“Fishermen tend to embellish the size of their catch, so for exaggerated stories such as those making the rounds about tilapia, a fish that is increasingly showing up on dinner plates, the expression “fish storey. Indeed, after salmon and tuna, it is now the most commonly eaten fish. “Usually, headlines yell about tilapia being “Poop Fish,” “Worse Than Bacon,” “No Better Than A Doughnut for You,” and that it’s “like eating a rat!! “Unwind. Relax. Tilapia’s not going to kill you. You eat it better than pancakes or doughnuts. As far as rats go, since few people make a habit of dining on rodents, there are no reports on their nutritional value. But tilapia tastes better, I suspect.
The growing popularity of tilapia is due to its gentle taste and the relative ease with which it is possible to raise fish on fish farms, resulting in lower costs. While tilapia farms exist in North America, most of the tilapia consumed is imported from Asia, with the main producer being China. The “poop” connection emerges from some unscrupulous activities that were found there. Tilapia feed on algae in the wild, but are reared on maize or soybean meal on farms. However, they will consume “poop” when no other feed is given. There have been instances where fish farms in Asia have been found to feed tilapia to poultry, sheep or hog manure. Although this does not mean that consuming such fish is equal to eating faeces, the risk of bacterial infection and the need to treat the fish with antibiotics are increased by the practise. It is not clear how common this practise is in Asia, but it does not occur in North America, where it also controls carefully the consistency of the water in which tilapia is raised.
The nonsensical reports of “worse than bacon” and “worse than doughnuts” can be traced back to a 2008 publication in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in which Wake Forest University researchers published on the determination of the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in a variety of fish. This is of concern because omega-3 fats can minimise the risk of abnormal heart rhythms, ease inflammation, and prevent blood clot formation, whereas omega-6 versions have been associated with elevated inflammation, a contributing factor to chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, though quite controversially. Theoretically, the lower the ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3s, the lower the risk of inflammation being caused. Based on this view, the Wake Forest paper quite sadly noted that “the inflammatory potential of hamburger or pork bacon is lower than the average serving of farmed tilapia aside from all other nutritional content.” As one would expect, a number of scary media accounts were created by this observation.
Of course, setting all other food material aside is entirely impractical. Hamburger and bacon produce much more saturated fat and cholesterol than tilapia, and are burdened with other concerns such as nitrite content and the development of different cooking carcinogens. Moreover, the role of omega-6 fats in health is complex. Linoleic acid, which is converted into arachidonic acid in the body and then further transformed into a variety of compounds, some of which promote inflammation, while others have an anti-inflammatory effect, is the key omega-6 fat in the diet. The capacity of omega-6 fats to decrease LDL, the so-called “bad cholesterol” and improve HDL, the “good cholesterol,” is also to be considered. Indeed, several reports indicate that the decrease in heart disease in North America since 1960 can be due to the substitution of omega-6 fats for saturated fats. Basically, then, it is unclear to what degree the omega-6/omega-3 ratio should be considered as a major risk factor.
Their sugar and saturated fat content trumps any concern about unsaturated fat ratios as far as doughnuts go. It is also worth noting that many “healthy foods,” such as nuts and grains, have a slightly higher ratio of omega-6/omega-3 than tilapia. The “healthiness” of our diet is even more to be decided than this ratio. Although it may be meaningful in the sense of the overall diet, when looking at individual foods, it does not have much significance.
It is true that wild tilapia have a more favourable ratio than farmed fish that consume algae rich in omega-3 fats that are fed a diet of corn and soy in which omega-6s predominate. Fish is what they eat, like humans. It is also right to state that other fish have much more beneficial omega-3s than tilapia, such as salmon and tuna. On the other hand, because tilapia do not consume smaller fish, as mercury is concentrated in the food chain, they have a lower mercury content than most other fish.
They are more lucrative to produce because male tilapia grow larger than female tilapia. Interestingly, tilapia are originally born genderless and can be made to turn into males for a short period after birth with the addition of methyltestosterone to their diet. There is no trace of this hormone in the flesh as long as the fish are sold at the age of six months. There is some concern about the release of waste water from facilities where hormones have been used, but any methyltestosterone may be filtered out by gravel and sand beds. In either case, such hormone therapy is seldom used in North America.
The bottom line is that tilapia that is farmed will definitely fit into a “healthy” diet and provide a good meat substitute. North American tilapia is a better bet than fish imported from Asia, if there is a choice available. Given that we will be looking at a world population of 9 billion in about twenty-five years, fish farming is going to become more and more relevant. Because of the clutter of fish tales about its health hazards, it is unfortunate that some people would shy away from consuming tilapia.
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