Farm raised talapia goes back 4500 plus years, since pictures of tilapia ponds have been found on Egyptian tombs; similar ponds were first noted in Chinese writings 3000 years ago. It’s an easy way for poor people to get protein in their diets, since tilapia eat algae and plankton and feed on grain.

Now, tilapia is not the only “farmed” fish: catfish and salmon are other widely available farmed fish in the US. But tilapia is raised locally here in Luzon, so we eat it all the time. It’s cheap, it’s easy to cook (we fry it head and all) and since we tend to eat local foods, we have it several times a week.

But a lot of Americans are now being told to “eat fish”, and are learning about tilapia, which is cheap. The reason people are told to eat fish is because they have omega 3 in them, and less meat more fish is a way to lower your risk of heart attack etc.

Indeed, just google “Omega 3” and you’ll find all sorts of miracles from the stuff, some which seem to be real (heart disease and age related macular degeneration) and other articles that seem a bit on the speculation side, since the studies are of small groups and preliminary. (depression,Parkinson’s disease, blood pressure).

So this year, Omega 3 fish oil is back “in” as a miracle cure, and the flip side is that Omega 6 is now the latest no no. Yes, I’m being sarcastic, probably because in the last 40 years, I’ve seen so many things come and go that I’m cynical. I also know that it’s almost impossible to separate one small item from a complicated diet.

So today’s health news reports is that farm raised tilapia has a bad omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. Researchers: Farm-Raised Tilapia Has More Omega-6 Fatty Acids Than Doughnuts shouts one article.

So is eating tilapia a good source of Omega three? Yes. A 4 oz cutlet contains 90 mg of Omega 3 and 21 gm of protein.

But what about that omega 6 bad stuff?

Whoops. A Wake Forest University research paper claims:

The researchers found that farmed tilapia contained only modest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids – less than half a gram per 100 grams of fish, similar to flounder and swordfish. Farmed salmon and trout, by contrast, had nearly 3 and 4 grams, respectively.
At the same time, the tilapia had much higher amounts of omega-6 acids generally and AA specifically than both salmon and trout. Ratios of long-chain omega-6 to long-chain omega-3, AA to EPA respectively, in tilapia averaged about 11:1, compared to much less than 1:1 (indicating more EPA than AA) in both salmon and trout.

But is the culprit the tilapia, or is it the feed?

Chilton said tilapia is easily farmed using inexpensive corn-based feeds, which contain short chain omega-6s that the fish very efficiently convert to AA and place in their tissues.

This brings up a lot of questions.

If you go to your local Walmart, you can find all sorts of tilapia from all different countries (they lable the country of origin on their seafood). Indeed, 70% of US tilapia comes from China. Now, you might be wary about eating seafood (including tilapia) that comes from China, where pesticide and manure run off might get into the ponds, but it does bring up a question for the Wake Forest investigators: what was the country of origin, and what was being fed to the fish in those countries? Did they find a difference between wild tilapia and farmed tilapia? Between Chinese or Vietnamese tilapia and that grown in Costa Rica? Because although they did a wide sampling, they did not clarify this question, at least in the abstract.

For their study, the authors obtained a variety of fish from several sources, including seafood distributors that supply restaurants and supermarkets, two South American companies, fish farms in several countries, and supermarkets in four states. All samples were snap-frozen for preservation pending analysis, which was performed with gas chromatography.

So I have a lot of unanswered questions.

Of course, like a lot of headlines, it ignores that most Americans just don’t eat that much fish, so the danger is not as bad as it sounds. One reference says Americans eat 15 pounds of seafood per year. So go figure the danger.

Then there is a question if the omega 6 is the problem, or if it is a problem for everyone or only those with certain genes that make them prone to heart disease.

And since 100 gm of tilapia has 57 gm of cholesterol, should we worry about that?

What I mainly worry about is that when this information gets filtered down into the grass roots, it will make people avoid tilapia, a cheap source of protein, in the same way that people stopped eating eggs (and now we know that eggs have cholesterol, but are only a minor cause of high cholesterol).

So what should you do? Use common sense, and wait a bit until more studies come out. If you have heart disease, you might want to change to a different fish, just in case, and if you eat tilapia every day, you might cut it down to once a week.

Remember: every diet has a risk. Right now it is tomatoes and hot peppers in salads and salsa may be causing salmonella. Eggs have high cholesterol. The Japanese diet has little heart disease, but a lot of high blood pressure. The various diets may be good for some but bad for others (grapefruit can interfere with medicines, high carb diets may exacerbate low grade gluten problems, vegetarian diets may be deficient in some vitamins).

Perhaps because when I worked in Africa I saw so much malnutrition, I see things differently. In past days, the main dietary problem was lack of calories and lack of protein in the diet.

With modern agriculture and stock raising techniques, we now have to be worried about obesity, even in China.

So, instead of protein malnourished children dying of infectious diseases and thousands dying of famine, the world now has to contend with middle aged people with degenerative diseases of obesity and diabetes.

Sounds like an improvement to me.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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