Fish is considered a healthy source of protein because it’s lean, easy to digest, and filled with healthy omega-3 fatty acids and other important minerals.
However, the dark side of the story is that about 50% of the fish we eat are factory farmed, and tilapia takes a fair share of that percentage. According to Seafood Health Facts, it was the fourth most consumed fish in the United States in 2017.
Not surprisingly, tilapia is also one of the cheapest kinds of fish on the market. Which also might make you wonder — could something so cheap actually be healthy?
What Is Tilapia?
Tilapia is a tropical fish and a member of the Cichlid family. This fish is native to Africa and the Middle East, though most of the tilapia you find in the stores originate from fish farms. In fact, over 135 countries have tilapia farms, with China leading the pack (and supplying directly to the U.S.)
Many people enjoy eating tilapia because it’s such a mild-tasting white fish. It’s easy to cook and works great in tacos and other easy recipes.
Tilapia is an easy fish to farm as it eats a cheap diet, grows quickly, and is exceptionally hardy. Unfortunately, this makes tilapia an easy fish to farm with poor practices.
Why Tilapia Is Farmed
It’s amazing how adaptable the tilapia fish can be. It can tolerate varying concentrations of salt, and high concentration of pesticides, medication residues, and fertilizers. Such conditions typically cause an overgrowth of algae, which significantly reduces the amount of oxygen in the water. This is often a problem for other fish, but tilapia can survive those harsher conditions.
Tilapia feeds mostly on algae and marine planktons, although it can eat nearly anything, including corn and soy. This could be a problem, as their diet could easily contain GMOs or pesticides.
Since it is a tropical freshwater fish, tilapia cannot survive in cold water. Therefore, the majority of tilapia consumed in the U.S. is farmed in Asia.
The Dangers of Tilapia Farming
China is the largest exporter of farmed fish, which is a problem due to water pollution. These farms also make ample use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other chemicals to keep fish alive and maximize profit.
Unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t do too much to make sure the tilapia is safe. They only sample about 1-2% of imported seafood to screen for illegal chemicals that are banned in the United States. Among the fish shipments tested, the rejection rate for tilapia is high: up to 82% in 2014.
The tilapia fish that pass (or escape) the FDA testing may still contain questionable drugs or other residues, even if it’s not from China. A study of tilapia coming from South America found that two out of three samples contained malachite green and gentian violet, both of which are known to cause cancer. All samples contained at least one heavy metal, like mercury, cadmium, arsenic, or lead.
Although the levels are below FDA safety limits, it can still be harmful in the long run. I recommend avoiding imported tilapia since you just can’t know what’s in them.
Are There Trustworthy Sources of Tilapia?
Sort of. If you really want to eat tilapia, stick to the kind raised in the U.S.
Domestic fisheries are a much better bet because they are more strictly regulated for cleanliness. On the downside, they tend to be more expensive than imported tilapia.
When done correctly, farmed tilapia is not the worst for your health. They are fed vegetarian diets and farmed for relatively short periods of time, meaning that there is less room for biomagnification (the process in which toxic pollutants accumulate up the food chain). If the fish is properly farmed and fed with quality feed, then it should be less polluted than the fish that eat other fish.
However, we know that’s not always the case! If you choose to occasionally consume tilapia, you want to source it from reputable companies. Make sure that they also use third party testing to ensure that the fish is safe for human consumption.
Is Tilapia Healthy?
This is a complicated question to answer. There are a few good health benefits of this popular fish, namely its high protein content and low calorie count. Tilapia also is very low in fat. Per 100 grams, it clocks in at just under two grams of fat. But it’s precisely that small amount of fat that carries its issues.
It’s important to get your omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in a healthy balance. Too much omega-6 fatty acids can lead to inflammation, which worsens problems like heart disease. Unfortunately, tilapia contains an elevated amount of omega-6s and not enough omega-3s to be considered healthy.
In short, you’re better off eating grass-fed beef or chicken to get your heart healthy omega-3 fats.
What About the Mercury in Tilapia?
Most people are concerned about mercury levels in seafood, especially pregnant women.
The seafood with the highest amounts of mercury is usually at the top of the food chain, like swordfish and marlin. However, farmed fish like tilapia tend to have mercury as well due to the poor conditions that it is raised in.
The mercury content in tilapia might not be as concerning as the levels found in certain types of wild seafood. One way to offset this risk is to make sure you’re getting enough selenium. Methylmercury binds to selenium in the body, and when the mercury levels are higher than the nutrient selenium, all sorts of problems can occur.
Fortunately, most seafood contains selenium in high enough amounts, so it will help your body deal with the effects of the mercury.
You can also aim to get plenty of wild-caught salmon in your diet, which is an incredible source of selenium, among other nutrients.
Listen to this podcast where I sit down with the president of Vital Choice Seafood and talk about mercury concerns in farm raised and wild seafood.
Better Alternatives to Tilapia
Fortunately, there’s plenty of fish in the sea that has better nutritional profiles than tilapia.
Here are a few great seafood choices that beat tilapia nutritionally:
- Sardines. If you’re looking for a type of fish that rivals tilapia in protein, grab a can of sardines. They’re a great source of omega-3s and are packed with vitamins and minerals like selenium, calcium, and vitamin D. Here’s how to make them taste better if you’re sensitive to their strong smell. I get mine from Thrive Market.
- Wild-caught salmon. Alaskan salmon is a great choice if you’re looking for a nutrient-dense alternative to sardines. We get ours (along with the two kinds listed below when in stock) from Vital Choice.
- Red snapper. Similar to tilapia, red snapper is a low calorie, protein-rich choice. Just be sure to limit your intake to a few times per month, as it may contain mercury that could be harmful to pregnant women or children.
- Cod. This is a good alternative if you’re searching for a similarly mild, flaky fish. Try using cod filets in these homemade gluten-free fish sticks recipe!
The Bottom Line
It is best to avoid tilapia because of its unhealthy farming practices, plus its potential to cause inflammation and disrupt your fatty acid balance. Since it is a rather bland-tasting white fish, it is easy to replace it with another more nutritious, preferably wild-caught and fatty fish like salmon.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Walker, an internal medicine physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Do you eat tilapia? Are there better alternatives for inexpensive fish? Tell us in the comments below!
- Babu, B., & Ozbay, G. (2013). Screening of Imported Tilapia Fillets for Heavy Metals and Veterinary Drug Residues in the Mid-Atlantic Region, USA. J Food Process Tech, 4(9), 1-7.
- Barboza, D. (2007). In China, Farming Fish in Toxic Waters. New York Times.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2014). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture.
- Seafood Health Facts (2017). Overview of the U.S. Seafood Supply.
- Young, K. (2009). Omega-6 (n-6) and omega-3 (n-3) fatty acids in tilapia and human health: a review. International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 60(sup5), 203-211.