Generations of Americans accustomed to ordering sole, haddock or cod found a new name on the menu in the 1990s. Tilapia -- an umbrella term for nearly 100 species of freshwater fish -- caught fire as a versatile alternative to other whitefish selections. About Tilapia, a website promoting the fish and its farming, notes that U.S. consumption rose "from a quarter-pound per person in 2003 to more than a pound in 2007."
Growth and Farming
Compared to other species of consumable fish, tilapia shows a faster degree of growth, with The Fish Site reporting that it reaches marketable size in eight to 10 months, unlike salmon, which may take up to three years. Though farmed fish feed on grain-based pellets to promote the development of a mild-flavored meat, the wild species thrives on numerous food sources, including plankton, green leaves, larval fish and decomposing organic matter.
Tilapia meat is naturally low in fat and high in nutrients such as phosphorus, niacin, selenium and vitamin B12. The calories-from-fat content of tilapia, at 20 calories, is lower than that of salmon (40), trout (50) and catfish (60), but tilapia does have more saturated fat than cod, flounder and tuna.
Most recipes that call for whitefish will suit tilapia. It goes into fish tacos, for instance, a dish often associated with salmon, and lends itself to pan-searing and broiling like trout. The instructions for preparing tilapia mirror those of other fish, particularly when it comes to food safety. FoodReference.com recommends separating raw and cooked seafood to prevent the spread of bacteria, and washing hands and utensils with hot, soapy water after handling raw fish.
As acceptance of tilapia grew in the United States, so did a controversy surrounding its nutrition content. In a 2008 report released by Wake Forest University, researchers said that that farmed tilapia and catfish "have several fatty acid characteristics that would generally be considered by the scientific community as detrimental." In particular, tilapia has a low level of omega-3 fatty acid and a high level of omega-6 -- a combination that could prove risky to people with diseases such as asthma and arthritis. The Wake Forest researchers concluded that tilapia was not a good choice for people subject to "exaggerated inflammatory response." AboutTilapia.com argued in response to what it deemed the study's "illogical accusation" that "omega-6s are a type of fat that is generally healthy, but too much may not be ideal."
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