Ask Peggy

Is it OK to eat tilapia?

DEAR PEGGY: I've heard that we should steer clear of tilapia from overseas, but I cannot find a source for tilapia raised in the United States. What's the truth about tilapia? —M.N., Grantsburg, Wisconsin

Environmentally speaking, seafood watchdog groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium suggest that the best choice is U.S. farmed tilapia followed by Central American farmed as a "good alternative" in their National Seafood Guide. They warn to avoid tilapia farmed in China or Taiwan because the fish are caught or farmed in ways that can harm other marine life or the environment.

Most American tilapia farmers have not been able compete with the low prices from other nations, so they sell live whole fish to specialty niche markets such as restaurants and ethnic grocery stores. This means you aren't likely to find convenient, individually frozen U.S. farmed tilapia fillets at most large grocery stores. Tilapia need warm water to survive, so the U.S. wild tilapia market is quite small. The best you can do is to call around to local fishmongers to find the type you prefer.

Nutritionally speaking, an article published in the July 2008 edition of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association has raised new questions about how healthy some fish are, especially farm-raised tilapia and catfish. The article proposes that farmed tilapia and catfish have a high level of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids compared to the level of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Some believe this high ratio has detrimental health effects. However, the article acknowledges that there's still some controversy on the ratio's importance.

So where does that leave the consumer? We know it's best to choose U.S. farmed tilapia over tilapia from China or Taiwan. We also know tilapia is low in omega-3 fatty acids. If you're looking to boost omega-3s, a better choice would be salmon or trout. Also, while health questions have been raised, there is no official recommendation regarding the amount of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids compared to the amount of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids that we consume. Last, we know that tilapia is a good source of lean protein at less than 2 grams of fat for a 6-ounce fillet.