Heart to Heart Talk
Tilapia and Lapu-Lapu
By Dr. Philip S. Chua
Tilapia was in the news lately as a food item that contains “higher levels of potentially detrimental long-chain Omega-6 fatty acids than 80-percent-lean hamburger, doughnuts and even pork bacon.” The study was reported in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
In biblical times, tilapia was popularly called St Peter’s fish because reportedly, he caught one with a coin in its mouth.
Tilapia used to thrive only in Africa, but today, Asia produces almost 65 percent of tilapia in the world, with Thailand, Indonesia, China and the Philippines as the main producers. In 2008, the Philippines raised 250,000 metric tons of tilapia, tagged as “food fish of the 21st century” by World Aquaculture Society president Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons. Next to Bangus (milkfish), tilapia, a hardy fish with firm white meat, is very popular in the Philippines, especially for frying. Europeans and Americans also love tilapia.
While the Mozambique tilapia, introduced in the Philippines in 1950 was not well-received, Nile tilapia in the 70s gained instant popularity because of its lighter color, more rapid growth rate and its cheaper price.
Researchers from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, however, reported that their study on farm-raised tilapia revealed that the fish contained a very low amount of Omega-3 fatty acids (the good fat) and a very high content of Omega-6 fatty acids (the bad fats). If this is true, then consuming tilapia, even 2-3 times a week might be hazardous to health, especially to patients with any of these conditions: arthritis, coronary artery disease, asthma, allergies, auto-immune diseases, because the bad fats can cause an exaggerated inflammatory response and cause endothelial damage to the arteries of vital organs of the body, like the heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, skin, etc.
The contents of tilapia were scientifically analyzed and compared to bacon, showing the following data: tilapia, 26 grams of protein; bacon, 0.07 gram; and, tilapia’s fat, 3 grams; bacon, 100.76 grams. Tilapia is a source of niacin, potassium, selenium, Vit B-12 and phosphorus, and found to have very low level of mercury contamination; bacon is loaded with 1,000 mg of sodium (salt), 166 mg of cholesterol, and a preservative called nitrite, which is suspected to be a cancer-inducing chemical.
In spite of this report, which needs further studies and supporting confirmation, the medical community is not advising abstinence from tilapia, since the fish is still considered nutritional and very tasty, albeit lower in Omega-3 level. Local experts are of the opinion that feeding tilapia rice bran and soybean, which contain less Omega-6 fatty acids might be a possible solution in farmed tilapia. After all, it is the right balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids that is essential. Eating tilapia 2 or 3 times a week, with other fishes high in Omega-3, like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and other Omega-3 rich food items could help the body attain the proper mix of the two fatty acids.
Everything said, eating good fish every day is still healthier in general, compared to ingesting red meats more than once a week.
Another favorite fish, lapu-lapu, also known as groper, grouper, or garoupa in Portuguese, is also in the news. Nothing to do with any concerns about the fish as a healthy food item. The concern this time is about the abuse humans do to catch them, which illegal methods might soon cause this “endangered” species to totally disappear from the face of the earth. Its extinction will not be bad only for those who enjoy this excellent fish, but also adverse for ecology and for our environmental health as a whole.
The 40 known species of lapu-lapu are found in tropical waters. There are two species commercially cultured in the Philippines: the black grouper (Epinephelus malabaricus) and the orange-spotted grouper (Epinepehlus coiocides).
Lapu-lapu is one of the best tasting fish there is. It is a bit pricy because of its luscious texture and excellent taste, especially when steamed with soy sauce, wine, canola oil, ginger and scallion. It noticeable scarcity and possible disappearance from the waters are injecting fears among chefs and restaurateurs around the world. And justifiably so.
After more than four decades of over-fishing and unceasing dynamite and cyanide fishing, especially of spawning areas of groupers, perpetrated by irresponsible and greedy members of the fishing industry, we are now witnessing the decline of groupers in areas around the world where they used to thrive and flourish very well.
In the Philippines, Palawan and its territorial waters, has the greatest number of spawning habitats for lapu-lapu in the country. Today, even Palawan is experiencing the same fate, and fears the imminent collapse of its fisheries by 2020. As far as the grouper is concerned, perhaps one initial and immediate helpful step that could be taken is to culture lapu-lapu, breeding them in captivity.
Hopefully, though, our national and provincial governments will be more aggressive and vigilant, and pro-active, in protecting species of marine life and animal wildlife that are being endangered by human abuses, by implementing stricter regulations against these destructive practices and by utilizing marine and army reserves in helping implement these laws.
With the numerous demoralizing crises the world is facing today, we do not need to allow the addition of another, which is, at this stage, still preventable.