Frightening Warning About Tilapia

If you eat fish, chances are you've recently eaten tilapia, one of the most highly consumed types of fish in the United States. You might want to change the menu.

Researchers from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center have concluded that farm-raised tilapia--the kind typically sold in supermarkets--contains very low levels of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and very high levels of the potentially dangerous omega-6 fatty acids.

How dangerous is it? Eating tilapia could be far worse for your heart health than eating a hamburger, doughnuts or even pork bacon!

The double whammy of low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and high levels of omega-6 fatty acids could be potentially dangerous for some people 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 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," write the Wake Forest researchers in an article published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The team discovered that farm-raised tilapia, as well as farmed catfish, "have several fatty acid characteristics that would generally be considered by the scientific community as detrimental." 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 researchers write. "All other nutritional content aside, the inflammatory potential of hamburger and pork bacon is lower than the average serving of farmed tilapia."

The heart healthy benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, found in abundance in salmon and trout, have been well documented--so much so that the American Heart Association recommends everyone eat at least two servings of fish a week. Just don't make one of those servings tilapia since it could actually do your body more harm than good.

If You Love Salmon, This Will Scare You

Packed with omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Or is it? The Environmental Working Group has issued a scary report indicating that farm-raised salmon--but not the kind that is fished out of streams and rivers--is contaminated with high levels of cancer-causing chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, more commonly known as PCBs, report Reuters and The New York Times.

EWG purchased and tested salmon filets from 10 different grocery stores in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon. Seven of the 10 filets contained high levels of PCBs. "These first-ever tests of farmed salmon from U.S. grocery stores show that farmed salmon are likely the most PCB-contaminated protein source in the U.S. food supply," the non-profit environmental investigative group said in a prepared statement.

We eat a lot of salmon. About one-quarter of all adult Americans--that would be 52 million people--eat salmon and about 23 million of those eat it more than once a month. "Based on these data we estimate that 800,000 people face an excess lifetime cancer risk...from eating farmed salmon."

EWG found that farmed salmon had 16 times the PCBs found in wild salmon, four times the levels in beef, and 3.4 times the levels found in other seafood. The New York Times notes that while the PCB levels in salmon are high, they do not exceed those set in 1984 by the FDA for commercially sold fish; however, they do exceed the guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 for recreationally caught fish. Although this study by EWG has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, the findings are supported by other studies done in Canada, Ireland, and Britain--all of which has forced the hand of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which will now review the problem.

What are PCBs? They come from hydraulic fluids and oils, electrical capacitors, and transformers. They are carcinogenic because they are endocrine disrupters, which are chemicals that mimic hormones. PCBs can also cause infertility and other sexual changes. Because of this, PCBs have been banned in the United States since 1976 except when they are used in completely enclosed areas. Still, they persist in the environment and animal fat. Farmed salmon are raised in high-density fish pens in what may be a pristine environment, but they are fed fishmeal from around the world. And that fishmeal is contaminated with PCBs. While the omega-3 fatty acids in salmon are healthy for us, they also provide a place for the PCBs to build up.

What do the salmon farmers think of all this? An organization called Salmon of the Americas represents 80 salmon farmers in the United States, Canada, and Chile. Its spokesman says that until the farmers hear differently, they'll continue to follow the FDA regulations, rather than the more strict EPA regulations. "We assume they know what they are doing, and the regulations and levels they have promulgated mean that the food, including farmed salmon, is safe, wholesome, and nutritious. EPA and FDA should work their differences out," Alex Trent, acting director of Salmon of the Americas told the Times. "When and if the FDA changes its limits, we will be the first to comply. Someone is yelling fire in a theater to help make their point, and they haven't proven this point to the FDA yet. If they had, they would change their standards."

Based on the results of this study and EPA recommendations, the New York Times advises consumers to eat farmed salmon no more than once a month.