Tilapia: Love it or Hate it ?

A little over a week ago I wrote a blog about football in which I compared one of the teams (San Diego Chargers) to an inferior Fish Taco and as somewhat of a throwaway line, I said that Tilapia does not belong in a Fish Taco. The inference in what I wrote and how I wrote it was that I felt that Tilapia was an inferior fish when in reality I just don’t much care for Tilapia and I honestly don’t think it makes for a good Fish Taco fish. It did however get me thinking about why I don’t seem to like a fish that has been slowly taking over the seafood market as we know it.

My first experience with Tilapia wasn’t eating it. It was actually reading about it in a mystery novel called Mean High Tide by James W. Hall. I had to have read that book more than 15 years ago but what stuck out in my mind was that the hero of the novel, Thorne – a marine biologist, was trying to not only solve a murder but stop a fish farm of Tilapia from being released into the Florida ecosystem. I seemed to remember that he said that the Tilapia would overrun the ecosystem and be bad for the environment. For years after that, I would occasionally see Tilapia on a menu or in a store but I would never buy it or order it. Finally I did breakdown and tried Tilapia and I have to say, I wasn’t all that impressed. It’s a very serviceable whitefish that carries a breading or a sauce well but is relatively non-descript on it’s own. I could never imagine eating it with just some salt, pepper, butter & lemon. It would be too bland. The rest of America however, must not have the same view of Tilapia that I do because Americans last year consumed over 475 million pounds of Tilapia making it the most popular farmed fish gracing the dinner table. So what is it about Tilapia that makes it a target for both disdain & praise ?

On the positive side, it’s a fish that doesn’t have a very fishy taste thus making it just about perfect for places like schools & cafeterias where the fish is typically breaded and served as a fish cake or fish stick. Farm raised Tilapia can be harvested in as little as 9 months so costs to breed it are relatively low. They can also be fed pellets made of corn & soy rather than expensive fish food. This again helps to keep the cost of this fish down. Finally, we have all been told that fish is “Brain Food” so eating more fish has to be good for you and Tilapia is readily available and relatively cheap so how could it not be smart to eat it ? . I couldn’t find anything wrong with any of these statements though until I started to look behind the velvet curtain and what I found began to back up the notions that I had had over the years.

I mentioned as a positive that Tilapia could be harvested in as little as nine months but there is also a negative in that same statement. Farm raised Tilapia have been scientifically engineered to no longer resemble the same fish in the wild. They have small heads & tails and big fillets that have resulted in a new product called “Tilapia Loins”. I’m not sure about you but I didn’t know that fish had loins. In fact, I would put “Tilapia Loins” in the same category as “Chicken Fingers”, “Chicken Lips” and the movie “Caddyshack 2” – they aren’t real and they don’t exist. They also don’t have the naturally occurring Omega-3 fatty acids that we all freely associate with eating fish. Those same corn & soy pellets that allow the Tilapia to grow so large so quickly don’t have the aquatic plants, fish meal or fish oils present that Tilapia need to produce Omega-3 fatty acids. In fact a serving of Farm Raised Tilapia only has 135 milligrams of Omega-3 while the same size piece of Salmon will have more than 2,000 milligrams. More research needs to be done but there are reports now that state that Tilapia also have twice the amount of Omega-6 acids and that actually can result in the increasing the risk of heart disease. Tilapia may be an inexpensive protein alternative but it would seem to be that there are better choices out there from a health standpoint.

Environmentally, the verdict is still out on Tilapia. They were originally brought to this country and other parts of the world to help control weed & mosquito populations. In some cases they did this too well. They have been known in the wild to crowd out the native fish and to “clean up” lakes & rivers a little too well. The book I mentioned earlier talked a lot about this potential problem and in some countries in Latin & South America it has come true. The fish have escaped from their large holding pens and wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. Those large pens can also be a problem as the fish are packed in so tight that all they can do is eat & poop. Even a strong current can’t fight that type of assault off for very long.

Now where does all this Tilapia come from that America seems to be consuming ? The vast majority of it comes from unregulated or loosely regulated fish farms in China where the fish are harvested, filleted and flash frozen before being shipped to the United States. A total of 422 million pounds of frozen Chinese Tilapia fillets were shipped to the United States last year. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program rated frozen Chinese Tilapia as an “AVOID”. They gave Latin American Tilapia (just under 50 million pounds) a rating of “Good Alternative” and United States bred & raised Tilapia (less than 1% of all US Tilapia consumption) as “Best Choice” though from what we have seen from a nutritional standpoint, it’s the not exactly the best of the best no matter where it is from. The industry is trying to tighten up it’s standards & practices worldwide but it is going to take time and it is going to take money and in the growing economic doldrums that seem to be hitting every country around the globe, that money just isn’t there.

So I guess when I look a little deeper into why I took a shot at Tilapia in my football blog, even I get a little better understanding of why I am not a big fan of Tilapia. How do you feel about it ? Is it your fish of choice at the seafood counter ? Do you order it in restaurants ? I am not seeing both sides of the fish farm ? Let me know what you think. Let others know what you think. No opinion on this topic is 100% right or 100% wrong. Now I am going to go get a fish taco for lunch and I am going to be seriously bummed out if they are using Tilapia.

Come back next time when I talk about another food you love and I hate.

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