Is eating tilapia healthy? We turn to science to find out.

By Dr. Rafael Guerrero

Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) is 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 kilograms (kg)/year (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 increase levels of bad cholesterol—which is a risk factor for heart disease—than omega-3 fatty acids that increase levels of 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,” 215,909 metric tons of the fish were consumed in 2010. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 100 grams (g) of tilapia have 20 g of protein, 1.7 g of fat, 96 calories, and small 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, tilapia is a food that is high in protein, low in fat, and rich in minerals and vitamins.

Tilapia caught in open waters have higher omega-3 fatty acid content than their farmed counterparts because they feed on natural food while the cultured fish are 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—which is high in omega-3 fatty acids— as a protein source.

Antibiotics are not used in commercial feeds of tilapia in the Philippines to prevent the development of 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 g of fat compared to bacon, cheese, and beef, with 710 g, 344 g, and 100 g, 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 farmed tilapia 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.

This story appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s September 2017 issue.