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Tilapia Nutrition – Is One of America’s Most Popular Fish Toxic?

Tilapia has experienced a significant increase in popularity. It can be found in almost any retail grocery store and is often a featured item on many restaurant menus. But have you ever wondered what you are really eating? I did. Having grown up around both fresh and salt water fisheries, no one ever talked about tilapia. The reason is that this is not a native fish to the United States. This should create your first suspicion about this species of fish.

Where Does Tilapia Really Come From?

As tilapia is not native to the United States, we have to ask, were does tilapia come from. Tilapia is a tropical fish that originated out of Africa with a relatively short growth time. They live in fresh water environments and are not found in saltwater. So at this point, the questions should begin to stir in your mind as to what is the tilapia that is so often found in the grocery store and being served.

Most of the tilapia in the United States actually comes from China and Indonesia. This fish is farmed and then shipped to the United States. At this point, I feel that it is important to understand what farmed fish means. In a nutshell, you are rapidly growing fish in an artificial environment by feeding them “food stuff” that they would not have exposure to in the wild. These environments to not lend themselves to a vast amount of space to swim in, but rather the fish are densely packed in the man-made environment and routinely exposed to high amounts of ammonia and waste.

tilapia farming

Tilapia Farming leads to Poor Tilapia Nutrition

One big concern with the source of these fish is that according to a report from the USDA in 2009, China fails miserably with food safety standards, including those that are exported to the US. It appears from the findings of this study that many of the fisheries are located next to heavily polluted areas. Such toxins include environmental pollutants, agricultural residues, feces and veterinarian drug residues. It should be no surprise that if the fish are exposed to these toxins, then those that consume the fish are also going to be ingesting these toxins. What is also interesting is that tilapia fisheries exist in the United States but do not meet the demand, thus encouraging import from foreign markets.

Tilapia Nutrition is Questionable

One of the reasons that many individuals turn to fish in their diet is the consumption of omega 3’s. Omega 3’s have been shown to be effective at supporting conditions including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, autoimmune conditions and cancer just to name a few chronic conditions. However, farmed tilapia is higher in omega 6’s, which are inflammatory and have the opposite effect on our health. The unnatural diet that the fish are fed creates a low omega 3 content and a high omega 6, whereas the fish in its natural environment has just the opposite profile. (Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2009;60 Suppl 5:203-11.) From this we can see that the food provided to these fish makes a significant difference in their nutritional value, leaving us to ask what else we should question regarding tilapia nutrition.

Well, since you asked, the fatty acid ratio is not the only problem with tilapia nutrition. The concern of genetic modification rears its ugly head again. In this case it is not referred to as genetic modification, but rather transgenic. Transgenic tilapia has had genes added to their DNA for a desired outcome. In this case, it resulted in “successful production of transgenic tilapia by injection of transgenes (mouse metallothionein promoter/rat growth hormone gene). (Aquaculture. Volume 105, Issues 3–4, 1 August 1992, Pages 219–232) So rat genes to enhance growth hormone production were added to tilapia DNA. No doubt this is to enhance the rate at which the fish can produce. The bigger concern is that by eating genetically modified, or transgenic, tilapia, you are consuming something that is not in natural state and thus has the potential to increase the activity of the immune system in a negative manner. As we have seen with other GMO (genetically modified organism) debacles, this usually comes at a price.

What You Can Do

If you have been eating tilapia, starting off with a good detox would be recommended. Since these fish are mostly coming from polluted foreign sources, you have likely accumulated some of these toxins. You can begin the detox process by eliminating all of the refined, non-organic sources of food from your diet. You will want to transition to foods that are colorful and nutrient dense along with consuming adequate amounts of protein to support your inherent detoxification pathways.

If you are consuming fish to increase the amount of omega 3 fatty acids in your diet, a safer option than eating farmed raised tilapia is taking omega 3 rich supplements. You could eat the fish itself, but this is not an option in the United States, leaving supplementation as preferred source. The other option that you have is to consume wild caught fish. Wild fish such as salmon, cod and halibut are better options and do not come with the same risks of altered fatty acid composition as farmed fish. Therefore, the nutrition of any of these fish is going to exceed tilapia nutrition.

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