If you’ve eaten fish tacos or a fish filet recently, there’s a good chance you’ve consumed some tilapia. The lean, white meat fish was the fourth top consumed fish in the United States in 2017, behind shrimp, salmon and canned tuna. On average, Americans ate just over a pound of tilapia that year.
However, tilapia is farmed around the world in conditions that have raised questions about how healthy the fish is from both environmental and nutritional standpoints. Each month, more than 4,100 people in the United States google the question “Is tilapia safe for your health?” according to data provided by SEMrush. A smaller amount of searchers have asked whether tilapia specifically from China, Indonesia or Honduras is safe to eat.
What is tilapia?
Tilapia the oldest farmed fish in the world, according to SeafoodHealthFacts.org. The name refers to several species of freshwater fish that grow in warm waters, such as the Nile River in Northern Africa.
Today, it’s farmed in more than 130 countries around the world. That said, according to a leading source on seafood safety, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, only three of those countries are providing good products. Tilapia is popular with farmers because the fish grow fast, tolerate crowded conditions, and eat plants such as algae and soybeans instead of meat. Methods to farm tilapia include using indoor recirculating tanks, ponds and freshwater net pens. Because of the ease of access to tilapia, it is a popular choice for many seafood dishes including sushi, but whether or not it is healthy to consume sushi is an entirely different question.
What are the environmental concerns about tilapia?
“The biggest issue with tilapia is that we need a lot more of it than we produce,” says Celine Beitchman, director of nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education. “And so it needs to be produced in these environments that are not necessarily healthy for the fish.”
Some general things to look out for? Beitchman recommends that consumers watch out for additives and antibiotics and look for fish from farms that allow tilapia to eat its natural diet.
Seafood Watch notes that tilapia farmed in raceways in Peru is the safest, because no chemicals are used. Tilapia raised in ponds in Ecuador is also a top choice, as are fish that are raised in indoor circulating tanks in general. The tanks harbor less waste and disease than other aquaculture methods.
Other good alternatives mentioned by Seafood Watch include tilapia farmed in freshwater net pens in Colombia, from ponds in Taiwan, from the brand name Toba Tilapia in Indonesia and from the brand name Regal Springs in Honduras, Indonesia and Mexico.
That said, Seafood Watch recommends you avoid consuming tilapia from China based on evidence of the use of illegal antibiotics and antimicrobials, and that risk of invasiveness is high. It can be tricky to avoid tilapia from China, though, as its the world’s top producer of the farmed fish.
“The safety of tilapia depends largely on where it’s farmed,” says Lisa Richards, author of TheCandidaDiet.com.
The Environmental Defense Fund also ranks tilapia sources from around the world and raises questions about tilapia from China and Taiwan, where exposure to water pollution and toxic chemicals is a major concern.
“When buying tilapia, try to find fish that were raised in the United States or Latin America,” Richards recommends.
In Latin America, tilapia are generally raised in freshwater, alongside shrimp that reduce pollution, she says. And the United States, tilapia are raised in closed tank systems in which waste and pollution can be filtered out. Don’t miss out on these 8 foods you should be eating raw.
How nutritious is tilapia?
Tilapia has been referred to as the “aquatic chicken,” because of its similarity to chicken breast and egg whites as a protein source.
“It’s one of the leanest, most efficient sources of protein,” says Ilana Muhlstein, MS, RDN and Co-Creator of the 2B Mindset. Three ounces of tilapia are just 110 calories but contain 20 grams of protein, she adds. The fish is also a good source of nutrients such as iron, B vitamins, selenium and zinc.
From a nutritional standpoint, tilapia is low in omega-3 fatty acids and rich in omega-6 fatty acids, says Nat Masterson, a health consultant and head of natural product development for Maple Holistics. Research has suggested the omega-6 can increase inflammation if people consume too much of it.
But Muhlstein points out that while tilapia may not have as many omega-3s as fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel, it still contains more of the fatty acids than other conventional sources of protein such as beef, chicken and pork. Make sure not to order this type of fish in a restaurant.
How should you shop for tilapia?
So tilapia has health benefits, as long as it’s farmed in a responsible way. But how do you know at the grocery store what tilapia is the best to buy?
Beitchman recommends you look for the countries of origin on packages of tilapia. The best ones would be Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, she says.
Then if you’re shopping at Whole Foods, you can look for green or yellow labels that tell you more about the quality of the seafood. Or check for a Best Aquaculture Practices certification, Muhlstein recommends. She’s a fan of buying frozen tilapia from Trader’s Joe’s.
“It could be a great way to get a heart-healthy, low-calorie source of protein in your diet,” she says.
Or skip the supermarket altogether and head to the farmers market for alternatives to tilapia such as cod or Arctic char, Beitchman recommends.
The final word? Take care to know where your fish is coming from and make an informed shopping decision. Considering the issues with tilapia and rotate your fish selections so that you get a good dose of omega-3s. But in the end, tilapia once a week is still a healthier choice than a cheeseburger and fries. Once you’ve found the best cut of tilapia, try out this recipe for tilapia tacos!