Is There Something Fishy About Tilapia?

As a Florida native and wife of a sometimes fisherman Tilapia isn’t something I’ve ever heard my husband talk about catching. Grouper, Snapper, Amberjack, even Wahoo, yes. But never Tilapia. So, when I started noticing it often in magazines and on-line I questioned whether it is a healthy choice like most fish, or not. I have noticed that tilapia has grown in popularity in the past year or so. In fact I had never even heard of it until somewhat recently, but apparently it has risen to be the fourth most eaten seafood in the U.S.

If you don’t know, Tilapia is a farm-raised mild flavored, white-fleshed fish that is relatively inexpensive. It is a source of protein and contains some, although not much, heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. It also contains omega-6 fatty acids.

In 2008 research out of Wake Forest University was published about the potential drawbacks of tilapia. The investigators unfavorably compared the fatty acid profile of tilapia to that of 80% lean hamburger, doughnuts, and even bacon. This negative comparison was due to its relatively low levels of the healthier omega-3 fatty acids and higher amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.

The truth is, tilapia is a rather low source of omega-3s and has as much as other popular seafood, including lobster and mahi-mahi. Tilapia is very low in total fat. A 4-ounce serving of tilapia has about 1 gram of saturated fat and 29 grams of protein. By comparison, a 1-ounce serving of bacon (about 4 strips) contains 4 grams of saturated fat, 10 grams of protein and 52 mg of omega-3.

The American Heart Association recommends eating two 3.5 ounce servings of fatty fish per week. Those with heart disease need even more. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans also advise eating a variety of seafood twice per week, 8 ounces or more, which will provide the 250 mg per day of omega-3’s recommended for optimal health. Flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts are also good sources of omega-3s. And, getting your omegas from food sources rather than supplements is your best bet.

Aside from the fatty acid content of tilapia another concern that has been raised is the practices of farming in other countries. China produces 40% of the world’s supply of tilapia, and the rest is farmed in the U.S., Canada, Ecuador, and Taiwan. One allegation or concern that exists is that farm raised tilapia in China are fed chicken and pig feces and there also have been concerns raised over the use of pesticides and antibiotic and antifungal drugs. Both the USDA and the FDA say there is not sufficient evidence to support these claims, but the concern over overseas farming practices still remains.

So, with all of these concerns, should tilapia be considered as part of a healthy eating plan or not?

I personally am leery of farmed fish or seafood of any kind and will always choose wild and/or locally caught seafood if I have the option, especially given our close proximity to the ocean. To me, once you’ve tasted good fresh fish or shrimp it’s hard to eat anything else. Farmed seafood in general, not just tilapia, can have up to 10 times more toxins than wild fish, according to Harvard Researchers. Your best choices at the fish counter include: Wild Alaskan Salmon, Alaska Pollok, Atlantic Cod, Clams, Blue Crab, Atlantic Mackerel, Striped Bass, Sardines, Herring, Rainbow Trout, Grouper, Snapper, and Flounder.

If you are looking for good sources of fatty fish, your best bets are salmon, lake trout, herring, sardines and tuna, which contain the most omega-3 fatty acids and therefore offer the most health benefits.

While tilapia is not a substantial source of omega-3 fats it is a lean source of protein. If you are going to work tilapia into your fish rotation, tilapia raised in Ecuador, the U.S. or Canada is your best choice. No matter what type of fish you choose, I would be aware of where your fish, and even shrimp, are coming from and buy local or American, and wild when possible. If you are buying frozen, look closely at the package and it will tell you where it came from. Even canned wild Alaskan salmon is a great choice. Costco carries a great brand “Bear & Wolf” that we use at our house to make salmon patties that my kids love. You can find the recipe in my recipe section on my website.

The main points to remember are to include a variety of fish in your diet, including at least 8 ounces of fatty fish per week, and be mindful of where your fish comes from. Most of all enjoy the simplicity and deliciousness that fish and other seafood bring to the table.