Tilapia: The foodfish of the 21st century

By Henrylito D. Tacio


Tilapia is often touted as the single most important aquaculture product in the 21st century.  In fact, Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons, president of the World Aquaculture Society, called tilapia as the “foodfish of the 21st century.”


Tilapia has been around since biblical times.  Most of them were raised before in Africa, but accidental and deliberate introductions of tilapia into freshwater lakes made them feasible to be raised in tropical climate such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia. 


“Historically, the introduction of the first tilapia species, the Mozambique tilapia, in the Philippines in 1950 was initially not well-accepted by the industry because of the lack of appropriate culture techniques,” reports Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, the executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Aquaculture and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD). 


“Growth of the fish in ponds was stunted with too much breeding and overpopulation. The small size and dark color of the fish did not also appeal to local consumers,” he added.


The coming of the Nile tilapia in the 1970s improved the acceptance of tilapia in the country because of its lighter color and faster growth compared to the Mozambique tilapia.


Considered the “aquatic chicken,” the tilapia has good attributes that make it suitable for aquaculture.  “It matures early, breeds readily and is a hardy fish,” Dr. Guerrero said.  


The Philippines was the world leader in tilapia production from aquaculture in 1986.  “Our country produced 135,996 metric tons of tilapia in 2003 and was second to China in world production,” Dr. Guerrero said.


Pampanga is considered the “tilapia capital” of the Philippines.  Statistics have shown that Central Luzon produced 50% of the total tilapia production in the country in the last five years.  In 2003, Pampanga produced 65,000 metric tons of tilapia.


“You are the center of food production in the region and this is one of the reasons why we want to empower people in the countryside,” said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in her recent visit to the province.


Most of the tilapia raised in the Philippines are consumed locally.  Unknown to many, there is a growing international market demand for tilapia as a foodfish.


“In the United States, tilapia has shown the biggest gains in popularity among seafood, and this trend is expected to continue as consumption is projected to increase from 1.5 million tons in 2003 to 2.5 million tons by 2010,” the Journal of the American Dietetic Association disclosed.


Like Americans, Europeans are also fond of tilapia since they consider it as “white meat,” a health food low in cholesterol and fat. Also, chefs have a preference for tilapia’s firm meat.


Aside from its large demand in the world market, tilapia also commands a high price.  In the United States, for instance, the typical retail price for whole live tilapia is from US$4-10 per kilo, while fresh tilapia fillet is being sold at US$8-10 per kilo.


But there are some bad news.  In the United States, a study has shown that eating tilapia is not good for those with heart problems.  Cardiologists are telling their patients to go home and eat fish, and if the patients are poor, they’re eating tilapia. And that could translate into a dangerous situation,” said the researchers from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.


Their studies showed that farm-raised tilapia has very low levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acid and, perhaps worse, very high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, they claim.


The researchers say the combination could be a potentially dangerous food source for some patients with heart disease, arthritis, asthma and other allergic and auto-immune diseases that are particularly vulnerable to an “exaggerated inflammatory response.” Inflammation is known to cause damage to blood vessels, the heart, lung and joint tissues, skin, and the digestive tract.


In an article which appeared in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the researchers claimed that tilapia has higher levels of potentially detrimental long-chain omega-6 fatty acids than 80-percent-lean hamburger, doughnuts and even pork bacon.


“For individuals who are eating fish as a method to control inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, it is clear from these numbers that tilapia is not a good choice,” the article said.  “All other nutritional content aside, the inflammatory potential of hamburger and pork bacon is lower than the average serving of farmed tilapia.”


Take note that the researchers are focusing on farmed tilapia.  In a fish-farming situation, the fish that you get depends on what they are fed,” explained Dr. Floyd Chilton, a professor of physiology and pharmacology and the director of the Wake Forest Center for Botanical Lipids.


“Now if these fish are fed, as in the wild, Omega 3 fatty acids and algae, then they’re going to have long-chain Omega 3 fatty acids, which are going to be incredibly beneficial. However, if these fish are fed short-chain Omega 6 products that comes from corn products which is happening so often now then what one sees is the long-chain detrimental Omega 6 fatty acids. So really the fish really are what they eat and we really are what we eat as well,” said Dr. Chilton, who headed the study. — ###


2 responses to “Tilapia: The foodfish of the 21st century

  1. Isn’t tilapia a bottom feeder?

  2. No, Tilapia are african cichlids that dwell in a variety of fresh water bodies in Africa (originally the Nile). Tilapia are omnivorous ;one of the reasons for their preference in aquaculture along with the ability to live in low water quality conditions with many other fish. They feed from the bottom only when opportunity suits them – not exclusively like catfish. They will graze bacterial & algal cultures on rock surfaces but will also eat floating & submergent plants, freshwater invertebrates in any part of the water column, and they have been known to be cannibalistic as well.
    So in short, no they are not bottom feeders per se, but will eat off the bottom if it suits them.

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