Is Tilapia the Chicken of the Sea?

July 16, 2014

Tilapia is one of the most popular fish choices around the globe. Find out why and what you need to know here.

According to a recent report by the World Resources Institute (lead author Richard Waite), that looked at the performance and sustainability of the world’s aquaculture industry, fish production must grow by 133 percent until 2050 to meet projected worldwide demand. Tilapia is thought to play a major role in the growth of fish consumption in the future. 

Here’s what you need to know about tilapia:

It’s a biblical food! Believed by Christians to have “fed the five thousand”, the humble tilapia is only second to carp as the world’s most cultivated fish, and it is fast overtaking the bangus, or milkfish, to become the most popular commercially bred fish in the many countries, providing an inexpensive source of protein.

Tilapia is a fast-growing tropical species, native to Africa, but produced in more than 100 nations, surpassing any other farmed fish, and is the fourth most-consumed seafood in the US after shrimp, tuna and salmon. The US tilapia market is dominated by imports, with less than five percent produced domestically.

According to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, over 95 percent of tilapia consumed in the US in 2013 came from overseas, and 73 percent of those imports came from China. One reason is that the fish thrives in a subtropical climate, making it a difficult fish to farm in most of the US.  Pay attention to country of origin. Today, Seafood Watch gives farmed tilapia from China a “Good Alternative” rating, due to improved enforcement of food legislation. Although some do question the presence of banned or illegal chemicals such as antibiotics, hormones, etc. used in Chinese tilapia production. Seafood Watch says tilapia raised in Ecuador, the U.S. or Canada is the “Best Choice". Always ask before you buy!

Fishery experts have dubbed the tilapia as the “aquatic chicken” because of low-maintenance cultivation, and most importantly its widespread acceptance as a sustainable food. Its tolerance to different environmental conditions and high resistance towards diseases and parasitic infections has made it the mainstay of many small-scale fish farmers. Other benefits include excellent growth rates on a low-protein diet, ready breeding in captivity and ease of handling. 

Dr. Floyd Chilton, professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University comments that, tilapia has as much omega-3 as other popular seafood (although is not as high as salmon or mackerel), 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. 

As with any item, inquire about origin and farming methods before you buy!