Tilapia is an inexpensive, mild-flavored fish. It is the fourth most commonly consumed type of seafood in the United States.
Many people love tilapia because it is relatively affordable and doesn’t taste very fishy.
However, scientific studies have highlighted concerns about tilapia’s fat content. Several reports also raise questions surrounding tilapia farming practices.
As a result, many people claim that you should avoid this fish altogether and that it may even be harmful to your health.
This article examines the evidence and reviews the benefits and dangers of eating tilapia.
What Is Tilapia?
The name tilapia actually refers to several species of mostly freshwater fish that belong to the cichlid family.
Although wild tilapia are native to Africa, the fish has been introduced throughout the world and is now farmed in over 135 countries (1).
It is an ideal fish for farming because it doesn’t mind being crowded, grows quickly and consumes a cheap vegetarian diet. These qualities translate to a relatively inexpensive product compared to other types of seafood.
The benefits and dangers of tilapia depend largely on differences in farming practices, which vary by location.
China is by far the world’s largest producer of tilapia. They produce over 1.6 million metric tons annually and provide the majority of the United States’ tilapia imports (2).
Summary: Tilapia is the name for several species of freshwater fish. Although farmed all over the world, China is the largest producer of this fish.
It’s an Excellent Source of Protein and Nutrients
Even more impressive is the amount of vitamins and minerals in this fish. Tilapia is rich in niacin, vitamin B12, phosphorus, selenium and potassium.
A 3.5-ounce serving contains the following (3):
Carbs: 0 grams
Protein: 26 grams
Fats: 3 grams
Niacin: 24% of the RDI
Vitamin B12: 31% of the RDI
Phosphorus: 20% of the RDI
Selenium: 78% of the RDI
Potassium: 20% of the RDI
Tilapia is also a lean source of protein, with only 3 grams of fat per serving.
However, the type of fat in this fish contributes to its bad reputation. The next section further discusses the fat in tilapia.
Summary: Tilapia is a lean source of protein that is full of various vitamins and minerals.
Its Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio May Lead to Inflammation
Fish are almost universally considered one of the healthiest foods on the planet.
One of the main reasons for this is that fish like salmon, trout, albacore tuna and sardines contain large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, wild-caught salmon contains over 2,500 mg of omega-3s per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving (4).
The bad news for tilapia is that it only contains 240 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per serving — ten times less omega-3 than wild salmon (3).
If that wasn’t bad enough, tilapia contains more omega-6 fatty acids than it does omega-3.
Omega-6 fatty acids are highly controversial but generally regarded as less healthy than omega-3s. Some people even believe omega-6 fatty acids can be harmful and increase inflammation if eaten in excess (8).
The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the diet is typically as close to 1:1 as possible. Consuming fish high in omega-3 like salmon will more easily help you meet this target, while tilapia does not offer much help (9).
In fact, several experts caution against consuming tilapia if you are trying to lower your risk of inflammatory diseases like heart disease (10).
Summary: Tilapia contains much less omega-3 than other fish like salmon. Its omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is higher than other fish and may contribute to inflammation in the body.
Reports of Farming Practices Are Concerning
As consumer demand for tilapia continues to grow, tilapia farming offers a cost-effective method of producing a relatively inexpensive product for the consumer.
However, several reports over the past decade have revealed some concerning details about tilapia farming practices, especially from farms located in China.
Tilapia Are Often Fed Animal Feces
One report from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed that it is common for fish farmed in China to be fed feces from livestock animals (11).
Although this practice drives down production costs, bacteria like Salmonella found in animal waste can contaminate the water and increase the risk of foodborne diseases.
Using animal feces as feed wasn’t directly associated with any specific fish in the report. However, around 73% of the tilapia imported to the United States comes from China, where this practice is particularly common (12).
Tilapia May Be Polluted With Harmful Chemicals
Another article reported that the FDA rejected over 800 shipments of seafood from China from 2007–2012, including 187 shipments of tilapia.
It cited the fish did not meet safety standards, as they were polluted with potentially harmful chemicals, including “veterinary drug residues and unsafe additives” (11).
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch also reported that several chemicals known to cause cancer and other toxic effects were still being used in Chinese tilapia farming despite some of them being banned for over a decade (13).
Summary: Several reports have revealed highly concerning practices in Chinese tilapia farming, including the use of feces as food and the use of banned chemicals.
The Safest Way to Eat Tilapia and Better Alternatives
Because of the concerning farming practices involving tilapia in China, it is best to avoid tilapia from China and look for tilapia from other parts of the world.
When shopping for farmed tilapia, the best sources include fish from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Ecuador or Peru (14).
Ideally, wild-caught tilapia are preferable to farmed fish. But wild tilapia is very hard to find. The vast majority of tilapia available to consumers is farmed.
Alternatively, other types of fish may be healthier and safer to consume. Fish like salmon, trout and herring have much more omega-3 fatty acids per serving than tilapia.
Additionally, these fish are easier to find wild-caught, which will help avoid some of the banned chemicals used in some tilapia farming.
Summary: If consuming tilapia, it is best to limit your consumption of fish farmed in China. However, fish like salmon and trout are higher in omega-3s and may prove to be healthier alternatives.
The Bottom Line
Tilapia is an inexpensive, commonly consumed fish that is farmed all over the world.
It is a lean source of protein that is also high in several vitamins and minerals, such as selenium, vitamin B12, niacin and potassium.
However, there are several reasons why you may want to avoid or limit tilapia.
Tilapia’s low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and relatively high levels of omega-6 fatty acids may contribute to inflammation.
Plus, there have been reports of using animal feces as food and the continued use of banned chemicals at tilapia farms in China. Because of this, if you choose to eat tilapia, it is best to avoid fish from China.
Alternatively, choosing fish high in omega-3 fatty acids like wild salmon or trout may be a healthier and safer choice of seafood.