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Tilapia: Inexpensive ‘trash’ fish may be healthier than you think


Tilapia has long been considered a low-grade fish without many health benefits. Nutritionists and experts say this affordable fish, which is low in fat and high in protein, should be considered as a healthy contributor to your diet. (Larry Crowe/The Associated Press)

Pity the poor tilapia. While most fish are considered among the healthier sources of protein, the much-maligned tilapia gets dragged through the nutritional gutter.

“It’s trash.” “It’s the junk food of the sea.” “It’s worse than bacon.”

Nutritionists and aquaculture experts alike have been frustrated by the lingering negative opinion of a low-fat, high-protein fish that is among the most affordable options for increasing fish consumption in the U.S. Yet, tilapia growers have had little success in combating pervasive internet memes and misleading press reports that the fish is somehow not worth a place on the American dinner plate.

“Exactly the opposite,” says Kevin Fitzsimmons, an environmental science professor at the University of Arizona and a leading expert on fish farming. “It’s a very nutritious fish.”

Healthy fats

Part of tilapia’s poor reputation stems from its relatively low fat content, including the heart-healthy fats that are the major nutritional selling point for fish.

“Tilapia is a lean source of protein, but compared to other fish, it has more omega-6 fatty acids versus omega-3 fatty acids,” said Angela Ginn-Meadow, senior educator at the University of Maryland’s Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology, and a spokeswoman for the Academy of
Nutrition and Dietetics. “And we know that omega-3 fatty acids have more heart healthy benefits.”

Fish oil contains two important omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid, more commonly referred to as DHA and EPA. Studies show diets rich in DHA and EPA lead to a lower risk of coronary heart disease and improved cholesterol levels. That’s why the American Heart Association, as well as many nutrition groups, advocate eating fish, particularly oily fish, two times a week.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmed tilapia has less than 200 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per 3 ounce servings. That’s less than salmon, trout or mackerel, but still higher than fish like snapper or grouper.

And tilapia’s overall fat profile is much better than many animal sources of protein, which come with much higher amounts of saturated fat. Tilapia contains only half a gram of saturated fat per 3 ounce serving, compared with 1 gram in chicken breast meat or 8 grams in steak.

“When consumers eat tilapia, they are often replacing a meal that is higher in saturated fat,” said Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute. “Americans eat 15.5 pounds of seafood per capita a year and more than 70 pounds of red meat. Suggesting they avoid something as healthy as tilapia makes little sense.”

Publication bias

Tilapia’s reputation still suffers from a 2008 study from researchers at Wake Forest University who analyzed the polyunsaturated fat content in commonly eaten fish. Published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the study concluded that tilapia contained low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. The researchers warned that the ratio could promote inflammation that could damage blood vessels, the heart, lung and joint tissues, skin and the digestive tract.

The authors, led by Dr. Floyd Chilton, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest, compared the omega-6 levels in tilapia to that of hamburger, donuts and bacon.

“For individuals who are eating fish as a method to control inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, it is clear from these numbers that tilapia is not a good choice,” they wrote. “All other nutritional content aside, the inflammatory potential of hamburger and pork bacon is lower than the average serving of farmed tilapia.”

The implication was that eating tilapia was worse than some of the most unhealthy foods in the U.S. diet. Media reports quickly picked up on that thread with articles proclaiming that tilapia was worse than bacon.

“The problem is they made those ridiculous comments that eating tilapia was worse than eating bacon, thinking they were funny,” Fitzsimmons said. “That should never have been allowed in the paper. But some reporter made that the headline and it’s just bounced around the internet for years and years and years.”

The Wake Forest
researchers repeated a controversial theory in nutrition that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is important. If the ratio gets too high in omega-6s, that can lead to inflammation. The following year, the American Heart Association released a scientific statement disputing the notion that omega-6 fatty acids are harmful or that individuals should maintain a specific ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. But in the interim, other studies have raised questions of whether too much omega-6 in the diet may be contributing to weight gain.

The Wake Forest article spurred a back-and-forth argument between the researchers and their critics. Dr. William Harris, director of the Metabolism and Nutrition Research Center at the University of South Dakota, penned an editorial blasting the characterization of tilapia as unhealthy.

“What I dispute is the assumption that this is harmful,” Harris wrote in a letter in a subsequent issue of the journal after Chilton defended his findings. “Tilapia or catfish are not on anybody’s short list of high (omega-3) fish, but compared to hamburger or bacon, they win hands down.”

Chilton later acknowledged the “worse than bacon” finding that appeared in a press article was taken out of context and that replacing tilapia or catfish with bacon, hamburgers or donuts is “absolutely not recommended.”

Even if omega-6 fatty acid consumption were a concern, the small amount of fat in tilapia pales in comparison to other sources.

“This is scare-mongering of the worst sort,” said Dr. Joyce Nettleton, a Colorado-based nutritionist and seafood expert. “Tilapia doesn’t have very high levels of omega-6s or any fatty acids, period.”

Fish farms

Another blow to tilapias reputation came from reports that tilapia farmers in China were feeding tilapia with animal waste. That too turned out to be more misinformation, Fitzsimmons said.

“It’s there to fertilize the pond to get an algae bloom, and then there’s zooplankton that feed on the algae and then the fish eat the zooplankton,” he said. “In the U.S., if people take manure and put it around the edible plants, everybody thinks they are great farmers. But god forbid a Chinaman does this, and everybody accuses him of trying to poison us.”

Fish farming has also been controversial, which has drawn tilapia in the debate. Wild tilapia can be found in fish markets in Africa, but all of the tilapia sold in the U.S. comes from fish farms. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website provides recommendations for consumers on fish that’s farmed in a safe and sustainable manner and that doesn’t include health risks from contamination. The site lists tilapia farmed in Canada, Ecuador and the U.S. as a best choice, and tilapia from China, Indonesia, Mexico and Taiwan as good alternatives.

Despite the misinformation, tilapia continues to grow in popularity in the U.S. It appeals to many consumers who don’t like the fishy taste of salmon, and is available at a price point that fits into many families’ budgets. According to the National Fisheries Institute, Americans consumed 1.381 pounds of tilapia per person in 2015, trailing only shrimp, salmon and canned tuna.

It’s found a particular niche among bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts who are looking for a lean source of protein.

But it still can’t break free of the nutritional cyberbullying and its online reputation.

“Many of us who know what we’re talking about try to clear it up,” Fitzsimmons said. “But you can never get anything like that off the internet.”