Food Science

Tilapia Warning: Is Tilapia Bad for You?

Tilapia is a popular fish in many parts of the world. Most people love it because it’s easy to prepare and more affordable than other kinds of seafood. Since it can survive in ponds, it’s reared throughout the world, and that’s why it’s widely available. 

Because of tilapia’s low to moderate fat and high-quality protein content, it offers a variety of health benefits. Nevertheless, owing to environmental concerns on tilapia farming practices, people are worried about possible tilapia health risks. 

As such, most people are opting for healthy tilapia alternatives to avoid consuming the fish altogether. 

In this article we’ll walk you through the journey to understanding more about the fish, and answer the question, “Is tilapia safe?”

What’s Tilapia?

Tilapia is a fresh-water fish that belongs to the Cichlidae family. It’s commonly found in fresh-water lakes, shallow rivers, streams, and ponds. Rarely is it found in saline or brackish water.

Since tilapia is a plant-eating fish, it’s cheaper to feed, and that’s why it’s commonly bred in ponds. In addition to this, it’s a fast-growing fish that can survive in a crowded environment. As such, it’s ideal for large scale fish farming. 

While tilapia is among the few kinds of seafood rich in high-quality proteins, people are worried about the health risks it may pose to consumers due to the differences in fish farming practices. 

Tilapia is native to Africa and the Middle East, but it’s now largely produced in different parts of the world, China being the world’s largest producer. This has greatly affected the fish’s quality, and like everybody else, you may consider a substitute for tilapia. 

Tilapia Farming and Breeding

The Nile tilapia is the most common breed of tilapia bred in many fish ponds across the world. It accounts for more than 70 percent of farmed tilapia. 

While tilapia can feed on both meat and vegetable diets, they’re mainly fed on a cheap vegetarian diet since they can still survive on feeds with low nutritional value. 

Due to tilapia’s inability to survive in cold water, the fish is commonly bred in warm water habitats. The breeding is mostly done in ponds, hapas, or tanks. 

Tilapia can become an invasive species. That’s why in the U.S. they’re mostly bred in closed tanks to prevent them from escaping. 

The fish can survive in an overcrowded environment, but to produce healthier fish, it’s advisable to breed them in a spacious environment and let them feed on a high-quality diet.

Most fish farmers breed the male tilapia instead of the female tilapia owing to their high profitability. Unlike the female tilapia, which spend more energy and time breeding, the male tilapia grow bigger within a short time and are more energy-efficient. 

Several techniques are now being employed to produce only the male tilapia offspring. For instance, we have the YY technique, which aims at producing YY chromosomes tilapia males. 

Is Tilapia Safe?

When reared in good conditions, tilapia shouldn’t pose any health risk. However, due to different fish farming standards and techniques used throughout the world, tilapia might not be safe for consumption. 

In most fish farms, tilapia is exposed to harmful environmental contaminants that may pose serious health risks to humans. While tilapia are naturally filter-feeders, they tend to dive deeper to the bottom in search of food in case there’s nothing to eat. For this reason, they’ll feed on contaminants and wastes that have sunk to the bottom. 

Also, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration’s report, more than 70 percent of fish farmed in China are fed on livestock feces. While it’s a cost-effective practice, it compromises the quality of fish produced and pose health risks to humans. 

The salmonella present in livestock feces tends to contaminate the water and lead to increased chances of contracting foodborne diseases. 

Secondly, farmed tilapia are constantly fed on antibiotics to keep them alive until harvest. Unlike those in natural habitats, they tend to be more susceptible to diseases. 

These antibiotics are detrimental to the health of the fish, as well as humans. People who consume fish meat with traces of these antibiotics are more susceptible to bacterial infection, as this alters their normal microbial environment. 

Healthy Alternatives To Tilapia

Owing to the health concerns raised about tilapia, you may consider abandoning it for other kinds of seafood that offer similar benefits. Nevertheless, you can still stick to this fish variety provided it comes from a reliable source. 

Mostly, avoid tilapia from China as much as you can because they’re contaminated with livestock feces. You can eat tilapia from other parts of the world, especially those sourced from fresh-water lakes. 

Other sustainable sources include blue tilapia race farms in Peru, fish ponds in Ecuador, and fish farms in the U.S. and Canada.

If you’re not in a position to get tilapia from these sources, consider the following alternatives:

  • Cod
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Mackerel
  • Tout

These fish have a lower fat content and contain fewer calories than tilapia. As such, they’re considered healthy tilapia alternatives. They’re also richer in omega-3 fatty acids. 

Additionally, unlike tilapia that’s hard to find wild-caught, most of these fish varieties are sourced from natural habitats. Therefore, you’re not exposed to the antibiotics and chemicals used in tilapia farming.

Tilapia is known to offer a wide variety of health benefits to humans. It’s rich in high-quality proteins and minerals that offer benefits such as boosting overall metabolism, promoting weight loss, and building strong bones. 

It’s one fish that you shouldn’t miss on your protein diet. However, it’s important to also consider the health risks it poses to humans depending on how it’s bred. If you’re able to get the fish from sustainable sources, you’re good to go.

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