income pregnant women. Even the price of peanut butter has climbed over the past four years, making it more expensive for poor mothers-to-be to get the protein they require for healthy births.

And now moms are being warned about canned tuna fish, which has been a relatively cheap source of protein. Along with beans and eggs, canned tuna fish is an important grocery item and the FDA recently recommended that pregnant women eat between eight and 12 ounces of low-mercury fish on a weekly basis.

But analysis released in August by Consumer Reports magazine warns that canned chunk light tuna isn’t a safe bet for pregnant women because of its mercury content.

“Low-income mothers who are expecting would have the impression that tuna would be a good thing to eat because it’s a good source of protein,” said Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy and early childhood programs for the Food Research and Action Center.

Pregnant moms in protein conundrum 0:55

The warning has put low-income mothers in a quandary, however.

“I always thought it was healthy… they even give us tuna on our vouchers.”

“I liked tuna somewhat before that, but throughout my pregnancy I was eating it like crazy,” said Terraj Jarrett, a 30-year-old resident at Sheltering Grace Ministry, a maternity home for homeless pregnant women and new mothers, in Marietta, Ga. “I wasn’t big on going to fast food places,” she said. Instead, she ate tuna sandwiches regularly.

“I always thought it was healthy… they even give us tuna on our vouchers,” said Cemetria Graham, a 24-year-old also living at Sheltering Grace with her month-old son. Although the Mississippi native said she likes salmon and other seafood, it often is out of her budget even though she receives vouchers for food through Women, Infants and Children assistance program. (Fish, of which canned tuna is one option, is included for WIC recipients who are breastfeeding or pregnant with more than one child.)

“Every time I would go grocery shopping, I would get tuna,” Graham said. “Tuna is just cheaper,” she said.

Cheaper Protein

On average, canned chunk light tuna is less than $3 a pound, according to Sherry Frey, vice president of Nielsen Perishables Group, while ground beef averages $3.64 a pound and ground turkey is $3.36.

Seafood is even pricier. Fresh tilapia, one of the cheapest widely available fish, averages about $4 a pound; fresh salmon is roughly double that and shrimp prices top $9 a pound. “We're staring down the barrel of higher meat prices, higher produce prices,” Frey said.

Canned tuna might seem like one of the few affordable choices. But since chunk light tuna is an amalgam of different types of tuna, mercury levels can fluctuate from can to can, said Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumer Reports. “It’s getting more common for chunk light tuna to contain much higher levels than average,” she said. “It’s because of that variability that we want to give that extra advice to pregnant women.”

Mercury can accumulate in the body and cause neurological problems, and babies exposed to high levels of mercury in utero can have learning disabilities and delayed development. “The fetus is the most susceptible to mercury exposure,” said Ann Ferris, director of the Center for Public Health and Health Policy and a professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

The FDA already recommends that pregnant women limit consumption of albacore tuna to six ounces a week, and lists chunk light tuna as a lower-mercury choice, along with salmon, shrimp, pollock, tilapia, catfish and cod.

Reports says pregnant women should avoid light canned tuna 1:59

Canned tuna also is a staple ingredient at food banks from coast to coast. In California, Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services distributes about 40,000 cans of tuna a year. Across the country in New York, the Food Bank For Westchester distributed approximately 116,500 cans of tuna in its last fiscal year.

“It is critical that they have food that has a shelf life,” said Cynthia McKenna, director of planning and program development at Catholic Charities in Hartford. Since very low-income families might be transient, living in shelters or motels, they need foods that can be stored without refrigeration and eaten without cooking.

Other Sources of Protein

Food banks and pantries provide other sources of protein, such as peanut butter and beans, but aside from eggs, tuna may be one of the few animal proteins offered consistently, and it is almost certain to be the only seafood available on a regular basis.

“Occasionally we’ll get stuff donated [like] canned salmon or chicken, but tuna is the staple,” said Scott Carter, director of food pantry Our Daily Bread in Wichita. “It’s something we can go out and purchase pretty easily in bulk,” he said. The pantry distributes about 1,200 cans of tuna a month, and Carter said more than half the families that visit choose canned tuna as one of their allotted protein items.

“Protein is expensive and they’re really looking for ways to get that and make it last through the end of the month,” Henchy said. With canned tuna a staple of a low-income diet, this new mercury warning presents yet another obstacle for poor pregnant women trying to eat right, she said. “It just gets more and more complicated for low-income people… As they stand in the aisles of the grocery store, how many limitations can you have and still come out with healthy food?”