A recent article in The New York Times, “Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish,” reports that Americans ate 475 million pounds of tilapia last year, making it the most popular farmed fish in the United States. Tilapia is so popular, that it’s now referred to as the “aquatic chicken” (although tuna might have something to say about that moniker). As Americans are routinely lambasted for poor nutrition choices, the adoption of more fish in the U.S. diet is largely viewed as a good thing.
However, on closer inspection, the picture doesn’t look as rosy. “While a portion of tilapia has 135 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, a portion of salmon has over 2,000 milligrams,” the Times reports. “And farmed tilapia may have even less than wild tilapia because fish acquire omega-3s by eating aquatic plants and other fish.” Farmed fish, by contrast, largely eat feed made from corn and soy.
Additionally, where tilapia is being grown and harvested is a source of concern. In Latin America, the fish grow in overcrowded pens under conditions that would not be allowed in the U.S. According to the Times, “Seafood Watch lists tilapia raised in the United States as a ‘best choice,’ tilapia from Latin America as a ‘good alternative’ and tilapia from China as ‘to be avoided.’” Fish farming in China is considered poorly regulated, although Chinese-raised frozen fish can be bought in the U.S. very cheaply.
Despite these problems, white fish such as tilapia is high in protein and low in fat—both good reasons to include it in your diet. Take care to know where your fish is coming from and make an informed shopping decision. Considering the issues with tilapia, 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.