Is Eating Tilapia Healthy?

by Dr. Rafael Guerrero III, PhD

Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticusis the second most important farmed fish in the Philippines next to milkfish or “bangus.”  Our country produces over 250,000 metric tons of tilapia from culture in  freshwater ponds and lake cages every year.  Per capita consumption of tilapia among Filipinos is 3 kg/yr compared to 2.5 kg/yr for milkfish and 1.6 kg/yr for roundscad or “galunggong.”

            There are unfavorable reports in the United States media that tilapia is not healthy to eat.  It is claimed that the fish has “poor nutritive quality” because it contains higher amounts of omega-6 fatty acids that increases “bad cholesterol” which is a risk factor for heart disease than omega-3 fatty acids that increases “good cholesterol.”  It is also been said that farmed tilapia has antibiotics and mercury in its flesh.

            How true are such allegations?  Is eating tilapia really not healthy?  Let’s look at the facts and figures.

            In the United States where tilapia is “the most popular farmed fish,” 215,000 tons of the fish were consumed in 2010.  According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 100 grams of tilapia have 20 grams of protein, 1.7 grams of fat, 96 calories and very little amounts of carbohydrate and fiber.  It also has 302 milligrams (mg) of potassium, 170 mg of phosphorus, 24 mg of folate (vitamin B9) and 124 international units of vitamin D.  In short, is a food that ishigh in protein, low in fat and rich in minerals and vitamins.

            Tilapias caught in open waters has higher omega-3 fatty acid content than their farmed counterpart because they feed on natural food while the cultured fishis given commercial feeds containing soybean meal that is high in omega-6 fatty acids.  Soybean meal is used in the feeds to replace more expensive fish meal thatis high in omega-3 fatty acids as a protein source.

            Antibiotics are not used in commercial feeds of tilapia in the Philippines to avoid bacterial resistance to human medicine.  Mercury levels in tilapia cultured in lake cages are lower (within safe limits) than those in marine fishes like salmon, mackerel and tuna.

            A kilo of tilapia meat only has 17 grams of fat compared to bacon, cheese and beef with 710 grams, 344 grams and 100 grams, respectively.  Thus, Elizabeth Rosethal wrote in the New York Times: “Eating tilapia once a week is a healthier choice than a cheeseburger and fries.”

            The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week for good health.  Nutritionists advise that the lack of omega-3 fatty acids in farmedtilapia can be supplemented with other sources like fish oil and vegetables in the diet.  Eating grilled or steamed tilapia instead of frying it will also lower our intake of omega-6 fatty acids.