Is Tilapia Bad for You?

November 08, 2019

Why You Should Not Eat Tilapia

Why You Should Not Eat Tilapia

Recent years have seen a major rise in the popularity of cheap, imported seafood in the United States. Farmed tilapia, basa, and swai are some of the highest-selling fish in the U.S. While their low prices may make these fish seem like good bargains at first glance, it’s not that simple. Though smoked salmon from Norway is renowned for its top quality, some other types of imported fish such as tilapia, basa, and swai are not as healthy as you may think.

Why You Should Not Eat Tilapia, Basa, and Swai

The biggest problem with tilapia, basa, and swai is how they are produced. Farmed tilapia, basa, and swai are all freshwater fish. Tilapia fish variants can be found in freshwater bodies throughout the world. Basa and swai, on the other hand, are found in the Mekong River in Vietnam.

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Where Do Tilapia Fish Come From?

The wild-caught industries for these fish are very small and used primarily for local markets at their point of origin. As a result, the majority of exported tilapia, basa, and swai come from commercial farming in South East Asia, primarily from nations like China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.   

 

Why Tilapia is Bad for You

  • High level of contaminants

Tilapia, basa, and swai are generally are mass-produced in crowded aquaculture tanks and fed soy-based foods if they are lucky. Being bottom feeders and filter feeders, these fish will consume any waste or contaminants in the water, and I mean anything. I am going to let your imagination take over for that one.

  • Presence of antibiotics

In order to keep the fish alive until harvest and thwart off any disease that can kill the entire stock, they are continuously fed antibiotics.

Of course, there is organic production of wild tilapia in the U.S., but it consists of less than one percent of all tilapia fillets sold in the U.S. It is also nearly impossible to recognize U.S. wild-caught tilapia unless properly labeled as such. 

 

  • Toxic bacteria

On November 10, 2016, a woman living in Bellevue, Washington, contracted Vibrio vulnificus from contact with fresh tilapia that she purchased from her local store.  This bacterium is rare, but it can occur in filter-feeding fish like red tilapia.  You can fall ill if these bacteria come in contact with a wound or through ingestion.  In this particular case, the woman cut her hand while handling raw tilapia.

This is a very serious infection and can cause symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain.  But it does not stop there!  Vibrio can cause necrosis of the flesh, giving it the nickname "flesh-eating bacteria.”  Along with necrosis, these bacteria can also cause sepsis.  The combination of the two is very serious and may require removal of the infected tissue or amputation and may even lead to death. 

 

As stated earlier, this infection is very rare, but the question that you should be asking yourself is whether it is worth the risk. Flesh-eating bacteria are most commonly found in freshwater fish like live tilapia and are very rarely found in saltwater fish.  One of the very few exceptions to that rule is stingrays, which can cause this infection with the strike of their barbs.  

There is one bright side to tilapia production though. In order to pass FDA inspection for U.S. imports, all processing plants that eventually fillet and package the fish have to be spotless. I have seen some of the production facilities and their sanitization protocols and been impressed. Not only do they follow each regulation to the letter, but they also take action to sanitize their facility above and beyond FDA demands.

Let’s be honest though. After feeding the fish antibiotics all its life, the cleanliness of the processing facilities only helps to keep the situation from getting any worse and does not make the fish any healthier.

Is it Safe to Eat Tilapia?

Health-wise, seafood can be some of the best foods to add to your diet. It is a well-known fact that eating salmon at least two times a week can reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease. Yet even with that information, there are serious outliers and solid reasons for why you should not eat tilapia.

Let us start with farm-raised tilapia from China. Tilapia dishes are pretty much the complete opposite of salmon or sablefish when it comes to your health.

Tilapia is loaded with omega-6 fatty acids, which we already eat too much of in our modern society. Excess omega-6 can cause and exacerbate inflammation so much that it makes bacon look heart-healthy. Inflammation can lead to heart disease and also exacerbate symptoms for people suffering from asthma and arthritis.

Is Tilapia a Genetically Engineered Fish?

While tilapia used to be originally found in the wild in the Middle East and Africa, most of the tilapia in the market today is mass produced in industrial fish farms. Many corporations genetically engineer the fish to produce faster-growing, disease-resistant, more profitable fish that can be sent to the market in less time.

What Does Spotted Tilapia Eat?

In the wild, spotted tilapia mainly feed on the different types of periphyton (a mixture of algae, cyanobateria, and microbes) found attached to plants and rocks as well as microorganisms and detritus that may be found in that area. Phytoplankton (microscopic plants) is another source of food for spotted tilapia, especially in rich, eutrophic environments.

Red belly tilapia will also eat invertebrates when found on aquatic vegetation and even fish if they are dead or dying. The young fish also feed on crustaceans during the first few months of their life.

Does Tilapia Have Teeth?

Since the tilapia originally fed on algae and aquatic plants in the wild, their teeth are designed for optimum foraging and consumption of these substances. In general, both the teeth of the jaws and the teeth of the throat are very small and you have to look closely to be able to see them.

What about Swai and Basa?

Swai and basa have their own set of problems. Often called pangasius, they are actually iridescent sharks. They are commonly found in smaller sizes and sold as aquarium fish at pet stores. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

 

  • High level of toxic pollutants

First of all, nearly all of these fish are produced on the Mekong River in aquaculture facilities. The Mekong River is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, and there is no regulation to filter the water used in these facilities. This can cause heightened levels of heavy metals and toxins from the polluted water.

  • Growth hormones and antibiotics

Both fish are not fed anything close to their natural food. They are fed food pellets made from fish remains (often swai and basa remains) mixed with soy and antibiotics. They are also treated with growth hormones to make them profitable much faster.

  • Other contaminants

These fish are also linked to many cases of food poisoning due to contamination from their point of origin. There is no production of such fish in the US or outside South East Asia. 

Why You Should Never Eat Tilapia

The low prices of tilapia, basa, and swai (just $2 per lb.) tempt a lot of people, especially when money is tight, but do not forget that eating these types of fish may damage your health. Saving a couple of dollars today may cost you thousands in medical bills tomorrow.

We usually do not make direct recommendations and ask that you make your own judgments. But we highly recommend that you do not eat these fish. We would rather eat a Big Mac before touching tilapia, swai, or basa. Think of your health before your wallet the next time you are at the store or are eating out. Do not eat tilapia, swai, or basa!

What Are Some Alternatives to Tilapia?

Since the article was first published, we have had many questions from ex-tilapia, basa, and swai consumers who wanted to know what we would suggest as an alternative to these fish. In reality, it is not such an easy question to answer because tastes and preferences vary greatly. So, in this addendum to the main article, we will discuss a few types of fish that can be a healthy alternative to tilapia, basa, and swai. 

All of the fish named below will only be found wild. However, you may find some pre-packed varieties of these fish that were processed in China or elsewhere in South East Asia. Always choose fish that have been caught and processed in Alaska or Canada!

Alaskan Pollock is the most caught fish in the entire world and a great alternative to tilapia. It is estimated that around three to four million tons of Alaskan Pollock is caught in the Pacific Ocean every year. Many people eat Alaskan Pollock regularly and don’t even know about it. Alaskan Pollock is often marketed in cafes and restaurants as “white fish.” It is the main ingredient in many fish sandwiches and also used to make McDonald’s Fillet-O-Fish sandwich.

A large amount of Alaskan Pollock is ground up and used as the fish in surimi, otherwise known as imitation crab. Alaskan Pollock is unarguably the most versatile fish in the world, which is a major reason for its popularity. It has a very light flavor, which allows it to be cooked in any way and using any method. This fish would be absolutely ideal for anyone who does not like fish with an intense flavor. Alaskan Pollock is low in fat, high in protein, and a great source of Vitamin B-12.

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    • Pacific Cod

      The Pacific Cod is another great alternative. This fish is extremely popular throughout the world and is used in many different recipes, including the very popular fish and chips. Pacific Cod is the second largest fishery in the world and brings in around 1.5 million to 2 million tons of fish every year worldwide.

    • The Pacific Cod is known for its white, flaky meat with a light flavor. This fish is also very versatile and can be prepared using a huge assortment of methods and accompaniments. The Pacific Cod is also low in fat, high in protein, and full of Vitamins D, B-12, B6, and Magnesium!Flounder

    • The Flounder is another good alternative to tilapia, basa, and swai. Different types of flounder and sole have their own unique flavors and may be considered too intense for some consumers, especially people who like tilapia for its light flavor.

       

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    Depending on the type of flatfish, the flavor may vary from very light to quite intense. Also, most flounder can be quite bony, and it can be difficult to remove the bones in some types. One major benefit of flatfish is that they are usually quite versatile. Flounder are low in fat, high in protein, a superb source of Vitamin D, and a good source of Vitamin B-12.

      • Rockfish 

    Rockfish is a fantastic alternative to tilapia. While not as versatile as all of the other fish listed above, rockfish are known for their great flavor. 

     

    People who prefer light-flavored fish may not like rockfish because they have a much more intense flavor. Rockfish meat is also much firmer than the other fish but just as flaky as Pacific Cod. Like the other fish, the rockfish is a lean source of protein and a good source of Vitamin D.

    As you can see, there are many fantastic alternatives to frozen tilapia fillets, basa, and swai. Many retailers source these fish from Alaska and Canada, both of which have very high quality standards and do not mess around with additives. We invite you to look through our selection of seafood, which comes from our facility in Kodiak, Alaska. Any reputable grocery store would sell these fish. Just make sure that you buy wild-caught fish that didn’t travel through China in its journey to your table.

    Find A Solid Alternative to Tilapia!

    At Global Seafoods, we pride ourselves on our wide selection of wild-caught and healthy seafood.  If you are looking for a great source of top-notch Alaskan Seafood, then visit our seafood store to find out we can add to your plate.  Buy wild salmon, cod, rockfish and much more at the Global Seafoods Online Store!

     






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