Tilapia: Aquatic Chicken or
Worse than Bacon?

This commonly farmed fish is the subject of concern.

March/April 2018

By Linda Melone

Inexpensive to raise and purchase, low-calorie and with a mild flavor adaptable to many recipes, tilapia seems like the perfect fish. So it’s not surprising it ranks as one of the most popular seafood, trailing only slightly behind shrimp, canned tuna and salmon. But some say the fish may not be all it’s cracked up to be—and is possibly even harmful.

 

Fishy History

Tilapia has its roots in Egyptian culture from approximately 4,000 years ago. Drawings of the fish were found in Egyptian tombs; it was such an important part of their culture that they created a special hieroglyph for it. In addition to providing nourishment to ancient Egyptians, the small fish was an important source of food for people in Africa and in Greece.

Tilapia became part of Christian mythology as well, which credits Peter, the apostle, in Matthew 17:27 as having caught tilapia out of the Sea of Galilee. In fact, scholars surmise tilapia was the catch of the day in the Bible story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. This earned tilapia the nickname of St. Peter’s Fish.

More recently, tilapia farming, or aquaculture, became popular in the 1980s due to the fish’s adaptability, easy culturing, ability to live in a wide range of habitats and high reproduction rate. Tilapia consumption in the US has fluctuated since 2011, reaching a peak in 2013.

“It’s been on the decline since, largely due to inflammatory statements made on websites,” says Kevin Fitzsimmons, PhD, a University of Arizona professor and member of the World Aquaculture Society. “We have more value-added products and better packaging, but imports are down as is a willingness to pay” due to what he says is misinformation about the fish.

As a lean, low-fat protein source, fish in general frequently appears as a recommended part of a healthy diet. So recent stories labeling tilapia as “worse than bacon” raised many eyebrows.

The fish was also reportedly feeding off of animal waste and manure. As is often the case with such debates, the truth is somewhat buried beneath misleading headlines. Here are four of the major claims about the fish and the science behind the truth.

 

“Worse Than Bacon”

The ironic statement that a fish can be less healthy than a well-known fatty meat stems from tilapia’s low omega-3 acid profile and proportion of fatty acids. Even proponents of tilapia acknowledge the fish contains lower levels of omega-3 fats than that of other fish favorites such as salmon and mackerel.

More notably, it also has disproportionate levels of omega-6, according to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to increased inflammation in the body, a condition associated with heart disease.

Fish Warnings in the News

Aside from tilapia, warnings of other fish occasionally appear as well, many related to mercury.

“Although there’s much concern about mercury buildup in the human body, there have been no cases from mercury toxicity from the normal consumption of seafood,” says Gavin Gibbons.

Swordfish and tuna are both most associated with high levels of mercury, but the concern is overblown from a consumption perspective, says Gibbons. “Mercury bioaccumulates, so these big fish eat smaller fish that contain mercury, so they’ll have higher concentrations of mercury.” (He notes he’s referring to commercially fished products, not those fished out of a stream.)

The Food and Drug Administration allows 1.0 parts per million of mercury. “White tuna has 0.3 ppm and light tuna is at 0.1,” he says. Using a speed limit analogy, Gibbons compares this to a 55 MPH speed limit representing the FDA allowable limit; white tuna clocks in at 16.5 mph and light tuna at 5.5 mph.

The only people who should avoid fish completely are those with allergies, but check with local advisories if you’re fishing, or eating fish caught, locally. “Farm-raised fish contains barely any mercury at all due to their age and size,” says Gibbons. “In addition, contrary to popular belief, farm-raised fish contains higher levels of omega-3s.”

Research has shown that high levels of omega-6 fats could be harmful to those with heart disease, asthma and autoimmune disorders. Heart patients who are told to eat more fish may be doing more harm than good if they choose tilapia over salmon or other fish with a better proportion of omega-3s to omega-6s.

The Wake Forest report, and the claim that led to the bacon headline, stated the inflammatory potential of hamburger and pork bacon is lower than the average serving of farmed tilapia.

Fitzsimmons disagrees with the impact of this disproportionate ratio. “In fact, the overall omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the typical US diet is more on the order of 16:1,” he says, “which is far higher than the supposedly harmful ratio in tilapia (5:1). In addition, the problem with bacon is not its omega-6s, but rather its saturated fat, calories and sodium.” Fatty acids in farmed tilapia may also change depending on feed ingredients.

“Tilapia is a very lean source of high-quality protein containing 23 grams for 4 ounces,” says Amy Goodson, MS, RD, a registered dietitian in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “It also contains an abundance of potassium and 26% of the RDA for vitamin B12, making it nutrient-rich.

While it does not contain the omega-3 content that fatty fishes like salmon, trout, mackerel and tuna do, it does have a splash of omega-3s, but a gram or less.”

Goodson notes that other high-quality proteins such as chicken do not contain omega-3s. (She suggests using a walnut crust when baking tilapia to boost the omega-3 content.)

 

“Tilapia Is Raised on Manure”

Critics claim farm-raised tilapia gets its nourishment from animal manure, which is tossed into aquaculture waters. “This is a misunderstanding of the role of organic fertilizers in pond culture,” says Fitzsimmons. “Organic wastes and manures are added to ponds to encourage algae blooms, which in turn encourages zooplankton blooms. Fish graze on both algae and zooplankton.”

In aquaculture, in cases where waste drops directly into ponds, the fish may grab the waste but spit it out as it’s not palatable, Fitzsimmons adds. “This serves to more rapidly dissolve the nutrients in the water for assimilation by the algae.”

 

“Tilapia Contains Dangerous Hormones”

Fast growth and reproduction make tilapia a good aquaculture choice. However, males tend to be more uniform in size than females, so hormones are added to the water to reverse the sex of female fish. The resulting males are more consistently sized. The ease and predictability of the sex reversal plays a major role in the industry’s rapid growth.

This sex reversal is accomplished by administering male steroids (methyl testosterone) to the newly hatched fish, which brings up questions as to the safety to consumers who eat the fish as well as the effect of the steroids on the environment. Although it remains under some debate, studies show the hormone does not harm humans who eat the fish. As for its effect on the environment, the steroid is reportedly mineralized, or biodegraded, and deemed not harmful.

 

“Farmed Tilapia Is Unhealthy”

Tilapia is very much a product of its environment, so fish raised in poor-quality water will result in a muddy, grassy flavor. In general, farm-raised fish produces a better product, says Paul Repetti, a classically trained chef and corporate executive chef for Siempre Hospitality, New Jersey.

“When fish is farm-raised and well-managed, and the water’s filtered, you can get a good-quality, farm-raised product,” says Repetti. “Plus, the aquaculture industry is constantly improving.”

“It’s most important to note that 51% of seafood eaten globally is farm-raised versus wild-capture,” says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, the nation’s largest seafood trade association. “From a sustainability point, the future is farm-raised. Oceans give us their maximum sustainable yields. We have to look to farming and aquaculture, which has come into its own as far as best practices.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides best management practices, standards and certification programs including BAP, Best Aquaculture Practices, a comprehensive third-party aquaculture certification program. “Businesses like Walmart won’t buy non-certified fish,” says Gibbons.

China is the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of tilapia but is one of more than 140 countries that farm-raise the fish. “Most consumers want lower prices, so you have to go to countries where people aren’t paid much, such as China and Southeast Asia,” says Repetti. “Most of the tilapia you’ll find in supermarkets is from China.”

For the most part, you won’t find tilapia in many high-end restaurants, Repetti adds. “You’ll find it in a fish-fry joint, and you can bring consumers in the door for low cost.” You’ll also see it in almost all cruise ships, prisons, schools, institutions and moderately priced restaurants, where it often appears as “whitefish.”

 

Buying and Preparation Tips

Its high protein and low cost make tilapia a healthy, quick meal option. A few tips ensure you get the best product for your money.

“When buying tilapia, keep in mind the meat retains the flavor of the water it is in, so if it has been sitting in water before purchasing, it might lose some of its flavor,” says Goodson. She recommends buying the fish as close to eating as possible if buying fresh, as tilapia’s shelf life is about two days in a 32° fridge. And never purchase fish that smells bad or “off.”

“Frozen tilapia can also be a good choice to have on hand for a quick protein option in a meal at home,” says Goodson.

Tilapia is popular because of its mild, semisweet flavor and because it can be cooked in a variety of ways.

“Pan-fried, broiled, baked or braised, tilapia readily absorbs the robust flavor of spicy marinades, sauces and subtle seasonings, making it a great canvas for a variety of dishes,” says Goodson. Tilapia holds its shape well, so it’s ideal for pan-frying and adding it to a salad or to your favorite grain-veggie mixture, and it works well for fish tacos.

“Typically, tilapia’s flavor is very neutral,” says Repetti. “This is very good when compared to stronger-flavored fish such as salmon or mackerel. You can do a lot more with it, crusted or deep-fried with a little lemon. Cod is a good substitute but has a different shape, so it’s not as visually consistent. Mahi has its pros and cons as well, depending on how it’s fished.”

So while the arguments against tilapia contain some merit, on balance this easy-to-prepare, inexpensive fish remains a good choice for consumers looking for a lean, low-fat, high-protein choice.

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