A couple years ago, I had an article on Got Nature about the benefits of eating recreationally-caught fish from waters in the state of Indiana. I’d like to expand on that and talk about the consumption of seafood in general as there seems to be a lot of confusion as to what seafood is healthy or harmful. This is particularly important as the USDA has advised that we should be consuming approximately two meals per week (8 ounces) of seafood as part of a healthy diet. One of the best sources of information on seafood consumption is the University of Idaho’s Seafood at Its Best website.
Given the brief nature of this blog and the complexity of the subject of seafood consumption, I will try to give some general advice and examples as to what to look for when choosing seafood as part of a healthy diet. The first generalization is that all seafood is good with the exception of a few species and sources. Seafood is nutrient dense, being low in fat and carbohydrates but high in protein, vitamins and minerals. There are a few species which are known to contain high levels of mercury (tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel). Likewise, recreationally-caught fish from certain regions listed in advisories should not be considered healthy. When you consider the diversity of seafood, this is a very small minority.
There are varying degrees of benefits associated with different types of seafood. Perhaps the most publicized is the heart-healthy benefit of eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, mackerel and anchovies. Although other fish may not contain as many omega-3s, they are still going to be nutrient dense and part of a healthy diet. One of the most popular and most misunderstood is tilapia.
Tilapia is a generic term for several species of fish originally from the Rift Valley of Africa which are now cultured all over the world including here in Indiana. They are a warm water fish, intolerant of temperatures less than about 55⁰F. They are an omnivorous fish eating mostly plant life and invertebrate animals in nature but readily take pelleted feeds when cultured. Here in the U.S., tilapia is grown almost exclusively for the live-fish ethnic market in metropolitan areas while processed tilapia is imported from farms in tropical areas all over the globe and readily available in the freezer case.
Tilapia has as much omega-3 as other popular seafood, including lobster, mahi-mahi and yellowfin tuna. Tilapia is also very low in fat. A 4-ounce serving of tilapia has about 1 gram of saturated fat, 29 grams of protein and around 200 mg of omega-3. There are several things you can look for when purchasing tilapia that help ensure you are getting a healthy product. Tilapia are cultured and not captured, so if reared properly, there should be no contaminants in the flesh. Since the majority is grown outside the borders of the U.S., only a small percentage (2-3%) is inspected by the USFDA upon entering the country. While the FDA feels this is sufficient to ensure food safety, many consumers and retailers would like additional oversight to ensure quality and reduce liability. Hence a number of third party certification agencies have stepped into this market. Basically, these agencies use criteria that producers, processors and importers must follow in order to be certified and labeled as such in the marketplace. There are more programs than can be mentioned here, but some of the most notable are:
Fish that have not been certified may not be reared using the best practices and may or may not have been inspected by the FDA.
Fish that are cultured here is the U.S. are inspected at both ends of the process. Feed mills that produce the main input to fish production are inspected by the USFDA. The FDA also oversees the HAACP program for processing fish with the exception of the USDA program for catfish.
So in summary, fish is a great component of a low-fat healthy diet. What type of fish and how it was grown or caught can be intimidating, but the bottom line is the benefits outweigh the risks. If you are still concerned, ask questions about the country of origin, third party certification and inspection process or even get to know your local producer. But the main thing is to eat more fish as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Fishing Guide and Regulations, Indiana Department of Forestry and Natural Resources
Tilapia, The Education Store
Fish4Health (iOS app), The Education Store
Aquatic Science, The Education Store
The Truth about Tilapia, Fox News
Recreational Fishing and Fish Consumption, Got Nature?
Bob Rode, Aquaculture Research Lab Manager
Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University