Tilapia: A Healthy Food Choice

Tilapia are hardy, fast growing, warm-water fish that are a popular choice for aquaculture. Tilapia are members of the Cichlid family that are native to freshwater in Africa and the Middle East. Tilapia production is booming worldwide, having increased from 1.6 metric tons in 1999 to 3.5 metric tons in 2008. China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand are the top five global producers of tilapia.

A decade ago, tilapia were relatively unknown in the United States, but they are gaining in popularity. Originally targeted for Asian and African ethnic populations, tilapia are now widely available to the general public in fish markets and supermarkets.

Tilapia is sold live, fresh, and frozen and in different product forms (whole, gutted, and fillets). Most tilapia consumed in in the U.S. is frozen product that comes from China and Taiwan. Central and South America are the prime source of imported fresh tilapia. Tilapia farming in the United States provides less than 10% of tilapia consumed domestically. In 2010 Americans ate 475 million pounds of tilapia, which ranks it as the number one consumed farmed fish in the U.S.

Because of their mild flavored, white-fleshed fillets, tilapia makes an ideal ingredient for many recipes. Tilapia are a good source of protein and a 3.5 oz. serving contains 28 grams of proteins. Tilapia is low in saturated fat, calories, carbohydrates and sodium. Tilapia also contains good amounts of other beneficial nutrients, including selenium, vitamin B12, niacin, phosphorous, and potassium.

Mercury is a toxic compound that is often concentrated in fish that are predators at the top of the food chain. Tilapia are oomnivorous and can eat many foods, including plants, animals, and algae. Due to their feeding habits, fast growth, and short lifespan, they contain very little mercury.

There is some concern about the cholesterol levels in tilapia. A 3.5 oz. serving of tilapia contains 57 mg of cholesterol, which is 19% of the daily recommended amount. Cholesterol is a naturally occurring steroid that is essential for maintaining body health. However, high levels of cholesterol, particularly “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL), can contribute to heart disease.

Many cold-water fish, such as salmon, trout, herring, and mackerel, contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. High levels of omega-3s contribute to healthy heart maintenance and can help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure.

A study released by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in 2008, found that farm-raised tilapia contain low levels of beneficial omega-3s (less than half a gram per 3.5 oz. of fish, similar to flounder and swordfish), but relatively high levels of omega-6s. The researchers indicated that this combination of fatty acids could cause a detrimental inflammation response in individuals with heart disease, arthritis, asthma and other allergic and auto-immune diseases.

In response to this study, an open letter from 16 science and health experts from around the world confirmed that tilapia can indeed be considered part of a healthy diet. They emphasized that tilapia are relatively low in total and saturated fats and high in protein and essential trace nutrients. Tilapia provide more omega-3s than other meat alternatives like hamburger, steak, chicken, pork or turkey.

The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times (two servings) a week. You can meet this requirement either by eating tilapia more often or in combination with other fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna. Given its nutritional benefits, tilapia is a good food choice for those interested in healthy eating.

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