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« Paleo is Reaching Its Tipping Point | Main | Summer Heat Wave »

Tilapia Eaters Beware

Courtesy of Agência BrasilYesterday I experienced a serious headache which I believe was due primarily to diet. Before delving into this story, I want to openly admit that when it comes to food and its preparation, I'm a little on the paranoid side. As my wife can attest to, I'm constantly checking expiration dates and routinely suggesting that things might be bad, even if they are clearly within the eat by date. Seemingly safe in that spirit of extra caution, I thought no harm would come from baking the tilapia I had just defrosted.

The meal itself turned out fantastic. I cubed up red bliss potatoes, chopped asparagus, diced garlic, and tossed them all in a mixture of olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, thyme, salt, and pepper. While the veggies were roasting in the oven on a baking sheet, I soaked up the remaining olive oil and spices with two big tilapia filets, then lightly breaded them in a mixture of breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan cheese, and more spices. I took my baking sheet out of the oven, added the tilapia, and topped everything off with two lemon slices and a sprinkle of the leftover breadcrumbs/Parmesan mix. The kitchen smelled great and I knew I'd have a good supper in about fifteen minutes.

In the interim clean up, I spotted a dismaying "Product of China" label on the underside of the tilapia container. Prior to cooking, I had only seen the "farm-raised" sticker on top of the package which actually had made me feel good. I thought I was supporting a local fish farmer instead of damaging wild fisheries, but the hidden label underneath caused me some serious doubt. It was almost like the supermarket was trying to hide the product's Chinese origin by putting the sticker on the bottom. Immediately my mind ran through nightmare scenarios of mutant, genetically modified, hormone treated tilapia, swimming in filthy ponds far beyond the reach of the USDA's protective eye. When the oven timer buzzed, the hunger in my belly made me dismiss these fears as warrantless paranoia, and I sat down to a tasty meal.

Perhaps it was psychosomatic, but soon after eating the tilapia, my skull was gripped with a severe headache. The pressure started in the back, then moved to my temples. It seemed as if a belt was tightening around my whole head, until the pain finally settled to a dull throb in my forehead. Now I am not the type to get headaches often, but when I do, usually caffeine and relaxation knocks them out. I made a pot of coffee, rested for 45 minutes, but the headache still persisted. My mind went back to that secretive "Product of China" label and the wild theories pulsed through my bumping head.

Mercury poisoning, I was convinced. I googled until I found questionable web sites that confirmed my hypothesis. Isn't it funny how we think the Internet has granted us temporary MDs whenever we need to prognosticate over our minor aches and pains? I learned that I needed to take zinc, garlic, and anti-oxidants with plenty of water to flush out the heavy metals that I imagined were assaulting my nervous system. After swallowing a huge multivitamin, downing several supplements, and eating a clove of raw garlic, which can be surprisingly bitter, I convinced myself that the headache was finally down to a manageable level.

Tilapia Farm in the Phillipines, Courtesy of glenmcbethlawToday, in a clearer mental state, I did some further research and found some interesting contradictions to my conclusions of yesterday. It turns out mercury poisoning was probably not the cause of my headache, and the root of my fish worries might be have been better placed in the "farm raised" label than the "product of China" one. Now it could be, as my wife suggested at the height of my googling frenzy, that maybe I just had a normal headache, and it had nothing to with adulterated tilapia. However, I think the true headache culprit was another chemical substance common to farm raised tilapia.

According to my research, tilapia is actually very low in mercury when compared to other fish, because they feed mostly on plant life, not on other mercury carrying fish. Ironically, the tilapia's vegetable based diet makes them cheap to farm, but also contributes to a different nutritional problem for its human consumers. Since it's inexpensive, most fish farmers use corn based feed to quickly grow their tilapia to market size. Like beef and pork from animals fed on corn, tilapia comes with a high level of omega-6 fatty acids, which is not good for humans in large amounts.

In fact, one study suggests that tilapia has higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids than 80% lean ground beef and even pork bacon. When too much is consumed (and this is the norm for most Western diets), omega-6 acts as an inflammatory agent that contributes to heart disease, arthritis, asthma, and a host of other conditions. In tilapia and other farm raised fish like catfish, the high levels of omega-6 fatty acids basically counteract the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids for which most people are eating fish in the first place.

This little known presence of high omega-6 fatty acids in tilapia has both personal and public repercussions. For me, I'm convinced that the substance caused inflammation in my brain's blood vessels, producing my terrible headache. Of course, no matter how much googling I do, I'm no doctor and this diagnosis is still mere speculation.

For the public at large, the problems with corn fed, farm raised tilapia and catfish are more certain. Many doctors are telling patients to eat more fish as part of a heart healthy diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids. As one of the cheapest options, tilapia may be the fish of choice for many people already at risk for heart disease, when it is actually causing them more harm than good. Since the omega-6 in tilapia overshadows omega-3 by an average of 11:1, consumers of this fish are getting virtually no anti-inflammatory benefit, and would be better off eating a doughnut for dinner.

In order to save me from another headache, I'm going to avoid any farm raised tilapia or catfish next time I'm in the seafood section. Instead, I'll choose a truly heart healthy fish like salmon or trout, and as always, you can be sure I'll check the label for where its from and a date to make sure it's fresh. Even if you're not an extreme food skeptic like I am, anyone concerned about heart health would be wise to do the same.

Reader Comments (6)

I have to agree with your wife and say it seems like sheer paranoia. It's not to say that food can't have negative effects on the body, especially fish and especially our grossly processed food of today, but it seems like a stretch to say the headache was caused by simply the fish. Between the heat, stress, and general fatigue, I get a little headache every day.

Now it should be noted that I'm biased because I love Talapia, and even though it's not the most beneficial health wise, it's a damn good fish. However, I would recommend avoiding supermarket seafood altogether. It's passing through too many hands and who knows where it's really coming from. When it comes to seafood, I think it's best to find a high-quality local market and buy as fresh as possible so there are no worries.

July 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterPatrick Edmonds

PS- Here's a great article from a recent Time I read about Fish farming and how it's primarily outsourced, like everything else, to Asian nations.


July 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterPatrick Edmonds

Very informative post. I hate it when a food I enjoy is ruined by some study showing negative effects. However I feel like there is some study that can show something harmful about all things edible. For tilapia I'll probably do the same thing as when someone tells me about all the nitrates in hot dogs: ignore and continue to enjoy.

July 28, 2011 | Registered Commenterbennythejetrodriguez

I heard an interesting story on NPR about fish farms in Maine, and how they have started with cod. The interesting part of your article in relation was that they were feeding them, they never told the listerner what it was, but I figure it is your corn.

I wish we could live without fish farms but protein is protein and the world needs to be fed. It provides jobs for Americans and if done well, can be humane and environmental, I hope. It is disturbing that a fish all the way from China got here fresh and ready for your table.

I didn't realize the difference between vegetarian fish and meat fish -- that was cool to learn

July 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames Dugan
I always thought that farm raised is bad since the fish can be full of contaminates and pesticides. Hmmmm....
October 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersuperstar
I just swallowed a whole garlic as I was so desperate for a solution, at least it will help my cholesterol a bit, lol. Chewing a raw garlic is a horrific thing to do and should only be done as a last possible option for toothace. Cut a big garlic up and wash with water ir swall very small cloves.
December 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJAmes

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