Tilapia: It’s mild, inexpensive, and easy to cook. But does it have a place in a healthy diet?
This humble seafood has a way of dividing the Paleo community. Some people love it and can’t stop raving about the health benefits. Others think it’s dangerous, and they do everything they can to avoid it.
Like so many things, it lies somewhere in between.
Keep reading to find out what you need to know about tilapia before deciding to make it a regular part of your diet.
What Is Tilapia?
Let’s start at the beginning:
Tilapia is an inexpensive white fish—one of the most popular seafood choices.
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They’re native to Africa and the Middle East, but they’ve been distributed across the globe. And they’re farmed in over 80 countries, including Asia and the Americas.
”Tilapia” is actually a general term, which refers to nearly 100 species of Cichlid fish; the vast majority are freshwater fish.
Some people call tilapia the “aquatic chicken” because it breeds easily and has a bland taste. That mild taste is actually what attracts many people to the fish, but it drives plenty of others away.
From Obscurity to One of the Most Consumed Types of Seafood
Just a few decades ago, tilapia was basically unknown throughout much of the world. It certainly wasn’t one of the most popular seafood options around!
But things have changed drastically. Tilapia has skyrocketed to the #4 most popular seafood among American consumers. In fact, it had a per capita consumption of 1.436 pounds in 2014!
Tilapia farming is predicted to increase as global population grows, and people look for inexpensive, sustainable food sources.
What to Think About Before Eating Tilapia
There are plenty of things to think about when deciding whether or not to make tilapia a regular part of your diet.
Here’s a rundown of some of the biggest pros and cons:
- Inexpensive. Pound for pound, tilapia is one of the cheapest seafood options around— especially if you buy frozen tilapia fillets in bulk!
- Mild taste. Depending on your taste buds, this aspect can be a pro or a con. If you don’t like “fishy” seafood, tilapia is very mild, and it usually assumes the flavor of the sauce you cook it in. So it’s popular among parents and schools looking to appease picky kids, but it still gets recommended by the American Heart Association every week.
- Low mercury exposure. When eating certain species of wild-caught carnivorous fish (i.e., fish that feed on other fish), you have to watch out for mercury. Because tilapia are vegetarians, there’s much less of a risk.
The American Pregnancy Association lists tilapia as fish that has lower mercury content, and it recommends that expecting mothers eat more of it than other types of seafood.
- Low in calories and high in protein. 100 grams of cooked tilapia only have 128 calories —but a whopping 26 grams of protein. The caloric ratio is 19% fats to 81% protein. So you can eat tilapia to help build muscle, stay full, and avoid the insulin spikes that come after eating a ton of carbs.
- Nutrients. Tilapia is high in key vitamins and minerals like B vitamins, Phosphorous, Potassium, and Selenium.
- Not nearly as many omega-3 fatty acids as other fish. Tilapia’s vegetarian diets make them inexpensive to raise and buy, but they also result in fewer omega-3 fatty acids in the end product. 100 grams of Tilapia have about 200 milligrams of omega-3 fats. On the other hand, the same amount of wild-caught salmon has over 2,000 milligrams—10 times the amount.
- Corn and soy diets. Farmed tilapia subsist on a diet of corn and soy pellets, which helps these fish put on weight quickly and keeps down costs. But it’s not the best diet for our health.
Tilapia don’t eat corn or soy; they prefer algae and marine plants in their natural environment. Humans shouldn’t eat much corn or soy either, so when we eat farmed tilapia, we have to deal with the inflammation and other health consequences that result.
- A higher omega-6:omega-3 ratio. Another consequence of tilapia’s vegetarian diets is a higher omega-6 fatty acid content. While we need omega-6’s to survive, the typical American diet already provides us with way more than a healthy amount. Ratios too far out of balance lead to inflammation and other potential health issues.
One Wake Forest University study provided an interesting finding about tilapia’s omega-6:omega-3 ratio. It could be “potentially dangerous” for some people with heart disease, arthritis, asthma, and other allergic and autoimmune diseases—who are especially vulnerable to an “exaggerated inflammatory response”.
- Huge variations in quality. While a small tilapia farmer might be careful to keep densities low and supplement their feed with fishmeal and fish oil (which raise omega-3’s), large operations might stuff tilapia into crowded spaces and be less scrupulous about avoiding pesticides, chemicals, and waste. One of the biggest challenges is knowing exactly what you’re getting!
Frozen Tilapia vs. Fresh Tilapia vs. Live Tilapia
Tilapia comes in three varieties: 1) frozen, 2) live, or 3) fresh.
Each variety means a difference in quality and environmental impact.
The vast majority of frozen tilapia you’ll find in U.S. supermarkets is imported from Asia (China or Taiwan).
So while it’s definitely the cheapest way to buy tilapia (especially if you buy a ton in bulk), the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends not eating it too often—due to poor farming conditions and environmental damage.
Fresh tilapia typically comes from the United States, Canada, or Central or South America.
Buying your tilapia fresh generally means getting higher quality and less environmental damage. For those reasons, it gets good reviews from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
In the United States, live tilapia come from U.S. farms. Environmental impact is minimal, but quality can vary. At least you get the chance to examine the health of the fish first-hand before deciding whether or not to buy!
Live tilapia can be hard to find. Check out your local Asian supermarkets; they’re your best bets.
Sourcing Your Tilapia: What You Need to Know
You don’t just have to consider how to buy your tilapia (e.g., live or fresh). You also have to think about where it comes from.
Less than 5% of tilapia eaten in the United States are farmed within its borders. Of that tiny percentage, most are sold as whole fish.
So where does the rest come from? And does it matter?
There’s always the environment to consider. Tilapia farming in other countries (especially Asia) can be more damaging to the environment than farming in the United States—due to oversights and a lack of regulations.
Tilapia farms in the U.S. and Canada typically use closed, recirculating tanks; they help avoid water pollution and the possibility of fish escaping.
In Central and South America, tilapia is usually farmed in lakes, which can result in some pollution (like fecal matter). But the farming occurs at low densities. There’s little transparency about how tilapia are farmed in Asia, so buying can feel like a crapshoot.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends choosing tilapia from the U.S. first, then buying from Canada, Ecuador, Taiwan, and China.
How to Get the Highest-Quality Tilapia Possible?
According to the USDA, there is no single definition or standard for “organic” seafood.
That leaves it up to you to pay close attention about how you buy tilapia—and where it comes from.
Frozen tilapia fillets usually come from Asia, and they tend to be the cheapest option.
But there’s also less regulatory oversight, and we can’t know their diets—or the environment has impacted them.
Buying fresh tilapia from the Americas is a safer bet. It ensures quality tilapia with minimal environmental damage.
Tilapia sold at grocery stores are required to have country-of-origin labels. They indicate whether fish was farm-raised or caught wild, though there are issues with labeling exceptions and a lack of enforcement.
Don’t be afraid to ask your fishmonger whether their tilapia are farmed or wild-caught—and where they come from. Many suppliers publish this information on their websites.
As more suppliers get third-party certifications from organizations like Naturland, the Global Aquaculture Alliance, and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, there have been exciting developments. These groups help set the standards for animal welfare, food safety, and environmental issues.
Some grocery stores (e.g., Whole Foods) have taken it upon themselves to check seafood quality. They developed a “Responsibly Farmed” logo, which is supported by yearly third-party audits of their suppliers.
Should You Eat Tilapia?
Eating tilapia in moderation is okay. It’s low in calories, and it’s a good source of lean protein and other nutrients.
But there’s no compelling need to eat it either. If you also like fattier seafood (like salmon or cod), you’re better off eating those because you’ll get more brain-boosting, inflammation-fighting omega-3’s. And you can get the nutrients and protein you need elsewhere in a balanced Paleo diet.
If you’re just eating tilapia for health (and because it’s the only seafood you can stomach), consider a high-quality fish or cod-liver oil supplement.
Although the Wake Forest study needs additional research to flesh out its claims (about tilapia’s “potentially dangerous” omega-6:omega-3 ratio), you’re probably best off avoiding tilapia if you’re dealing with allergies or other autoimmune conditions.
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Over to You
A little tilapia every now and then won’t kill you, but it won’t transform your health either. You’ll find more omega-3’s in fattier fish like salmon and mackerel, especially if you buy them wild-caught.
Quality matters. If you do choose to eat tilapia, pay close attention to where it’s coming from to ensure the most nutritious (and least environmentally destructive) choices possible.
Written by Corey Pemberton
Corey Pemberton is a freelance writer, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner, and Paleo health enthusiast. Ever since he discovered the ancestral health movement five years ago, he has explored different ways to incorporate ancestral wisdom into his nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle at large. One of his favorite topics is challenging long-held nutrition myths. Feel free to stop by his website or say hello on Twitter.
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