Tilapia is a popular white fish seen in almost every supermarket. But is it healthy? Should you be eating it? Rumors abound on the internet that it is “dangerous,” but experts also recommend it as a healthy seafood option.
Who’s telling the truth? Let’s explore the balanced facts about this mild, white fish.
What Is Tilapia?
Tilapia is a common fish that is often seen in grocery stores, particularly in the frozen section. It’s inexpensive and has a mild flavor, making it a favorite option for people who aren’t as keen to enjoy seafood.
Tilapia ranks number four on the list of the most eaten type of seafood in the United States, behind shrimp, tuna, and salmon.
Tilapia is a freshwater fish that is native to Africa but is currently farmed in more than 130 countries. It grows quickly, is typically fed an inexpensive vegetarian diet, and thrives in cramped quarters of fish-farming operations.
The biggest producer of tilapia is China, producing more than 1.5 million tons annually. The U.S. gets most of its tilapia from China, but other countries also produce it, including the U.S., the Netherlands, Ecuador, Canada, and Taiwan.
For people who avoid fish because, well, it tastes fishy, tilapia is a go-to because it smells and tastes less like fish and more like white meat.
In fact, it is often referred to as “aquatic chicken.” With experts constantly recommending seafood as heart healthy and anti-inflammatory, tilapia has grown in popularity in recent years.
However, there are mixed opinions on the health benefits of tilapia. It is not simply a white version of salmon.
Concerns Over Tilapia
While seafood that is high in omega-3s is quite healthy and anti-inflammatory, tilapia is significantly lower in these beneficial fats than are salmon, cod, sardines, and anchovies.
In fact, 100 grams of tilapia has approximately 200 milligrams of omega-3s, which might sound like a lot, but pales in comparison to the same amount of salmon, which contains approximately 2,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids.
Salmon contains 10 times more omega-3s than tilapia, so the two can’t be eaten interchangeably. Eating tilapia won’t reduce the need for healthy omega-3 fats or a high-quality fish oil supplement.
Not only is tilapia lower in omega-3s, but it’s also higher in omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-6s are needed to some degree, they can be inflammatory when they are not kept in check by a high enough omega-3 intake and research has found that tilapia can contain problematic fat ratios for people with chronic and inflammatory conditions like heart disease, arthritis, autoimmunity, and asthma. (source)
Omega-6 fatty acids are also found in foods like nuts and seeds, but also in trans fats and processed foods. Some Americans consume omega-6 to omega-3 fats in shocking ratios of 25 to 1 versus the recommended 4 to 1 or even 1 to 1.
Tilapia are most often farmed and fed vegetarian diets, but what this really means is that they’re mostly fed with corn and soy—two of the most inflammatory and genetically modified ingredients that exist.
When we eat corn and soy directly via processed foods, it can lead to inflammation and chronic conditions, not to mention that fact that they are common food allergens.
Even though you’re not eating them directly, when you consume fish that are primarily fed these ingredients, you can still be impacted by the poor nutrient quality.
Fewer than five percent of tilapia sold and consumed in the U.S. are products of the country. Fish farming regulations in other countries are not as stringent as the U.S., so it’s important to consider the quality of the food you’re eating.
Damaging effects of these operations can include pollution and water contamination, particularly by fecal matter. This is because, in some farming operations, tilapia can be fed livestock feces on purpose, which can result in salmonella contamination.
While farming standards have been increased in recent years, the quality of fish from one farming operation versus another can be dramatically different.
Choosing a high-quality source matters. While wild-caught will always be best, finding a farming operation that follows strict regulations and environmental practices is vital for your wellness.
Farmed tilapia may also be at risk of drug contamination from veterinary residue even in places like the U.S., Europe, and Canada, particularly with antibiotics. This can contribute to the growing problem with “superbug” strains of bacterial infections that are antibiotic resistant.
Gut health can be impacted even by the presence of trace antibiotics from animal-sourced food, which is why farming practices, on land or at sea, matter.
Additionally, when farming operations aren’t properly secured and are contaminated, sick tilapia can escape into the wild and sicken wild fish, leading to danger for local marine life and fishing operations that can have widespread consequences.
While the USDA has varying standards for organic seafood, and some labels may be confusing, most are required to have “country of origin” labels. To get the best quality tilapia, choose products of the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, or Ecuador preferentially.
Health Benefits of Tilapia
Now, just because tilapia isn’t as healthy as salmon doesn’t mean it should never be eaten. After ensuring that you’ve chosen a high-quality product, you can reap the following benefits of eating this mildly flavored white fish.
High in Protein
Tilapia is a low-calorie, lean protein option. Just 100 grams of tilapia have a little over 25 grams of protein. For a mere 125 calories, this is a protein-dense bang for its buck.
Whether you’re trying to lose weight or not, tilapia is an easy-to-digest protein option to rotate in with your chicken, beef, pork, and eggs. It’s great for making homemade fish and chips, too, and the protein in the tilapia will slow down the digestion of the potatoes.
Most seafood prices can scare foodies into a different aisle, but tilapia tends to be a fairly affordable fish. Now, if you source U.S.A. products you might find that the prices leap compared to farmed fish from Asia, but quality beats a better in-store deal.
Even products of the U.S. are still going to be more economical than salmon, cod, and wild-caught shrimp. Some stores even offer bulk discounts on tilapia, and some parts of the U.S. will have fresh, never frozen options available.
Purchasing fish through a fish market or specialty store might yield better bulk pricing, especially if you develop a relationship with the owner. This is far more likely than getting discounts from big box or chain supermarkets.
If you or someone in your family is highly picky about “fishy” tasting food, tilapia is one surefire way to get seafood on your table. It tastes less like fish and more like chicken. Plus, tilapia absorbs any marinades or seasonings it is cooked with very well without long marinating times.
It can easily be cooked from frozen, too, saving dinner prep when you’re crunched for time. Tilapia is done when it doesn’t appear translucent anymore, and depending on oven temps, can cook from frozen in as little as 15 minutes.
Low-Mercury Seafood Option
If you’ve read much about seafood, you know that a significant portion of it can be contaminated with mercury, particularly larger fish like tuna, swordfish, tilefish, and shark.
If you’re worried about mercury, tilapia is a safe fish to consume because it doesn’t feed on other fish. Carnivorous fish, like tuna and shark, feed on smaller fish and absorb higher levels of mercury since it compounds in their bodies.
Wild tilapia feed on algae and other weeds and farmed tilapia are fed corn and soy, which with all their faults, are not contaminated with heavy metals. Tilapia is considered a pregnancy-safe fish because of its low mercury content and it’s one of the most recommended seafood options for expecting and breastfeeding mothers, as well as anyone at risk for complications from mercury toxicity.
Vitamins and Minerals
Tilapia contains more than just protein and fat; it also contains vitamins and minerals like potassium, phosphorous, and selenium, which nourish healthy muscles and thyroid function, and also B vitamins, which are essential for mood regulation and a healthy nervous system.
Impressively, a single serving contains nearly 80 percent of the recommended daily intake for selenium.
It also contains choline, a nutrient considered to be related to the B-family of vitamins, which is vital for many things like cellular communication in the brain, cognitive function, and is even potentially protective against conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
How To Cook with Tilapia
Tilapia is an easy fish to work with, but if you’re new to working seafood into your diet, it can be daunting. Here are the best cooking ideas for preparing tilapia.
Tilapia cooks very well in the oven whether it is fresh, thawed, or frozen.
Preheat your oven to 375ºF and place fish in a glass baking dish. Marinate with your preferred sauce or cooking fat. Options include teriyaki sauce, coconut aminos, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter plus your favorite seasonings. Plain and basic sea salt and black pepper also produce fine results.
Bake for between 15 and 35 minutes, depending on your oven and whether your fish is fresh or frozen. Tilapia is done when it flakes easily apart with a fork and doesn’t appear translucent.
Thaw your tilapia and cook it in a large skillet with avocado or coconut oil. After heating your oil, season the tilapia and add it to the frying pan, being careful to avoid splatters. Cook for a few minutes each side, or until the fish is not translucent and flakes easily.
Adding something spicy, like chili powder, can provide a flavorful alternative! You can even turn tilapia into fish tacos for a popular dinner option.
While fried fish isn’t always healthy, it can be when you make tilapia fish and chips. After you’ve thawed your tilapia according to package instructions, dredge the fish in a mixture of eggs, cassava flour, and seasonings of your choice.
For every four fillets of fish, you will need 2 eggs, 1 cup of cassava, and approximately a teaspoon of your preferred seasoning.
Heat a skillet with coconut oil or avocado oil, and fry your battered fish for about 4-6 minutes each side, or until fish flakes easily apart.
Tilapia also taste great when grilled, although because they easily flake apart, it’s best to placed foil on the grill and cook the fish on top of it so that you don’t lose pieces through the grill grates as it cooks.
Marinade the fish in your favorite sauce, or even just lemon juice and sea salt, and grill until it is not transparent and appears grilled to your liking.
Bottom Line about Tilapia
While tilapia may have its share of controversy, when purchased wisely, it’s a healthy protein and seafood option that works well with many dietary approaches. It has a mild flavor that is versatile with seasonings and side dish pairings.
It is rich in nutrients that support healthy metabolism and nervous system function and is low in heavy metal contamination, which is a common concern with seafood products.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.