Debunking the Internet’s Tilapia Myths
By Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons
While global demand for tilapia and tilapia products continues to grow, demand—and prices—have dropped in the US, Canada and parts of Western Europe. The reason? Clickbait articles that stem from a single misleading report.
The report, a 2008 study by researchers from Wake Forest University, was taken out of context and spun into countless articles and social media posts with screaming headlines designed to attract unknowing net-surfers to buy diet books.
Let’s apply some real scientific inquiry and delve into those claims.
CLICKBAIT MYTH #1: Tilapia Is Worse Than Bacon
When Googling tilapia, several websites populate the top results posting unsupported claims that “tilapia is worse than bacon” for your health.
The truth is, this sensational claim has been discredited by nearly every nutrition expert, medical doctor and dietician.
In fact, the Wake Forest report, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 108, Issue 7, July 2008, focused on the polyunsaturated fat content in commonly eaten fish. It concluded that tilapia contained low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. The actual comment in the journal article reads “all other nutritional content aside, the inflammatory potential of hamburger and pork bacon is lower than the average serving of farmed tilapia.” The often quoted “tilapia is worse than bacon” was never actually written in the article. Instead, it was coined by the media, who were quick to churn out articles claiming that tilapia was worse for you than bacon.
One of the authors of the journal article focuses his research on the potential for inflammation caused by excess omega-6 concentrations in the human body. While it is generally accepted that omega-6 is a critical nutrient, and that excess omega-6 can be harmful, nutrition experts are usually concerned with the total amount of omega-6 we consume—not the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.
The vast majority of nutrition experts, dieticians, doctors and seafood professionals consider tilapia to be a high-protein, low-fat, vitamin- and mineral-rich food that should be part of a balanced diet. The amount of omega-3 fatty acids found in tilapia is much lower than in some fattier fish species like salmon and trout, while the level of omega-6 fatty acids is within the range we need in our diets.
CLICKBAIT MYTH 2: Tilapia Eat Waste
Another common, yet unfounded, claim is that tilapia are fed poop. This simply isn’t true.
Wellness personality Dr. Axe claims on his website that “chicken feces is one of the main ingredients that go into farm fish feed. Not only that, the transfer of pig and duck waste to fish farms is also a very common practice.”
There are many flaws in this statement. First of all, there are no feed mills that utilize chicken feces in farmed fish feed. (Many do use poultry by-product meal, made from leftover pieces from processed chickens.)
Secondly, the use of pig manure was a common practice in China and other parts of Asia many years ago as an organic fertilizer, not as a feed. Historically, the manure was put in the pond to encourage an algae phytoplankton bloom, which in turn generated a zooplankton bloom. Ducks were also allowed to swim and defecate in fish ponds. It was the algae and zooplankton that the fish consumed, not the waste.
Finally, most countries dropped this practice long ago in favor of pelleted, grain based feeds, which are much easier to work with.
In an interesting example of the effect of clickbait articles, consumers react negatively to the thought of manure feeding their fish, but don’t think twice about eating organic produce. These vegetables are often grown with manure, and consumers are happy to eat them raw! Yet if an Asian farmer does the same thing in a fish pond—where any bacteria on the fish would be killed during processing, freezing and cooking—the media implies that consumers may eventually be poisoned.
When consumers are no longer scared off by inaccurate articles, they find that tilapia is a delicious and healthy fish that deserves a regular place in their diets. Despite the drop in demand in the most lucrative markets, global production and consumption of tilapia have continued to rise, and almost all experts agree that the trend will continue well into the future.
Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons is a professor and extension specialist of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona, where his research and extension work is focused on tilapia aquaculture. He is the past president of the US Aquaculture Society and World Aquaculture Society.
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