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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why are you eating that tilapia?

Farm-raised tilapia
  • Farm-raised tilapia
I've mentioned pretty frequently that I don't like tilapia. To my taste, it's the tofu of the animal world, not much better than a sop for other flavors. In fact, I like its texture less than tofu. It reminds me of the mysterious white stuff in the "fish sticks" I ate every Friday in school cafeterias.

I remember when food suppliers began aggressively marketing tilapia. A friend reported going to a trade show at the time and hearing someone promote the fish as if it were a sideshow freak. "No fish has the shelf life of tilapia!" a supplier told him. "It's truly the wonder fish."

I don't dispute that the fish is an excellent source of protein and that its low cost makes it an efficient addition to diets. It's called "aquatic chicken," co-opting the rep of the canned tuna known as Chicken of the Sea.

It turns out that tilapia is not as healthy as we've thought — not for consumers and not for the environment. The New York Times recently published an article titled "Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish" that describes the fish's reality.

There's this:

Compared with other fish, farmed tilapia contains relatively small amounts of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, the fish oils that are the main reasons doctors recommend eating fish frequently; salmon has more than 10 times the amount of tilapia. Also, farmed tilapia contains a less healthful mix of fatty acids because the fish are fed corn and soy instead of lake plants and algae, the diet of wild tilapia.

“It may look like fish and taste like fish but does not have the benefits — it may be detrimental,” said Dr. Floyd Chilton, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center who specializes in fish lipids.

And then there's this:

Environmentalists argue that intensive and unregulated tilapia farming is damaging ecosystems in poor countries with practices generally prohibited in the United States — like breeding huge numbers of fish in cages in natural lakes, where fish waste pollutes the water. “We wouldn’t allow tilapia to be farmed in the United States the way they are farmed here, so why are we willing to eat them?” said Dr. Jeffrey McCrary, an American fish biologist who works in Nicaragua. “We are exporting the environmental damage caused by our appetites.”

The author of the article, Elizabeth Rosenthal, followed up the story the next day with a blog entry detailing the actual origins and treatment of those pretty fresh tilapia filets you see in the market:

If you ask about the provenance of tilapia at your own market, you may discover what I did: that it was previously frozen and then thawed and put on display among fresh fish. And it was farmed in China.

How can it look so good after that kind of journey? Much of the tilapia farmed in China is frozen and then treated with carbon monoxide, a gas that prevents meat and seafood from discoloring as it ages. When it is thawed, it looks like new.

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