Tilapia Nutrition + 9 Things You Need to Know About Tilapia
Tilapia Nutrition Facts
Tilapia nutrition is both palpable and palatable. The benefits of eating fish for brain, heart and eye health are well known. Fish provides protein, B vitamins, iron, vitamin D, selenium and healthful omega-3 fatty acids EPA+DHA—all for about 200 calories or less per serving. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating at least two servings (or 8-12 ounces) of a variety of seafood each week to boost heart and brain health and maintain a healthy weight. That includes tilapia, which is the fourth most consumed fish in the United States at 1.18 lbs per capita in 2016.
There are many different seafood choices that can effortlessly add up to two servings each week. The top five most popular seafood options in the U.S. are shrimp, salmon, canned tuna, tilapia and pollock. Eating a variety of fish allows your palette to enjoy a variety of different tastes, but also ensures that you derive a variety of health benefits, as well. Your seafood choices can include both oily fish and leaner fish, such as tilapia. While leaner fish contain fewer omega-3s than oily fish, fish like tilapia and catfish still provide a healthy dose of these heart-healthy omega-3s. In fact, a 3-ounce serving of these fish provides more than 115 mg of EPA+DHA, more than other protein sources like beef, poultry or pork. Tilapia is also low in total and saturated fats and high in protein, an exceptional nutrition combination.
Tilapia nutrition facts (3 oz. serving):
- 110 calories
- 20 g protein
- 115 mg of EPA+DHA
- 2.5 g total fat
- 1 g saturated fat
Tilapia nutrition is not the only benefit when it comes to tilapia fish. For most people, choosing which fish to eat comes down to taste. Tilapia is a mild-tasting fish, making it a great choice for people who are newer to eating seafood. Since it’s a versatile white fish, tilapia pairs perfectly with most kinds of seasonings and sauces and makes a good substitute for chicken in favorite poultry recipes.
Tilapia Nutrition Continued…
While there is some talk about omega-3 fatty acids versus omega-6 fatty acids, even in tilapia, it is important to understand that both of these fatty acids are essential fatty acids. Our bodies do not make either and we need to derive both from our diets. Omega-3s are important for immune function and blood clotting. Omega-6s, on the other hand, tend to promote inflammation, which is in and of itself critical for appropriate healing. Like most nutrients, there is only a problem with omega-6s when they are consumed in excess. In the American diet, there are omega-6s in a lot of different foods, both healthful and unhealthful foods. We should aim to get our omega-6s primarily from whole, nutrient-rich foods like nuts, seeds and tilapia, instead of from processed foods like fast food and packaged snacks like cookies and chips. It’s true that we need to consume a healthful dose of omega-3s in our diet to bring the omega-3 and omega-6 ratio into balance, which is one reason the Dietary Guidelines recommend eating an array of healthful foods—including a variety of seafood 2-3 times each week. Tilapia is a versatile fish that provides loads of other nutrients, including protein and B vitamins.
Debunking The “Bacon” Myth
Tilapia nutrition is simple: tilapia is a healthy and wholesome food. Suggestions that it is nutritionally akin to bacon or doughnuts are misguided and inaccurate. In fact, the history of this misinformation is well documented. In 2008 the Winston Salem Journal reported on a study that supposedly found tilapia wasn’t nutritionally favorable. The study and the reporting on it began to unravel when an international coalition of more than a dozen doctors spoke out to clarify that fish like tilapia are low in total and saturated fat, high in protein and clearly part of a healthy diet.
When the original misinformed headlines began popping up, claiming that tilapia was nutritionally akin to bacon, the world-renowned Mayo Clinic even got involved, explaining to consumers that tilapia was not an unhealthy fish at all. In response to the exaggerated reporting on the study Mayo Clinic dietitians wrote, “Does this mean you should give [tilapia] up? No!”
Reputable mainstream news outlets have examined tilapia’s perception challenges, with the bacon hyperbole in mind, and have reported, “its overall fat profile is much better than many animal sources of protein which come with much higher amounts of saturated fat. Tilapia contains only a half gram of saturated fat per 3 ounce serving, compared with 1 gram in chicken breast meat or 8 grams in steak” concluding, “it’s a very nutritious fish.” And recognizing that real independent research reveals, “there’s absolutely no reason to trash tilapia.”
Discrediting PCB Hyperbole
Disreputable websites have also suggested tilapia and other farmed fish have high levels of chemicals called PCBs in them. This is untrue. A Harvard University study finds nine percent of PCBs in the American diet come from consumption of all fish. Twenty percent come from vegetables. No health professional anywhere is suggesting that Americans should eat fewer vegetables in order to avoid PCBs.
Well-informed, independent RDs and MDs from Harvard in Boston to Hanyang in Seoul have been unequivocal; tilapia is healthy and safe.
A Brief History
According to researchers, illustrations from Egyptian tombs suggest tilapia were farmed more than 3,000 years ago. In fact, tilapia may have been one of the first fish species ever farmed. Since that time, tilapia farming has seen explosive growth and ranks as the second most cultivated fish on the planet.
Modern-day aquaculture was revolutionized by a growing world population and demand for seafood coupled with the fact that wild fisheries are at their maximum sustainable yield. Since we can’t sustainably take more from our oceans, we have to rely on aquaculture to increase production. In the last few decades, major strides have been made in the aquaculture community resulting in the most efficient and sustainable farmed seafood products available to markets globally. The idea that fish farming is the “wild west” without robust standards and regulations associated with other types of agriculture is wrong, and demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the industry.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) looked into sustainability factors of food products and concluded that both wild-caught and farm-raised fish are nutritious, safe and beneficial for optimal health. According to the Washington Post “Tilapia, in short, is an environmentally friendly, lean, low-calorie source of protein. We need all of those we can get.” Currently, about half of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is farmed.
Just like other forms of farming, like land agriculture, aquaculture – specifically tilapia farming – comes in all sizes, from large commercial producers to small backyard ponds. While they all share a few common components, the equipment and methods used are different for each. Tilapia’s hardiness and adaptability to a wide range of culture systems has led to the commercialization of tilapia production in more than 100 countries. According to the director of NOAA Fisheries Aquaculture, it’s hard to find a large volume of U.S. farmed tilapia because the colder climate requires these tropical fish to be grown in expensive indoor tanks. However, countries in places like Asia and Latin America have ideal temperatures and conditions to grow healthy tilapia in an environmentally sound fashion, for an affordable price. The U.S. imports tilapia from countries such as Brazil, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Indonesia, Mexico and more.
Tilapia was one of the first cultivated fish on this planet for a reason. They grow rapidly on formulated feeds with lower protein levels and tolerate higher carbohydrate levels than many carnivorous farmed species (such as salmon). They can also accept feeds with a higher percentage of plant proteins; helping to relieve pressure on fish stocks that contribute to the fishmeal market, the major ingredient in feed for other fish. It’s said that tilapia “don’t ask for much.” They have five basic needs: clean water, oxygen, food, light and room to swim. And, importantly, they grow fast. For more information about tilapia nutrition, tilapia farming and sustainability, check out this comprehensive infographic on tilapia fish.
To get technical, tilapia is an omnivorous grazer that feeds on phytoplankton, periphyton, aquatic plants, small invertebrates, benthic fauna, detritus and bacterial films associated with detritus. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), prepared feeds that provide tilapia a complete diet (adequate protein, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals) are readily available in developed countries and are also manufactured and available in developing countries with an export market for high quality tilapia products (such as the U.S.).
The ingredients used in tilapia feeds vary depending on the region. The composition and formulation of commercial tilapia feeds is usually proprietary. However, the FAO provides an example of commercial starter feed used for tilapia farmed in Malaysia as an illustration of ingredients and ratios: fishmeal (15 percent), meat meal (5 percent), soybean meal (20 percent), groundnut meal (10 percent), rice bran (10 percent), wheat middlings (15 percent), corn/broken rice/cassava (15 percent), vegetable/fish oil (4 percent), dicalcium phosphate (2 percent), vitamin premix (2 percent) and mineral premix (2 percent).
Making Sense of Tilapia “Poop” Misinformation
The rumor that tilapia are fed pig feces or that they eat their own poop is misguided and perpetuated by clickbait websites hungry for sensational headlines. As detailed in the section above, commercially farmed tilapia are by and large fed pellets that contain their complete diet requirements that differ during each growing stage.
Similar to the “bacon” myth, this rumor started after a 2009 study citied certain challenges regarding a foreign market for fish farming. Among the findings, the study noted that livestock or poultry roamed freely in fields, where farmers used the waste (manure) on fields or in fish feed. It’s important to note the study never mentioned tilapia. According to Fox News, when asked for comment on the study, the authors could not confirm whether it was actually a common practice or an ancillary observation. In fact, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said the agency was “not aware of evidence to support the claim that this practice is occurring.” To be clear, the study never said this was happening at tilapia farms to begin with, and the authors of the study could not confirm that it was happening at all. However, the soundbites on “feces” and “fish feed” were enough to fuel sensational headlines that irresponsible websites continue to peddle today.
The reality is, U.S. restaurants and retailers that sell imported tilapia have sourcing standards that do not tolerate poor product quality. Conversations about feed, food safety, and traceability are common-place in an era where consumers want to know where their food comes from. Tilapia operations globally realize they have fierce competition and U.S. customers will source elsewhere if they are not confident the fish are receiving high-performance feed or in other aspects of the farming. Seafood companies all along the supply chain – importers, distributors, restaurants and retailers – routinely visit foreign suppliers, plus do third-party audits, to ensure and standards are being met. Additionally, a majority of large retailers and restaurants only source from tilapia farms and processing facilities that are certified, which among many other farming aspects, evaluates feed.
The vast majority of tilapia eaten in the U.S. come from farms that adhere to rigorous requirements that take into account food safety, environment and community issues, feed, the use of veterinary drugs, traceability, and more. Certified tilapia farms and processing facilities are inspected routinely to ensure they meet these requirements, and are committed to the health of the fish they raise, the consumers who eat them, and the environment.
The leading third-party certification programs used for tilapia sold in the U.S. include Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification, which is administered by the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), and ASC certification which is managed by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). There are currently 98 BAP-certified farms and 74 BAP-certified processing plants worldwide, which produce a mammoth, 230,000 metric tons of tilapia every year. All major retailers in the U.S. including Walmart, Wholefoods, and Target sell certified tilapia.