There’s a particular fish that’s becoming a firm favorite across the United States. Americans love this seafood staple because it’s cheap and readily available. Plus, it doesn’t blow your head off with that super-fishy taste like lots of others do. But despite the fish’s enormous popularity, it could be hiding a dark secret. And experts are warning that you might want to avoid eating it.
By now, you’ve probably heard of this trendy seafood: tilapia. But did you know that it actually encompasses almost 100 different varieties of fish? These are all broadly classified as cichlids, and they initially came from the waters of Africa. Nowadays, though, the creatures can be found all over the Earth. And they’re taking the world by storm.
Amazingly, it’s believed that more than 130 nations farm tilapia today. Of these countries, China produces the greatest amount: somewhere in the region of 1.7 million tons each year. That’s a whole lot of fish! The United States, then, gets most of its tilapia from here.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that tilapia is farmed so widely across the world because in many respects it’s the perfect fish to cultivate. It doesn’t need all that much space, for one thing, and it develops pretty fast, too. Plus, tilapia’s a herbivore, so its diet shouldn’t be too expensive for farmers to maintain.
But despite tilapia appearing to be the perfect seafood to produce, there might just be a big problem. That’s because various media sources have sounded the alarm about the fish, claiming that it could even be harmful to our bodies. Do we really need to listen to these worrying claims, though?
Well, first things first: there are certainly some good things we can say about tilapia and its health benefits. According to the Healthline website, the fish is a good means of taking in protein. On top of that, it’s full of important minerals and vitamins such as potassium, niacin and vitamin B12.
In the food industry, tilapia has taken on the playful nickname of the “aquatic chicken.” Despite the strange image that such a term evokes, it actually just refers to the fact that, like chicken, tilapia is easy to farm and relatively bland in flavor.
But how does the taste of the “aquatic chicken” rank against other fish with similar qualities? Well, a journalist from The Washington Post named Tamar Haspel delved into this very matter in 2016. Having reached out to a seafood company, Haspel arranged a taste test.
The test involved seven varieties of fish being prepared and served without the tasters knowing which was which. In order to maintain the integrity of the test, it was of course essential that each fish was prepared perfectly. If one fish was slightly burnt, for example, it would likely be ranked lower than another that was cooked flawlessly. As such, a professional chef was brought in to cook the dishes consistently.
In her article, Haspel explained how the test worked. She wrote, “For each of the seven kinds of fish we tasted, we described flavor and texture, guessed the species and rated it for overall deliciousness on a scale of one to five.” Having done so, the participants ranked red snapper as being the best-tasting fish. This was followed though by tilapia that had come from Honduras.
More to the point, when asked to identify which of the seven fish was tilapia, the participants couldn’t do it. So, tilapia is at least an average-tasting fish. And at best it’s one of the nicer ones. But is flavor alone the reason why it’s emerged as one of America’s favorite seafood dishes?
Well, there have undoubtedly been other factors at play, too. Tilapia originally emerged from Africa, where it could be found in warm lakes. And governments around the world eventually took note of the creature and sought to use it as a natural means of managing unwanted plants and mosquitoes in their own waters.
From there, it became clear that there was a commercial appeal to tilapia. The fish could be cultivated with relative ease – taking only around nine months to grow to a size required for trading – so more firms started to farm the fish during the 1990s. The species was carefully bred, leading to strains that are defined by large amounts of flesh.
As we’ve heard, having originally come from African lakes, tilapia can now be found in waters all over the world. But this has had some very negative consequences. That’s because in areas where it was previously never found, the fish now threatens native species that once thrived.
There are concerns that tilapia cultivation is a significant threat to developing nations that engage in the practice. If the species is produced in large numbers without sufficient regulation, experts warn, then entire ecosystems could be impaired. This, understandably, is a great cause of concern for some researchers.
Dr. Jeffrey McCrary, for one, is a marine biologist who’s focused his work on Nicaragua. Back in 2011 McCrary spoke to The New York Times to express his concern about the potential perils of tilapia farming. As he put it to the paper, “We are exporting the environmental damage caused by our appetites.”
And McCrary’s concerns aren’t exactly speculative. He can speak about such matters with the benefit of personal experience. The biologist has spent many years investigating the impact that a particular tilapia farm had on a Nicaraguan lake over the course of five years. He explained, “One small cage screwed up the entire lake – the entire lake!”
As McCrary observed, the detritus produced by the fish contaminated the waters of the lake. And some tilapia managed to break free of the confines of the farm as well, meaning they were free to swim around the entire lake. In doing so, they gorged themselves on an important plant to the point that it vanished entirely. This meant that the lake became barren.
But in spite of these serious environmental concerns, tilapia has still become an American favorite. The U.S. imports the fish from all over the world, most notably from South America and China. It comes into the United States in frozen form or as a fresh cut.
As we’ve already touched upon, tilapia is quite a good means of ingesting protein. But the seeming health benefits of eating the fish aren’t quite as clear-cut as we might hope. This is mainly because the specific sort of fat that’s found in the fish can be quite problematic for people.
Generally speaking, fish is said to contain high levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. This applies particularly to species such as sardine, trout and salmon. According to Healthline, such fats help to reduce inflammation within the body. And they’ve even been attributed to decreasing the possibility of developing cardiac issues.
But tilapia apparently has much lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids than other species. It has just one-tenth of the amount of omega-3 than salmon found in the wild, for instance. And to make things worse, there are a lot of omega-6 fatty acids in tilapia as well. It’s been suggested that these particular substances may have a detrimental effect on our health when consumed in large amounts.
If you’re a person who’s vulnerable to the development of cardiac problems or other inflammatory disorders, you might be advised to steer clear of tilapia. That’s because a healthy diet means striking a balance between omega-3 to omega-6. Tilapia’s high levels of the latter might just tip the scales in a negative way.
The amounts of omega-3 in tilapia raised on farms also reflects the quality of the feed that they’re given. As aquaculture expert Dr. Peter Bridson told The New York Times in 2011, “They are what they eat.” But that’s part of the problem. Tilapia grow quite well even when they eat food lacking omega-3. So they’re often provided with inexpensive feed that’s low in those fats.
And given that tilapia has become more and more popular over the years, it perhaps wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that questionable farming methods may have been employed. There have been some worrying stories going around about tilapia, and they might even make you think twice about tucking into the fish.
The headlines alone could be enough to put you off your meal. As Dr. Joe Schwarcz laid out in an article for Canada’s McGill University in 2017, some of these stories were titled “Worse Than Bacon” and “No Better for You Than A Doughnut.” Perhaps the most ominous of all referred to tilapia as the “Poop Fish.”
This last headline is certainly crude, but what exactly does it refer to? Well, it’s based on a claim made by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that some Chinese fish farms feed their tilapia the waste of other creatures. This would be a cheap means of raising tilapia, but it could prove hazardous for people eating the fish.
Outside of captivity, tilapia will typically eat algae. And in farms they’d ideally be provided with feed made up of soybeans or corn. But failing that, the fish could gorge on less appetizing matter that costs a lot less. Namely, they’d eat the excrement of sheep, chickens or pigs.
Dr. Joe Schwarcz elaborated on this subject in his article for McGill University. He wrote, “While this does not mean that eating these fish is tantamount to eating poop, the practice does increase the risk of bacterial contamination and the need to treat the fish with antibiotics. It isn’t clear just how widespread this practice is in Asia, but it doesn’t occur in North America where the quality of the water in which tilapia are raised is also carefully monitored.”
From a business perspective, the ability to turn waste into a profitable product is an appealing prospect. But doing so brings about a situation in which human health could become compromised. So it’s vital that such practices be monitored closely to ensure that people aren’t exposed to damaging bacteria by eating fish reared in this way.
But in the case of tilapia production in China, such concerns could ultimately be misplaced. Subsequent media reports have emerged that dispute the claims that Chinese tilapia farmers are feeding their stocks animal waste. After all, the initial FDA report from which these stories emerged never actually stated that tilapia farms were undertaking in this practice.
So maybe this news story has been blown way out of proportion. It’s unclear, after all, whether or not the rumors that tilapia are fed excrement in Chinese farms are even true. Having said that, there are further concerns that seafood imported from China might be contaminated with hazardous substances.
Another FDA study has suggested that certain seafood products brought into the United States from China contained “veterinary drug residues and unsafe additives.” So while the animal waste story that was circulating might not hold much weight, you might still want to consider your intake of tilapia and other Chinese imports rather carefully.
Despite all this negativity, though, an organization called Seafood Watch has suggested that Chinese practices in seafood production are getting better. The group does still express concern about the possibilities of fish containing banned substances being exported from China. But hopefully things are heading in the right direction. In any case, tilapia is also produced in other places such as Canada, Ecuador and the U.S. itself.
These horror stories could easily prove enough to put someone off tilapia for good. But some nutritionists have spoken out to argue that the fish can still make up a part of a balanced diet. A dietary expert named Melainie Rogers talked to Fox News back in 2014 about this very point.
“I tell my clients not to just eat one type of fish, no matter what, to reduce your risk of contamination,” Rogers said. “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.”
But for people who’re still concerned, there are measures that you can take to put you more at ease. First off, if you can get your hands on wild tilapia, that would be a healthier option. The problem with that, though, is that it’s difficult to find the fish outside of farms. Or you can just eat other species, of course.
You could also make sure to pay special attention to labels when you’re out shopping for your fish dinner. Regulations in place across the United States dictate that information about food products should be provided to consumers. But unfortunately these labels can at times be unreliable, vague or incomplete.
In any case, you’d be better off buying fresh seafood rather than the processed stuff. Products such as fish sticks, for instance, don’t legally have to be bear labels related to their contents. Whole fish, on the other hand, does. So that’s ultimately the safest thing you could buy.
Labeling can be a problematic feature of seafood products in America, then, which makes things difficult. But if you manage to speak with a fishmonger personally, you could ask them all the relevant questions. And if you trust them, you might feel a lot more at ease when consuming your plate of tilapia for dinner.