We all have the notion that eating fish would be the better option over bacon when it comes to health. And the truth is, it really is … most of the time! Fish is a low-fat, high-protein food that has a range of health benefits. However, given what we know of fish and its sources today, we may have to re-examine this statement.
Fish can either be one of the best foods for you or detrimental to your health depending on where it’s sourced. There is a world of difference between a fish that is caught in the wild vs. farm-bred or farm-raised fish. The most common farm-raised fish are: salmon, tilapia, catfish, swai, “sea” bass, and cod (the last two surprise a lot of people).
Tilapia, in particular, became extremely popular in aquaculture and aquaponics across Asia, Mexico, Central America and the U.S. because it grows very quickly, is tolerant of stocking density and is adaptable.
So what’s wrong with that? Well, it all depends on how the fresh or frozen tilapia filets were raised … and where. What are the exact dangers of eating farm-raised fish?
6 Reasons Tilapia Farming Is Dangerous to Your Health
1. Recent studies have found that farm-raised tilapia may cause more inflammation
Farm-raised tilapia has always been a popular source for fish, not only because it’s widely available in the U.S., but it’s also very inexpensive. (1) However, before you stock up on tilapia, you may want to know about its correlation to inflammation. Recent studies have shown that eating tilapia may worsen inflammation, which can lead to heart disease, arthritis, asthma and a world of other serious health problems.
People who resort to eating more fish as a way to get their dose of omega-3 fatty-acids and lessen their risk of heart attacks may want to hold off on the tilapia. In fact, a scientist from Wake Forest University has found that the inflammatory potential of tilapia is far greater than that of a hamburger or pork bacon, and therefore make it a fish you shouldn’t eat. (2)
2. Farmed salmon may have at least 10 times the amount of cancer-causing organic pollutants compared to the wild variety
This can most likely be attributed to the feeds that are used on farm-raised fish. If you knew what went into the feeds of farm-raised fish, you would be horrified. Apparently, 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, such as with Chinese tilapia.
3. Farm-bred fish have been found to have high concentrations of antibiotics and pesticides
Where do farm-bred fish get their antibiotics? The crowded conditions of fish farms cause the fish to be more susceptible to disease. To keep them alive, farm owners give antibiotics to the fish to stave off disease — similar to what occurs in confined feedlot operations for cattle. (3)
Farm-bred fish, such as Chinese tilapia, are also treated with pesticides to combat sea lice. The pesticides used to treat these fish are so deadly that they will kill wild salmon that are accidentally exposed to them. These pesticides are also eventually released in the ocean, where they get into the bodies and systems of other marine life.
4. Farm-bred fish also have lower levels of healthy nutrients
Many of us consume fish, hoping to reap the omega-3 fatty acid benefits that come with it. However, did you know that the omega-3-acids that are found in farm-raised fish are less usable in our bodies compared to wild-bred fish? Farm-raised fish also has a lower protein content.
Not only that, because farm-raised fish are kept in cages, they have the tendency to be fattier, and can have a higher concentration of omega-6 acids. The problem with getting too many omega-3 and omega-6 acids is that they, again, may cause inflammation to the body.
5. Dibutylin levels, a chemical used in PVC plastics, is said to be six times higher in farm-raised mussels compared to wild ones
Dibutylin is toxic and can impair immune system function while also contributing to inflammation. Dibutylin may be the reason as to why there is a rise in asthma, obesity, allergies and other metabolic disorders in recent years. (4, 5)
6. Dioxin levels are 11 times higher in farm-bred salmon compared to wild salmon
According to the Environmental Working Group, the “first-ever tests of farmed salmon from U.S. grocery stores show that farmed salmon are likely the most [dioxin-like] PCB-contaminated protein source in the U.S. food supply.” (6) Dioxin is actually a very toxic chemical that can contribute to cancer and other complications. The problem with dioxin is that once it enters our system, it can take a very long time until it leaves. Grimly, the half-life of dioxin is about 7 to 11 years!
7. Excessive mercury levels among even lake-grown fish and especially dangerous for pregnant women
In a study by Dr. J.K. McCrary published in the Environmental Pollution journal, total mercury concentrations in the water and fish of Lake Managua and Lake Apoyo were measured. A considerable one-fourth of the commercially fished tilapia in Lake Managua exceeded maximum recommended mercury levels for consumption among pregnant women and other at-risk groups. (7) As a result, the study recommended much closer mercury monitoring among freshwater fish that is meant for international commerce.
These are only some of the dangers that have been linked back to eating farm-raised fish. What does this tell us? No. 1, we need to find out where our fish is coming from. Not all fish are created equal, and sad to say, farm-raised fish, instead of helping us, may even harm us.
History of Tilapia, Tilapia Facts + Types of Tilapia
The common name for nearly a 100 species of cichlid fish, it comes from three distinct genera: Oreochromis, Sarotherodon and Tilapia. Mainly a freshwater fish, tilapia live in shallow streams, ponds, rivers and lakes — and adapt well to being farmed.
Historically, tilapia became popular in so-called artisanal fishing in Africa and soon became popular in aquaculture and aquaponics outside of Africa. Because North African tilapia grow quickly, are tolerant of stocking density and are adaptable. In modern aquaculture, the wild-type Nile tilapia (the healthiest variety) are not too often seen, because the dark color of their flesh is considered undesirable by many customers.
Tilapia are farmed extensively in many parts of Asia and the U.S. They are increasingly found in outdoor fish farms in tropical countries like as China, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Indonesia. In temperate zone climates, such as in U.S., tilapia farming operations need energy in order to warm the water to tropical temperatures. (8)
The largest tilapia producers in the world are China, then Egypt (!). Currently, it’s the fourth most consumed fish in the U.S.
Going way back, the aquaculture using Nile tilapia began in Ancient Egypt. In fact, tilapia is considered one of the three main types of fish caught from the Sea of Galilee during Biblical times.
Today, the three most commonly fished and eaten species of tilapia are Nile, Blue and Mozambique. Oreochromis niloticus, or Nile Tilapia, are the oldest variety of tilapia.
Nile Tilapia is one of the most adaptable fish, as it can be raised in various ways, such as ponds and in pristine lakes — and can be one of the most sustainable farmed fish. The best fresh tilapia eaten in the U.S. is all-natural (not using chemicals or antibiotics) and lake-grown. Most lake-grown tilapia actually comes from Honduras or Mexico. (9)
Therefore, if you ever do eat tilapia, make sure you ask were it was raised. Seafood Watch recommends to “buy tilapia (“izumidai” in sushi) farmed worldwide in recirculating aquaculture systems, Ecuador in ponds and Peru in raceways.” (10)
Blue Tilapia is found in Florida’s lakes, rivers and streams — and it can live both in saltwater and freshwater. Because it doesn’t grow as quickly as Nile Tilapia, it’s not as commonly farmed. Meanwhile, Mozambique Tilapia was introduced into the U.S. for sport fishing and as a means of aquatic plant control.
Farmed Shrimp: the Dirtiest of All Seafood
There are a lot of shrimp nutrition facts, but shrimp actually holds the designation of being “the dirtiest of all seafood,” says Marianne Cufone, director of Food and Water Watch. She says it’s hard to avoid, as 90 percent of shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported. (11)
“Imported farmed shrimp comes with a whole bevy of contaminants: antibiotics, residues from chemicals used to clean pens, filth like mouse hair, rat hair, and pieces of insects,” Cufone says. “And I didn’t even mention things like E. coli that have been detected in imported shrimp.”
Part of this has to do with the fact that less than 2 percent of ALL imported seafood (shrimp, crab, catfish or others) gets inspected before its sold, which is why it’s that much more important to buy domestic seafood.
What to Eat Instead of Tilapia Recipes
Fish can be an incredible health-building food if you go with wild-caught fish liked sockeye salmon, which has proven health benefits. It’s loaded with healthy fats and can help your brain, joints, muscles and skin!
But rather than buying cheap, frozen tilapia filets, a better option that is both inexpensive and easy to make is a homemade salmon patties recipe that is high in omega-3 fats and protein.
Plus, salmon contains astaxanthin, which has been proven to be more powerful than almost any other antioxidant at absorbing free radicals. If you are not consuming salmon or another wild-caught fish during the week, then I highly recommend you consume a benefit-rich fish oil supplement with astaxanthin.
When I eat out, I also ask my server if the fish is farm-raised or wild-caught. Most servers know this answer or can quickly go ask the head chef. As a quick rule of thumb for salmon, if it’s Pacific or Alaskan, it’s most likely wild-caught; if it’s Atlantic salmon, it’s almost always farm-raised.
Read Next: 17 Fish You Should Never Eat
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