By Sky McCarthy
Published April 09, 2014
This popular fish is cheap and tasty … but is it good for you?
Tilapia has risen to the top as a seafood staple on American dinner tables.
According to the National Fisheries Institute, the mild fish has climbed to become the fourth most eaten seafood in the U.S., behind only shrimp, salmon and canned tuna.
“We never intended to paint tilapia as the cause of anything bad. Our goal was to provide consumers with more information about their fish.”
- Dr. Floyd Chilton, professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest
Mike Picchietti, president of Americas Tilapia Alliance, believes the fish’s popularity comes from the fact that it’s easy to farm, so it’s inexpensive and it goes down easy.
“This fish gives you a lot of leeway to farm. It’s a very hearty variety that is adaptable to different types of feed. It tastes pretty good too,” he told FoxNews.com.
It’s cheap, easy to find, and it’s fish – so it’s good for you, right?
Maybe not. There are some disturbing allegations about the fish, and one is particularly surprising: Some nutritionists have been touting a study that they implies that eating tilapia is worse than eating bacon.
In 2008, researchers at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine released a study comparing fatty acid levels among popular fish. It found that tilapia contained far less omega-3 fatty acid than other American favorites, such as salmon and mackerel. According to the paper, salmon also has a “more favorable” omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. While both fatty acids are important, omega-3 has anti-inflammatory properties that play a critical role in brain development and cognitive function and may prevent diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
The report said that the “inflammatory potential of hamburger (80 percent lean) and pork bacon is lower than the average serving of farmed tilapia (100 g).”
That set off alarm bells among nutritionists.
The report caused further concern when it stated that farmed tilapia contains high levels of arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that, while necessary to help repair damaged body tissues, has been linked to brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and may exacerbate inflammation.
Dr. Floyd Chilton, the professor of physiology and pharmacology who directed the Wake Forest study, says the comparison of tilapia to pork bacon was taken out of context.
“We never intended to paint tilapia as the cause of anything bad. Our goal was to provide consumers with more information about their fish,” Chilton said. “If your doctor or cardiologist is telling you to eat more fish, then you should look for varieties that have higher levels of omega-3 and avoid those with high inflammatory potential.”
The truth is, tilapia has as much omega-3 as other popular seafood, including lobster, mahi-mahi and yellowfin tuna. Tilapia is also very low in fat. A 4-ounce serving of tilapia has about 1 gram of saturated fat, 29 grams of protein and around 200 mg of omega-3. 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.
So people may not want to eat tilapia every day, but that doesn’t mean it has to be avoided altogether, nutritionists say.
“I tell my clients not to just eat one type of fish, no matter what, to reduce your risk of contamination,” says registered dietitian Melainie Rogers, founder of Balance Nutrition, a treatment center specializing in eating disorders in New York City. “Not all fish have the same fatty acid profile, but tilapia in moderation is fine. It has lower cholesterol than red meat – plus it’s easy to cook.”
So eating tilapia isn’t the same as eating bacon, but there’s another rumor going around the Internet: that farm-raised tilapia from China are fed animal feces.
A 2009 study conducted by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited some alarming facts about Chinese farm-raised seafood. Researchers noted that “many of China’s farms and food processors are situated in heavily industrialized regions where water, air and soil are contaminated by industrial effluents and vehicle exhaust.” The report also stated that it “is common practice to let livestock and poultry roam freely in fields and to spread livestock and poultry waste on fields or use it as fish feed.”
The USDA report was based on documents obtained from the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees seafood inspections.
After the study was released, news organizations, including Bloomberg and MSN.com, reported the rampant use of animal feces as food in Chinese aquaculture – specifically calling out the practice on tilapia farms.
But the original USDA report did not specifically cite tilapia. Asked for comment, neither the FDA nor the USDA could confirm that it is common practice in China to feed animal feces to farm-raised tilapia.
FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said the agency was “not aware of evidence to support the claim that this practice is occurring.”
But if it is, the next question is: How much farm-raised tilapia are we eating from China? The answer is: A lot.
According to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, over 95 percent of tilapia consumed in the U.S. in 2013 came from overseas, and 73 percent of those imports came from China. One reason is that the fish thrives in a subtropical climate, making it a difficult fish to farm in most of the U.S.
In 2006, Seafood Watch listed farmed Chinese tilapia as “Avoid.” Senior science manager Wendy Norden and science analyst Brian Albaum at Seafood Watch told FoxNews.com that the recommendation was due to poor food quality enforcement and high levels of chemicals, antibacterial drugs (nitrofurans) and malachite green (used to dye silk, leather and paper) in fish samples.
They said that the “Avoid” rating at that time was not due to what the fish were fed, although they did note that “in aquaculture, usually wastes from one animal are unfit to be fed to other animals.”
Today, Seafood Watch gives farmed tilapia from China a “Good Alternative” rating, due to improved enforcement of food legislation. But it cautions that the fish currently tests in the “red zone” for the presence of banned or illegal chemicals such as antibiotics, malachite green and methyl testosterone hormones used in Chinese tilapia production.
The group says tilapia raised in Ecuador, the U.S. or Canada is the best choice.
Americas Tilapia Alliance’s Picchietti told FoxNews.com that he is not aware of the practice of feeding animal feces to tilapia in the U.S., and he said he has not witnessed the practice in China. But he pointed to a 2004 paper, “Domestic Wastewater Treatment in Developing Countries,” that cites the practice of using properly treated wastewater as a sustainable, and ultimately profitable, farming technique.
So what do you do if you’re looking to avoid tilapia, or tilapia that comes from certain countries? It’s not always easy with current labeling standards.
Since 2005, country of origin labeling (COOL), which is overseen by the USDA, requires seafood and shellfish retailers to label product origins. But labeling exceptions and a lack of enforcement make it hard to know exactly what’s on your plate.
Processed seafood such as fish sticks or other prepared food sold at supermarkets and seafood retailers is exempt from labeling. Whole fish sold at grocery stores is required to have a country-of-origin label and to indicate whether the fish has been farm-raised or caught wild, but not everyone does it. The USDA conducts supplier inspections, and stores in violation have a mandated timeframe to correct the problem.
Another thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re looking for farm-raised fish fed with non-GMO feed: The USDA does not currently have guidelines for classifying seafood as organic.
Even though the FDA has consumer guidelines for buying fresh fish, the lack of basic information has some scratching their heads.
The best way to know for sure is to ask a fishmonger directly.
I'd like to know what is the least harmful or healthiest fish to eat?
I buy only fish that is cuaght in the North Atlantic. Nothing from the Pacific and nothing farm raised. Even if it is from Maine they still raise salmon close in to shore and in water that is not nearly as clean as that in the Northern waters. I tend to stick to Haddock and Cod if they are from say Iceland or Finland. Yes, those can be found. Or similar deep, cold water fish.
Salmon from the Pacific, even Alaska have been known to carry those tiny worms in them....(yuk) plus the water in the Pacific is questionable now. I try to eat NOTHING canned as that high heat used to can fish kills the good stuff and increases bad stuff in the meat. Plus is all FULL of salt brine. Another yuk. Canned tuna is not good anymore. Fresh tuna steaks are better "if" from the Northern Atlantic again.
Best to stick to fresh frozen at sea.
Tilapia doesn't even look good.
As with all fish, don't make a nightly meal of it cause almost all of it contains some level of mercury in it.
They certainly are paring down what appears to be healthy food sources.
Seafood is sea based.
I don't get to eat seafood very often due to the price, so mercury isn't a big concern-where is all this mercury coming from, anyway? Is sea water just naturally high in mercury? Never heard that it was, but if it's from "pollution", who's putting it in the ocean, I had no idea there was enough mercury byproduct to contaminate entire oceans?
BAR HARBOR.......wow.......pretty pricey for my budget...........Who can afford good fresh fish nowadays???? Even so, my guys don't care for it much.....no use wasting money and effort if it's not relished...........
One thing that Tilapia has going for it that was not mentioned in the OP article is that they're filter feeders, eating algae. (That's why farmers who raise Tilapia fertilize their ponds--to grow more algae.) Being so low on the food chain at the lowest trophic level, they don't tend to bio-accumulate metals, PCBs, Dioxin and other toxins the way fish at higher trophic levels do: Salmon, Swordfish, Cod, etc.
talapia is not cheap. it used to be until the yuppies found it and then it went up. just like orangeruffy. 15-20 years ago it was a staple on our table because it was cheap. then the yuppies found it and it sky rocketed in price.
I hate tuna. it just looks and smells like cat food *shiver*
we will eat salmon from a can because to buy it fresh we'd have to take out a loan. ridiculous in price.
I agree about not eating fish frequently. Sad, because I love it.
As a couple others have stated, it is getting more and more difficult to find "clean" animal protein sources. This is one reason I have turned to legumes, organic greens, and other plant foods, supplemented with a little animal protein.
We are doing aqua phonics we raise tilapia for the system, haven't eaten any yet, takes a year to multiply and get full grown to reproduce.
It all depends on what you feed the tilapia.....if you feed fish food or cat food, they don't have nutritional value. But a food with 35% or more protein are raised to be eaten. The food is more expensive than fish farming would pay for their food, so I can see why it's not healthy to eat. Garbage in, you get garbage out.
There's more to the tilapia story. A lot of it is raised in badly contaminated tanks and ponds and is fed with chemical-laden foods and drugs. As there's no practical way to know the source of tilapia in the seafood section of a supermarket or at a buffet, I tend to stay away from it.
My cat still enjoys his langostino lobster bits every morning.
Langostino is a Spanish word with different meanings in different areas. In the United States, it is commonly used in the restaurant trade to refer to the meat of the squat lobster, which is neither a true lobster nor a prawn.
It may not be that good for you but I LOVE my Tilapia Burritos and Tacos from Rubios .. I have been addicted for a long time
Regal Springs® Tilapia, grilled or house blackened on an authentic comal, topped with fire-roasted corn, handmade guacamole, Mexican rice, a cilantro/onion mix, red and green cabbage and creamy chipotle sauce. Wrapped in a toasted flour or whole grain tortilla. Served with lightly sea-salted chips.
“TILAPIA EAT POOP” (really?)
Published October 1, 2007 News and other info 56 Comments
One of the most common searches that lead people to this blog, I kid you not, is “TILAPIA EAT POOP.”
I have eaten tilapia fish gladly, week after week. But I’ve seen this particular search enough times that I began to wonder. Do they? If I eat tilapia, does that mean that I eat poop, too? I decided to do some research, so that I can answer, once and for all, the question that has (inexplicably) been on everyone’s mindsO TILAPIA REALLY EAT POOP?
First, some tilapia facts: Tilapia are now the fifth-most consumed fish in the U.S. It’s a remarkably “unfishy” fish, and it tends to taste like whatever sauce it’s served with. This mild flavor, combined with its low price point, probably explains why consumers love it, and chefs hate it.
Environmentalists encourage eating tilapia. Oceans Alive ranks U.S. farmed tilapia as an “eco-best” choice, meaning they don’t damage the environment (through pollution of waters, reduction of biodiversity, overharvesting, etc.). So does National Geographic’s Green Guide.
Tilapia are also lower in contaminants than other fish. Growseed says that: “as concerns about mercury contamination in fish increases, pond-raised tilapia are a safe toxin-free food because they do not build up environmental pollutants in their meat. That’s why Co-op America places tilapia squarely on the “safe” list.
But…um…do they actually eat poop?I have googled and googled and googled, in search of answers to this question. It appears to me that the TILAPIA EAT POOP folks were ultimately informed (directly or indirectly) by the Vomit Island episode of the Dirty Jobs television show, on the Discovery Channel. In this episode, tilapia are used to clean the poo that has accumulated in the tanks of hybrid striped bass. Fear not, though: not all farmed tilapia are fed on waste matter. For a little reassurance, check out this guy in Maine.
How about in their natural environment? You won’t find many wild tilapia in your grocery store, but in their natural enviornment, they thrive on wide variety of natural food organisms, including plankton, succulent green leaves, benthic organisms, aquatic invertebrates, larval fish, detritus and decomposing organic matter. The key word there is “detritus,” which includes all kinds of things, including, most likely, fish waste.
So, yes. The answer, to all you TILAPIA EAT POOP Googlers, is “sometimes.” Which maybe should turn me off to eating tilappia, but the more I researched, the more I thought about other things that are fed on disgusting things (like free-range chickens, which eat the bugs out of cow poop; or mushrooms, which feed off decay; or really any kind of food that takes organic fertilizer…including the tomatoes and greenbeans and carrots I myself grew last summer, which were fertilized with composted manure from a nearby horse farm…).
Waste is consumed in order to support new life: that’s what happens in an ecosystem. I’d prefer that any day to ground meat that’s covered in actual poop.
That said, the key to tilapia appears to be finding a quality source. Given that they can thrive in low quality water, you’ll want to be careful about not getting tilapia from a water source that is too low quality. The Monterey Bay Aquarium (experts in this kind of thing) says that farmed tilapia from U.S. should be a first choice; and farmed tilapia from China should be a last choice. Indeed, earlier this year, the FDA rejected a bunch of tilapia (and other seafood) imported from China, due to concerns about recurrent contamination from carcinogens and antibiotics. Kevin Fitsimmons, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona, disagrees, however, claiming that “the Chinese actually do a pretty good job.” (I’m not sure if Dr. Fitsimmons read this, but I’d be curious about his reaction).
Anyhow, I’ll still eat tilapia, but now, more than ever before, I’d like to know where my tilapia is coming from. Fortunately, country of origin labeling is mandated for fish (though not yet for all foods). Don’t see this labeling on fish in your grocery store? Demand it. It’s required by law.
TILAPIA EAT POOP folks, I hope this is the answer you’ve been looking for.
Next up: a tilapia recipe that takes a basically healthful fish and drowns it in butter (but hey, my kids loved it!).
Talapia is about the only fish I never liked. Something about the taste. As someone noted, some people put them in their pond for algae control and they do grow fast. They will not survive a cold winter and will die if you don't catch them before winter, so they have to be restocked every spring in much of the country. They are illegal here in Illinois and it makes no sense. There is no way they would survive winter even if they escaped into public waters.
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