Why You Will Never See Tilapia On My Plate
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
March is National Nutrition Month. If you are a regular reader of my blogs, you know that I am extremely passionate about good nutrition and people taking responsibility for what they put into their bodies so that they can help avoid the chronic illnesses so many of us face.
It’s just as important to know what not to eat as it is to know what to eat, especially when it comes to foods we think undoubtedly belong on the healthy food list. Fish, for example, I think many would agree is very healthy. In general, fish is a great source of protein, healthy fat and vitamins and minerals. Many people even take fish oil pills as supplements.
I regularly eat wild-caught salmon, which is a great source of vitamins B12 and B6, selenium, phosphorus, omega-3 fats and more. Halibut, cod and trout are some other fish preferences of mine, but tilapia will not be a favorite.
Before I get into why, let me first say that this is not about food bashing or shaming those who do eat tilapia. My goal is to educate and empower people to make better food choices in a society where there is so much misinformation and confusion. There is always a better choice, but it is up to us to be proactive and find that better choice.What is tilapia? Where does it come from?
Tilapia is actually a name given to several species of freshwater fish that belong to the cichlid family. It is only native to Africa and the Middle East, but it is farmed all over the world in more than 135 countries. Reportedly, it is the fourth most popular kind of seafood in the United States.
Wild-caught fish versus farmed fish.
“It is a common misconception that wild seafood is good and farm-raised is bad. Unfortunately, the answer is not black and white. What’s the difference? Simply put, wild-caught seafood is caught from a natural habitat (lake, ocean, river) whereas farmed seafood is raised in large tanks. In the store or on your plate, the two could look the same, but are not promised to be equivalent,” reports Colorado State University.
“Many of the concerns surrounding fish farming arise from the crowding together of thousands of fish in their artificial environment. Waste products, including feces, uneaten food, and dead fish, are flushed (often untreated) into the surrounding waters where they add to the contamination of the water supply. Also in this effluent are pesticides and veterinary drugs that have been used in an effort to treat the pests and diseases that afflict fish in these concentrated numbers,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
It is extremely important to know how your fish is farmed. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a very reputable source for aquaculture and all things eating seafood, pretty much any tilapia you find in the U.S. is farmed and imported. The Seafood Watch also says to assume the tilapia is farmed in China.
Tilapia farming practices in China.
Chinese tilapia farming practices have a history of being quite disturbing. For one, investigative research has shown that livestock manure (such as pig and goose feces) is commonly used to feed the fish. This increases the risk of having fish contaminated with salmonella and other pathogens that may cause foodborne illnesses.
“There have been instances where fish farms in Asia were found to be feeding poultry, sheep or hog manure to tilapia. 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,” according to a report from McGill University.
If you visit Ocean Wise Seafood Program, another very reputable site for all things seafood and aquaculture, and look up every variety of tilapia farmed in China it is recommended by Ocean Wise to avoid it.
In addition to this, chemicals that are banned in other parts of the world are apparently used in Chinese tilapia farming. One of these chemicals is called malachite green.
“Malachite green (MG) is an effective topical fungicide used in the aquaculture industry. MG absorbed by fish tissue is metabolically reduced to leucomalachite green (LMG), which is lipophilic and can be stored in edible fish tissues for an extended period of time.3 It is, therefore, likely that the majority of violative residues present in fish will be in the form of LMG,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“Due to the suspected mutagenicity of MG and LMG, 4-6 MG is not permitted for use as an aquaculture veterinary drug in many countries including the United States, Canada and in the European Union. Regardless, numerous reports of MG misuse in aquaculture have been reported in the US and internationally.”
This is alarming. According to a report from Seafood Watch, the use of malachite green is the reason why the detention of frozen tilapia filets occurred in the U.S. back in 2016.
“Also, nine import rejections since 2015 have been imposed on Chinese tilapia due to detection of antibiotics in fish filets, including several antimicrobials listed as ‘Highly Important for Human Medicine’ by the World Health Organization (WHO).”
Although some might say that not all Chinese tilapia farming is bad or that significant efforts are being made to clean up these practices, I would have to get conclusive proof that these practices no longer exist. There are many fish farms in China, and I have no information that they all are practicing better habits. Remember, you can pretty much count on any tilapia you find in the U.S. being imported from China.
Type of fat content. Another reason why you will not find tilapia on my plate.
Tilapia actually has a very interesting nutritional profile, and at first glance it seems like a really good one. For example, around 3.5 ounces of tilapia contains a whopping 26 grams of protein at the cost of just 127 calories. Tilapia is also rich in essential nutrients such as phosphorus, selenium, potassium and vitamins B12 and B3.
The problem, however, lies within the particular type of fat that tilapia contains. Fish such as salmon and trout are high in a beneficial type of fat called omega-3s. These fatty acids are known for helping prevent heart disease, which is generally why fish is touted as such an important health food. (Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both American men and women).
On the other hand, tilapia has more omega-6s than omega-3s. And in my opinion, this defeats the purpose of eating fish.
“A healthy diet contains a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and some omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. In fact, some studies suggest that elevated intakes of omega-6 fatty acids may play a role in complex regional pain syndrome. The typical American diet tends to contain 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids,” according to Mount Sinai.
According to a study from 2008 conducted by Wake Forest University School of Medicine, tilapia has low levels of beneficial omega-3s and very high amounts of omega-6s.
“The researchers say the combination could be a potentially dangerous food source for some patients with heart disease, arthritis, asthma and other allergic and auto-immune diseases that are particularly vulnerable to an ‘exaggerated inflammatory response,’” according to this Science Daily report that discusses the study.
In my opinion, this may negate the benefits of the other micronutrients in tilapia. Plus, I can get plenty of micronutrients from fresh fruits and vegetables which are also highly anti-inflammatory.
If you eat seafood, there are so many other healthier options. Check out Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch for invaluable information on seafood ratings and aquaculture.
Enjoy your healthy life. Happy National Nutrition Month!
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor or another competent healthcare practitioner to get specific medical advice for your situation.
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