Is Farmed Tilapia Dangerous to Your Health?

I don’t like tilapia, period. There I said it. I was not impressed with its look, taste or texture when I ordered it. Then add in the horror stories of how they are raised on an intensive scale. I don’t need any more information to choose something else in a restaurant or fish market. But am I correct?

Tilapia can be a polarizing fish. There does not seem to be a middle ground. Either you love it, or hate it. Many consumers like its taste, versatility, and its affordable price. Although, I have to be fair and say that not all tilapia is raised in disgusting conditions. Many people are now raising their own tilapia in the burgeoning aquaponics community. This is the good kind of tilapia being raised by people more focused on making food than profit.

There is little, if anything that will convert me over to eat tilapia. I just don’t like the taste. They are members of the cichlid family, and I’m a former breeder of Jack Dempsey cichlids. They share a tough disposition that can tolerate various environments, water quality and food types. But don’t look like food fish to me, they all remind me of my pets! I know that’s silly – tilapia have been a food fish for thousands of years. I guess we all have our hang-ups.

Who is Raising Your Fish?

tilapia fish farm

It is important to learn how your fish was raised. This is true for all seafood, but with farm-raised, be it tilapia, salmon, catfish or shrimp, there is a huge spectrum in terms of quality, taste and effects on human health. Raising fish on large scales poses problems no matter the species. Even the “good” aquaculture companies, with BAP certification, have had issues with escaped fish. If you do like the taste of tilapia, try to source it from smaller farms that don’t raise them on an industrial scale.

Tropical Aquaculture Products, Inc.  is a BAP (Best Aquaculture Practices) certified producer of tilapia, shrimp and other species. Tropical raises their tilapia in salt water, which they say makes for a better tasting product.

Blue Ridge Aquaculture is located in Virginia and have grown into the largest producer using Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS). It looks like a well-run operation, and I suggest looking into them if you like tilapia.

The Chicoa Fish Farm in Mozambique is dedicated to changing the way the fish are raised in Africa to meet the continent’s protein deficit. They are using cost-effective and sustainable solutions to grow this important food fish along Lake Cahora Bassa.

Is Tilapia a Healthy Choice?

What about the stories about tilapia not being very healthy? It has been shown that it is higher in omega-6 fatty acids, rather than the sought after omega-3. The Internet has taken this football and ran with it and now there is lots of misinformation. You may have already seen posts claiming tilapia to be worse for you than bacon! But is that true? Probably not.

Tilapia’s Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Fat Omega and tilapia
Source: Tropical Aquaculture Products, Inc.

Omega-6 fatty acids are not actually bad for you. They are actually essential for various physiological processes and overall health. The problem with omega-6 is its inflammatory properties in high concentrations. Omega-6 intake is important but must be in a proper balance with omega-3 fatty acids. When looking at the chart above, if omega-6 intake is unhealthy, then maybe we should take a look at skin-on chicken breast with a whopping 4,497mg of omega-6.

Tilapia are not high in fatty acids in general because they are a very lean fish. A fish has to be fatty or oily to be high in these fatty acids. That is why fish like herring, anchovies and salmon are touted for their omega-3 fatty acid levels. These are all “oily” fish. This makes those outrageous claims about tilapia and bacon to be just that – outrageous.

fresh tilapia

There are better options for fish regardless of if you buy for taste, but don’t let my opinions stop you from buying a fish you like. As shown above, tilapia is a healthy fish choice if sourced from a reliable farm. Low fat, high-protein, with almost equal amounts omega-3 and omega-3 are hard to argue with. To beat a dead horse – it all depends on who is raising the fish.

My advice is the same for all farmed fish. Learn about where your fish is coming from, how it is raised, and choose the best products you can afford. It’s advisable to avoid tilapia from Chinese aquaculture companies due to their intensive fish farming. There are better tilapia available from South America, but there are also domestic options as well.