What you need to know before eating tilapia again

If you’re a seafood lover, tilapia may have become something of a staple on your dinner table in the last few years. It’s been abundantly available, fairly inexpensive, and it has a mild flavor that lends itself to a wide variety of recipes. What’s not to like? Well, it turns out, potentially a lot if you believe all the internet rumors; we’ve read it’s more unhealthy than bacon, filled with toxins, and raised on animal waste (via Berkley Wellness). So what’s the truth? Is it a healthy, versatile meal option or a slab of poison on a plate?

First, the good news: tilapia is a low-calorie fish packed with protein at 26 grams in a 3.5 ounce serving (via Mashed). It’s also high in B12, niacin, and potassium, and the FDA says it has among the lowest mercury levels of any fish, which is particularly important for pregnant women who need to avoid fish like tuna. Tilapia is also low in fat, but this is the first place where it falls short of other fish; fish is sought after as a health food due to its high omega-3 fat content, as omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory. But tilapia actually has ten times less of this healthy fat than salmon, and it has a higher omega-6 content (the inflammatory kind of fat); its omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is 2-1. While that’s not excellent, Omega-6 is found in much higher amounts in other foods like red meat and nuts, so that alone should not earn tilapia its bad rap.

Why you need to know where your tilapia comes from

Where your tilapia comes from makes a major difference in how healthy it is for you and the environment. Most tilapia you’ll find in the grocery store is farm-raised because the fish is so hearty. This heartiness isn’t always a good thing, though, as farms that aren’t concerned with raising the fish responsibly often do so in overcrowded ponds or tanks, where disease can spread rapidly (via Mashed). As a result, anti-disease chemicals like antibiotics can be overused, which isn’t good for the global problem of increasing antibiotic resistance. Further, farmed fish can escape into neighboring waterways, where they can quickly overwhelm the native fish population. Plus, those anti-disease agents can leak (or are sometimes dumped) into local waterways. 

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, if you want to stay away from tilapia farmed under potentially irresponsible conditions, you should avoid anything that’s been farmed in then imported from China. Unfortunately, roughly 70% of farmed tilapia in the U.S. comes from China, so it’s important to ask where the fish is raised before purchasing it. The good news is that, Seafood Watch says tilapia raised in Peru and Ecuador are particularly good options where it comes to fish being raised in eco-friendly conditions. Further, the Ocean Wise Seafood Program says that tilapia from Mexico, Indonesia, and Honduras are also eco-friendly options, as are fish farmed in a recirculating aquaculture system in the U.S.

The bottom line: to eat or not to eat tilapia?

Now let’s tackle the nastier rumors about Tilapia. You’ve heard farmed tilapia is raised on livestock waste and don’t like the idea of poop on your plate? We don’t blame you, but here’s the real deal: this information came from the USDA’s 2009 report on how fish imported from China were raised (Mashed). According to The Washington Post, using livestock waste to feet plankton the fish feed upon is not an uncommon practice in China, and actually not an altogether terrible one. However, it can increase the risk of bacteria like salmonella getting into the fish’s food supply, and eventually onto your plate. That’s another reason you want to avoid tilapia raised in China.

And where did we get the idea that tilapia is worse for our health than bacon? From a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that investigated the omega-3s to omega-6 ration in tilapia we mentioned earlier (via Mashed). But when you consider that the average American diet includes a, omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of around 16 to one, it puts poor little tilapia in some clearer perspective. Further, bacon is also loaded with calories, saturated fat, and sodium, none of which is true of tilapia, so it’s safe to say the “worse than bacon” claim is exaggerated.

Bottom line: do you pick up some tilapia at the grocery store or not? The experts say: sure, as long as it’s part of an otherwise balanced diet and isn’t a daily meal choice.

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