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Tilapia Worse than Bacon?

Posted on February 16, 2012 | No Comments

Question: Is it true that Tilapia is worse than Bacon?

When I received this question, the first thing that came to mind was maybe there are some harmful chemicals in the fish feed or pesticides in the water that make tilapia even worse than bacon (an item ranked way down on the ‘healthy food’ list). I surmised, what goes into tilapia, goes into you, too.

So I did a little research and asked a tilapia farm owner from Talisay, Batangas what they feed their fish. I learned that commercial fish feed is composed mainly of grains such as soybean meal, rice, corn, and wheat. Protein is supplied by fishmeal, which comes from leftover bones and heads of other fish. Vitamins and minerals are also added to the fish pellets. I did not find any suspicious ingredients such as chemical additives
and preservatives, hormones, or ‘carcinogenic-sounding compounds’ in the fish feed.

Later, I came across a recent study done at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine by Dr. Chilton and colleagues, saying that farmed-raised tilapia contains a potentially dangerous combination of fatty acids. They found that tilapia contain very low levels of the good omega-3 fatty acids, and high levels of the unfavorable omega-6 fatty acids. Tilapia contained only less than a gram of omega-3 fatty acid per 100g fish, compared to 3-4 grams in salmon and trout. Tilapia has higher levels of potentially detrimental omega-6 fatty acids than 80 precent lean hamburger and even pork bacon, the article says.

The study suggested that tilapia convert the high levels of omega-6 acids from the corn meal into arachidonic acid and store this in their tissues. When we eat tilapia, it is the arachidonic acid (a kind of fat) that causes inflammation and may worsen inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, asthma, arthritis, diabetes mellitus, and even cancer. “All other nutritional content aside, the inflammatory potential of hamburger and pork bacon is lower than the average serving of farmed tilapia”, Dr. Chilton remarked.

So now we know, it was the inflammatory effect that prompted Dr. Chilton to say that eating tilapia is worse than eating bacon or a hamburger.

Now, let’s compare tilapia and bacon, and consider the rest of their nutritional content.

Tilapia is also an excellent source of Phosphorus (204mg), Niacin (4.74mg), Selenium (54.40mcg), and Vitamin B12 (1.86mcg), and a good source of Potassium (380.00mg). Bacon on the other hand, contains more than 1000mg of sodium, 166mg of cholesterol, and enough possible carcinogenic nitrites to make pregnant women think twice! Also note how little protein and how much fat a serving of bacon contains.

Tilapia is not necessarily worse just because it contains less omega-3 than salmon and more omega-6 than bacon. It still has many nutritional benefits, and cannot be judged solely on its potential to cause inflammation. So after digesting Chilton’s ‘worse than bacon study’, my recommendations are:

  1. Don’t give up farmed tilapia completely. Continue to eat fish regularly, at least twice a week, and combine tilapia with omega-3-rich-fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel) for a more balanced mix of fats.
  2. Grill, Boil, or steam the tilapia instead of frying. This will help you cut down on total fat in the diet.
  3. If you choose to fry or sauté, use canola or olive oil (with monounsaturated fats that are heart healthy and recommended for diabetics). Or cook in coconut milk (e.g. ginataang tilapia) which contains Medium Chain Triglycerides MCTs (also with health benefits). Avoid margarine (which contains dangerous Trans fats).
  4. Even if the study tells us that bacon has less bad fats, it still has bad fats! So stay away from bacon and other processed high fat meat.
  5. Wait and see. Tilapia farmers are now thinking of revising their fishfeed to produce fish that are healthier to eat. A farm in Canada is hoping to produce omega-3-rich-pork. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed…)
  6. Stick to a healthy, balanced diet of unrefined carbohydrates, a rainbow of fruits & vegetables, low fat meat, poultry and fish, plus healthy oils…and you won’t go wrong.

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