The fear of Chinese tilapia first surfaced in 2011, when a warning about farm-raised tilapia from China circulated throughout social media. While it has never been directly substantiated, there were publications before and after it came out, bringing to light some truth to the claims. Even so, the desire to eat tilapia has increased exponentially in the past years.
Today, tilapia is one of the most in-demand seafood around the United States — they are commonly referred to as aquatic chicken.
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What is Tilapia?
Known as the oldest farmed fish, tilapia refers to various species of freshwater fish from the cichlid family that grows around warm waters, like the Nile River in Northern Africa. Wild tilapia was introduced around the world and is currently farmed in more than 135 countries, but only three are known to provide good products. Because it grows quickly, only requires a soybean meal, and doesn’t mind crowded spaces, tilapia is great for fish farming.
These are the features that make it more affordable compared to other kinds of seafood. While it offers plenty of benefits, there are also dangers to consuming tilapia, although this will vary according to where it was raised as well as the farming practices involved. Farmed tilapia will usually be raised through indoor recirculating tanks, where safety standards are often questionable.
Health Benefits of Tilapia
Tilapia is a low-calorie source of protein and also a good source of nutrients, packing 26 grams of protein against 128 calories in every 3.5 ounces of tilapia. It carries an impressive array of vitamins and minerals and is particularly rich in vitamin B12, potassium, selenium, phosphorus, and niacin. This popular fish is also a lean protein source, which has just 3 grams of fat in every serving; unfortunately, the type of fat it has is a major concern for many consumers, contributing to its bad reputation.
Fatty Acids in Tilapia
According to a study by Wake Forest University, tilapia was found to have extremely low levels of beneficial omega-3s and instead has critical levels of potentially dangerous omega-6 fatty acids. The ratio between these two is estimated to be as high as 11:1, which isn’t ideal. Many researchers believe that these ratios may be connected to heart disease, inflammatory conditions, and asthma.
Tilapia is also known to have less fat content overall compared to other fatty fish and will naturally have lower levels of omega-3. Experts agree that Wild Alaskan salmon is the best choice to get a good dose of omega-3s and is a good alternative to for those who want to eat tilapia.
Director of nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education, Celine Beitchman, says that many tilapia farms don’t provide environments that are healthy for these fish. A few things to look out for are evidence of the use of illegal antibiotics and additives and look for farms that allow fish to eat their natural diet. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends tilapia farmed in the raceways in Peru since these are the safest and use no chemicals around their farms.
Ecuador tilapia is also one of the best choices according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), as they hold the best aquaculture practices certification. Fish farms in Latin America grow tilapia at low densities, using freshwater where shrimp are mixed with tilapia to reduce pollution. Tilapia are kept in a closed tank system in the United States, which allows for effective filtering of waste and water pollution.
China’s Farm-Raised Tilapia
Far from its country of origin, China is the world’s main producer of tilapia, producing more than 1.6 million metric tons each year, and provides the largest tilapia imports in the U.S. Up until 20 years ago, Americans didn’t know much about tilapia and it was rarely seen in the grocery store. However, demand for Chinese tilapia increased in recent years and export increased with it; today, China is responsible for 80% of frozen tilapia fish imported to the U.S.
Unfortunately, farm-raised fish in China are under scrutiny due to poor water quality, and the supposed common practice of using raw sewage as fish feed. The EDF also expressed concerns about tilapia being exposed to toxic chemicals and heavy metals. But the biggest issue about tilapia raised in China is the small, independent farmers facing economic pressures that lead them to feed animal feces instead of the more pricey commercial feed specifically made for fish.
Typically, tilapia raised on farms are fed soy pellets or corn, while wild-caught tilapia will often feed on algae and lake plants. However, a report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2009 noted that “Fish were raised in small ponds where they feed on livestock and poultry waste.” Before this, there was also an increase in the FDA’s rejection of China’s fish imports from the year 2000 to 2008.
These unsafe practices only lead to the risk of bacterial contamination and will make the fish vulnerable to spreading foodborne illnesses. This will make it dangerous to eat tilapia especially for pregnant women and those with a compromised immune system. Continued use of these practices may even lead to flesh-eating bacteria with a high risk of invasiveness.
Should You Eat Tilapia?
The good news is that as long as you source your tilapia responsibly, it can be a highly nutritious part of your diet, providing a good source of protein while also low in saturated fat. It also has lower total fat, calories, and sodium compared to other meats like pork bacon, and processed meats. While it may not have as much omega-3 as other wild fish, tilapia is still a great choice for your diet due to its low contaminant and mercury content.
To ensure that it’s safe to eat tilapia, look for its country of origin and buy packages with a reputable brand name. You may also look for the symbol of Ocean Wise on the package to make sure the product is free from potentially harmful additives. As long as the tilapia was raised in a proper environment, they are efficient sources of protein and are safe for consumption.
Tilapia should be stored and cooked thoroughly before you eat it — there are various ways to cook your tilapia, including grilling, pan-frying, and baking. Grilling tilapia fillets bring out the mild flavor of the fish, and involves very little oil. Raw tilapia will pair well with vegetable oils such as canola, olive, or avocado oil for a healthier way of cooking.
A Final Word on Tilapia
While there are both state and federal food inspections in place to check for the quality of imported tilapia, there are still products that make it into our shelves. While avoiding to eat tilapia from China may be tricky, considering that they are the largest importers in the country, there are plenty of healthier options available. Despite the health concerns surrounding this particular fish, the demand for it means that it will continue to be a popular choice for families around the world.
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