Like other fish, tilapia is a high-protein, low-calorie food. Consumers like it for its reasonable price and lack of “fishy” flavor. But these same consumers may mistakenly assume that all fish are high in the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, or that farm-raised species like tilapia represent a way to avoid endangering oceanic species. The reality, however, isn’t quite that clear-cut.
The Omega Issue
Doctors recommend you eat one to two servings each week of fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, herring and tuna. Omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and are credited with lowering cholesterol, decreasing blood pressure, easing arthritis pain and boosting immunity. Omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand, help control blood cholesterol levels when consumed in small amounts, but regularly consuming high amounts can cause internal inflammation, which may lead to arthritis, blood clots and cancer.
In 2008, a report published in the "Journal of the American Dietetic Association" questioned the health benefits of tilapia and catfish, especially farm-raised varieties. The researchers found that tilapia and catfish contained too few omega-3 fatty acids and too many omega-6 fatty acids to be considered healthy. Overall, a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of between 2 and 4 to 1 is considered healthy. Tilapia has a ratio of 11 to 1. It has twice as much of omega-6 fatty acid as a lean hamburger, and provides only about 6 percent of the omega-3 fatty acid contained in salmon.
In 2011, U.S. tilapia fisheries could not meet the domestic demand. Only about 5 percent of tilapia eaten by U.S. consumers comes from American fisheries, according to a May 2011 report in “The New York Times.” Buying tilapia from non-U.S. fisheries may encourage the continuation of environmentally hazardous practices. For instance, some countries, such as Nicaragua, allow tilapia to be raised in cages set in natural lakes, leading to pollution from fish waste. In addition, tilapia feed on other fish and aquatic plants, so incidents of tilapia escaping from the lake cages threaten the versatility of native lake fish and plant populations, according to the report.
Vitamins and Minerals
Tilapia is lower in several vitamins than some other fish. It has no vitamin C, in contrast to the average 4 percent daily value for vitamin C that a serving of salmon and trout provide. Tilapia is also lower in the B vitamins, including folate, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B-5, B-6 and B-12. Unlike canned salmon, sardines and oysters, tilapia contains no calcium. Tilapia does contain a significant amount of potassium at 331 milligrams per cooked filet.
Tilapia has a less favorable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids than some other species -- such as salmon, according to SkipThePie.org -- but the fish is not inherently unhealthy. Occasionally eating tilapia is unlikely to have a negative impact on your health, unless you substitute it for the omega-3-rich species doctors suggest you eat twice a week. On the plus side, tilapia is one of the lowest-mercury fish species currently consumed. Consuming too much mercury can lead to nervous system damage and negatively affect brain development. Children, pregnant women and women trying to conceive can safely eat tilapia, according to the American Pregnancy Association. If you eat some high mercury fish, ask your doctor if you need to factor low-mercury fish into your weekly mercury "budget." Tilapia has more protein than salmon or trout, and is lower in saturated fat. It contains only 128 calories per serving. Tilapia even beats out other fish in the mineral selenium, contributing 78 percent of the DV.
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association: The Content of Favorable and Unfavorable Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Found in Commonly Eaten Fish
- American Pregnancy Association: Mercury Levels in Fish
- HealthAliciousNess: Nutrition Facts Comparison Tool (Tilapia, Salmon, Trout)
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Calcium
- The New York Times: Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish
- SkipthePie.org: Nutritional Comparison: Fish, Tilapia vs Fish, Salmon
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Omega-6 Fatty Acids
- Science News: Popular Fish, Tilapia, Contains Potentially Dangerous Fatty Acid
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Tilapia, Cooked, Dry Heat