If you like the taste of tilapia -- and its low cost at the supermarket -- you aren't alone. Tilapia is the most commonly eaten type of farmed fish in the United States, according to an article published in "The New York Times" in May 2011. However, as with any food, you shouldn't eat it to excess.
While tilapia is a healthier source of protein than red meat, it isn't as nutrient-rich as many other types of fish due to the type of food used to feed these fish. While wild tilapia eat algae and lake plants, farmed tilapia are fed corn and soy, limiting the amount of omega-3 fats in these fish, notes the "New York Times." This doesn't mean you shouldn't ever eat tilapia, since each 87-gram fillet provides 23 grams of protein, 18 percent of the daily value for phosphorus, 68 percent of the DV for selenium, 21 percent of the DV for niacin, 27 percent of the DV for vitamin B-12 and 33 percent of the DV for vitamin D. This serving also contains 269 milligrams of omega-3 fats, or slightly more than half of the recommended 500 milligrams of these fatty acids per day.
Tilapia provides very little fat, with only 2.3 grams per serving, of which only 0.8 gram is saturated fat. The controversy over tilapia comes from the fact that it is also relatively low in omega-3 fats compared to omega-6 fats, especially if you eat farmed tilapia, the main type sold in the United States. While both of these fats are essential, most people get between 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fats in their diet, and this may increase your risk for heart disease and inflammatory diseases, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. A more balanced ratio is preferable, so if you eat tilapia as one of your fish servings, try to eat salmon or another variety high in omega-3s the next time you eat fish.
While tilapia is one of the types of fish that contain the least amount of mercury, like other fish it may still contain a certain level of contaminants. A study published in "Environmental Science and Technology" in 2009 found that farmed tilapia contained about the same amount of contaminants, including PCBs and DDT, as shrimp. It also had lower contaminant levels than farmed trout or farmed salmon, which had the highest levels on contaminants out of the five types of fish tested. Contaminant levels were below the levels set as acceptable by the World Health Organization.
You should eat a variety of different fish, rather than consuming only tilapia. The Food and Drug Administration recommends you eat no more than 2.2 pounds per week of the seafood lowest in mercury, including tilapia, salmon, shrimp, scallops, crab, clams and catfish, and no more than 14 ounces per week of fish higher in mercury, including mahi mahi and snapper. If you are pregnant or might become pregnant, you should limit your fish consumption to no more than two 6-ounce servings per week, recommends the American Pregnancy Association.
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Fish, Tilapia, Cooked, Dry Heat
- American Pregnancy Association: Mercury Levels in Fish
- International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition: Omega-6 (n-6) and Omega-3 (n-3) Fatty Acids in Tilapia and Human Health: A Review
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Omega-6 Fatty Acids
- MayoClinic.com: Catfish and Tilapia: Healthy or Harmful?
- The New York Times: Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Calculate the Percent Daily Value for the Appropriate Nutrients
- Environmental Science and Technology: Halogenated Contaminants in Farmed Salmon, Trout, Tilapia, Pangasius, and Shrimp
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Is Mercury in Fish a Safety Concern?
Based in Massachusetts, Jessica Bruso has been writing since 2008. She holds a master of science degree in food policy and applied nutrition and a bachelor of arts degree in international relations, both from Tufts University.