Can Pregnant Women Eat Tilapia? Is it a Safe Fish?

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Written by Gina Wagg BA, Dip.

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Whether you’re pregnant or not, you know that it’s crucial to avoid eating any type of fish or seafood that’s high in mercury levels.

Tilapia is considered to be safe to eat when pregnant, so long as it’s fully cooked. It’s also a fish that is low in mercury. There are healthier ways of eating tilapia than others when you’re pregnant, and you should check the fish’s origin, too.

If tilapia is safe, how much can you eat? And what about mercury or farmed tilapia?

In this article, we look in detail at everything you need to know.

Is Tilapia Safe for Pregnant Women to Eat?

Fish is an excellent source of protein during pregnancy. Compared to meat, fish is lower in fat, and it provides many key nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids.

Tilapia is safe to eat when you’re pregnant. Like any type of fish, you need to cook tilapia thoroughly if you want to eat it while pregnant.

To be on the safe side when eating tilapia, be sure that it has been cooked at temperatures of at least 145 degrees F (63C).

Fish is usually done when it flakes apart, and is opaque all the way through, with no jellyish or translucent center.

This temperature will ensure that your fish is cooked through and is safe to eat (source: USDA).

Cooking will also ensure any potential parasites are killed; though farmed fish tends to have fewer parasites.

Because your immune system is weaker when pregnant, you are more at risk of contracting food-borne illnesses from raw or undercooked food, including fish.

Cooking helps kill microbes that cause these illnesses, making those foods safer for you and your baby (Source: FDA).

There’s no restriction on when you can eat tilapia – it’s safe in the first trimester and beyond.

Studies have shown that the consumption of lean fish, fatty fish, or shellfish in early pregnancy does not necessarily lead to abnormal fetal growth or neonatal complications (Source: BJN).

pan fried tilapia with slaw and potatoes

Is Farm-Raised (Farmed) Tilapia OK During Pregnancy?

Most tilapia sold in the USA and around the world is either:

  • Blue tilapia
  • Mozambique tilapia (also known as red tilapia), or
  • Nile tilapia

Wild tilapia is safe, but it’s very hard to get hold of as the majority of tilapia is farmed.

Farm-raised tilapia is generally fine to eat if you are pregnant. Some farming practices around the world are better than others, however.

Tilapia in the US, UK and Europe are raised within closed tanks, since tilapia is not native to these countries and could cause serious ecological damage if fish were to escape.

The tanks are carefully monitored and regulated, the tilapia are fed a diet of mostly vegetables, and the environmental impact is low (Source: EDF).

The only problem is that tilapia farmed in the USA and Europe isn’t that common.

For example, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, Most tilapia that you can find in the USA has been imported from Asia and Latin America (source: EDF).

Latin America Tilapia Farms

In Latin America, fish there are raised in outdoor freshwater farms, and the environmental impact is considered to be low. Mercury levels are also low (source: EDF).

Interestingly, in Ecuador, tilapia is farmed alongside shrimp to reduce water pollution. This method has lowered disease levels and the need for chemical use.

Generally speaking, tilapia farmed in South America / Latin America is fine to eat, and is raised in carefully monitored conditions.

Chinese Farm-Raised Tilapia

There has been controversy in the past concerning tilapia sourced from China.

Chinese farmed tilapia is by far the most common type imported into the USA (source: FAO), so it can be difficult to find any other type for sale.

In the past, the FDA has rejected imported tilapia from China for numerous reasons, including the presence of banned antibiotics, veterinary drugs, or salmonella (source: SeafoodSource).

This has happened more than once, though that doesn’t mean all imported tilapia are affected, or that’s it’s happening now.

Many good quality Chinese farms have high standards and have been let down by a minority of unscrupulous ones.

A similarly small number of Chinese fish farms have tried to cut corners in the past by feeding the tilapia on animal manure.

Although this is theoretically allowed, and does not mean the final product is unsafe, it does mean the fish have to have more antibiotic treatment (source: McGill University).

Chinese farms have also had problems with escaped fish and water pollution, leading to higher levels of chemicals (other than mercury) present in the fish.

China has managed to solve these problems somewhat, but their use of chemicals in fish farming is still a cause for concern (Source: EDF).

Overall, you CAN eat farmed tilapia from any country and it’s likely to be safe, but it’s a good idea – as with many foods – to check the source.

Smoked or Raw Tilapia During Pregnancy

If you enjoy smoked tilapia, you are best avoiding it while pregnant.

Cold-smoked fish can still contain parasites or pathogens which could lead to listeriosis, and is, therefore, best avoided (Source: AJOL).

Hot smoked tilapia is usually safe during pregnancy if the fish has been fully cooked during the smoking process. Check first if you’re not the one who is smoking the fish.

Raw tilapia is unsafe in pregnancy. It’s not that common, though you might come across it as tilapia ceviche. This is marinated strips of raw fish.

You may be told that the marinade ‘cooks’ the fish, but it doesn’t – it’s only ‘cured’ by the acid of the citrus marinade. Tilapia ceviche is therefore unsafe to eat during pregnancy.

Tilapia sushi is also unsafe during pregnancy for similar reasons. There are some types of sushi you CAN eat, though, and we cover those in our pregnant woman’s guide to sushi.

Tilapia tartare, like its ‘steak tartare’ counterpart, is a mixture of spices and raw fish that should be avoided when pregnant, too.

What’s The Mercury Level of Tilapia?

Tilapia has one of the lowest mercury levels of all types of fish and seafood, with a mercury concentration mean (PPM) of only 0.013 (Source: FDA).

In terms of filleted fish, tilapia therefore has lower mercury levels than almost any other type of fish.

The only seafood lower in mercury than tilapia are scallops, clams, shrimp, oysters, and sardines.

Pretty impressive, considering how many types of fish there are in the sea!

Generally speaking, tilapia that you find in the US has low levels of mercury and has been farmed with a low environmental impact.

Tilapia tacos with lime

Is Tilapia Good for Pregnant Women? Are There Benefits?

Tilapia is good for pregnant women, because like all fish, it provides not only protein, but the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA.

Tilapia has many nutrients – it’s high in Selenium, is a lean source of protein, is low in cholesterol and contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (source: Nutritiondata).

Tilapia also has more omega-3 fats than beef, turkey, pork, or chicken. Omega-3s are important for pregnancy as they help build the fetal brain and retina.

Tilapia, like other fish, also contains the most biologically-active omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA which have been shown to improve childhood development when eaten by women during pregnancy (Source: NCBI).

Studies even suggest that the need for omega-3s increase throughout the pregnancy, to support fetal growth.

In fact, animal studies have shown that not getting enough omega-3s during pregnancy can lead to visual and behavioral problems that cannot be reversed through supplementation once babies are born (Source: NCBI).

However, there are a couple of things to note concerning tilapia’s nutrients:

  • If you’re eating tilapia just for its nutrients, be aware that there are other fish choices that are higher in omega-3s, such as mackerel, salmon or anchovies – that are still low in mercury.
  • Tilapia is also high in omega-6 fatty acids – much higher than its omega-3 content. Omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to inflammation, but they also reduce LDL cholesterol.

    This fact alone may not be a reason to avoid tilapia altogether, as it’s still nutritious and low in mercury (source: McGill).

Since health guidelines are for pregnant women to get at least 200mg of DHA each day, this can be achieved by eating 1 to 2 servings of a variety of seafood a week rather than sticking to just one fish, as per the FDA advice (Source: NCBI).

How Much Tilapia Can I Eat When Pregnant?

Tilapia is one of the best choices you can make for fish to eat while pregnant, and the FDA say that pregnant women should have between 8-12 ounces (227 – 340g) of a variety of seafood every week.

As tilapia is one of the fish choices that is lowest in mercury, you can have two to three portions a week if you like (Source: FDA).

However, given the discussion on omega-6 fatty acids (above), it’s still a good idea to vary your seafood and fish intake.

Cooking Tilapia Healthily During Pregnancy

Tilapia is often fried, but in terms of the most healthful ways to prepare tilapia, it’s a good idea to reduce the amount of unnecessary fat.

Try any one of these healthy and delicious ways of cooking tilapia:

  • Steamed fillets with lemon and herbs
  • Baked fillets stuffed with breadcrumbs, veggies, and herbs
  • Baked fillets with a crunchy crust of breadcrumbs and/or nuts
  • Grilled fillets with a garlic aioli sauce (make sure the eggs in the aioli are pasteurized)
  • Tilapia tacos
  • Fish soup with tilapia and shrimp
  • Pan-fried fillets with pesto sauce
  • Poached fillets with sugar snap peas and honey mustard sauce
  • Broiled or grilled fillets with herb cream sauce – if the cream is pasteurized or cooked.
  • If you are using a recipe that calls for a crust around your fish, you can achieve that by in the oven rather than deep frying.

The only limit here is your imagination!

Finally, here’s my favorite healthy Indian tilapia recipe from Jyothi Rajesh, for Garlicky Chili Lemon Baked tilapia.

It’s delicious and zesty with a kick! Plus all the ingredients are pregnancy-safe, too:

Overall, you now know that you can safely eat tilapia two or three times a week.

Make sure your tilapia is cooked thoroughly before eating, and prioritize healthful preparations that don’t require too much oil.

Enjoy your fish dishes!