• Frozen cut-up char, one of the foods Inuit near the Arctic Ocean rely on as part of their diet. (Photo: Henry P. Huntington)

For Inuit living near the Arctic Ocean, hunting and fishing provide food for the table, and are vitally important to community life and culture. Though fresh and highly nutritious, country food comes with a price: mercury and other environmental contaminants, carried to the polar region by wind and ocean currents, concentrate in predators at the top of the food chain, including marine mammals and fish that comprise a large part of the Inuit diet.{break} But what if there was a way to consume the same amount of meat, and avoid the contaminants? University of Montreal researcher Catherine Girard has been measuring the mercury levels in country food gathered in the Nunavut community of Resolute Bay, then feeding the samples into an artificial gut — a lab-based simulation of a human gastro-intestinal tract — to see how much mercury actually stays in the body after digestion, and whether anything can be done to reduce absorption rates. She’s also experimented with preparing the contaminated samples in different ways, and adding other foods to the mix to see if they have an impact on the absorption rates (scientifically referred to as bio-accessibility) of mercury. Girard discovered that the ability to absorb mercury can be influenced by cooking techniques, and also by dietary practices. “My preliminary work with the digestion lab indicates that consuming tea with contaminated fish can actually reduce the amount of mercury you’re exposed to,” she says. “In fact, it was surprising to see the degree to which tea works to reduce the bio-accessibility of mercury.” This is a happy coincidence, as Inuit are some of the world’s most avid tea drinkers. Girard says that while her research is preliminary, it could lead to new guidelines for safer consumption of country foods — best practices in terms of how to prepare the food, and what to eat and drink with it. This will benefit the many Inuit for whom “eating local” means hunting and fishing on the sea and the sea ice.

This is the latest in a continuing blog series on polar issues and research presented by Canadian Geographic in partnership with the Canadian Polar Commission. The polar blog will appear online every two weeks, and select blog posts will be featured in upcoming issues. For more information on the Canadian Polar Commission, visit polarcom.gc.ca.