Research looks at developing “designer tilapia” to cater to changing consumer behaviors

Ruby Gonzalez
May 15, 2017
By Ruby Gonzalez

Good news to tilapia aficionados: tilapia has always been good for you.

 A study showed tilapia’s Omega-6 to Omega-3 (n6:n3) ratios is relatively low compared to normal US diets. This disproves the “worse than bacon” allegation made in 2008 that was based on a study conducted by a research team that exaggerated its interpretation of how tilapia’s n6:n3 ratios were bad for the health.

 

An even better development is that, with customized feeds, tilapia can be developed into a premium product with specifically designed lipid content and/or fatty acid composition (FAC) profile (see side bar.)

 “Consumers have shown high interest in these premium value-added products, and tilapia has huge potential in value-added segment of the marketplace,” cited Hyun Sik S. Chu et al in the abstract of 21st Century consumer behaviors - Why we are interested in value-added “Gucci” tilapia.  

The research team is from the Department of Food Science and Technology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

Changing consumer behaviors

With a healthy fatty acid composition, the so-called “designer” tilapia will cater to consumers, millennials included, shifting to healthier, less processed, and more sustainable products.

“We are seeing changes in consumer behavior. Interesting patterns are coming up,” Chu said during his presentation at Aquaculture America 2017 held in February in San Antonio, Texas. “People want transparency in products. That means people want to know what goes into the product.”

In wanting to “feel safe” in eating the product, the consumers check out the information label to check if the ingredients are safe and the products, less processed. They even consider if the packaging materials are earth-friendly.

Chu said that in terms of fresh fish, consumers are starting to prefer the whole fish, not fillets. “They also want more sustainable product, they look at the producer and want to know if it has sustainable practices.”

People usually buy fish for the taste and assumed health benefits, compared to other meat proteins. Wild-caught fish is preferred and considered as a premium product. Aquaculture products, however, are starting to be viewed favorably as a sustainable alternative.

Consumers’ “willingness to buy” is steadily increasing, he said, due to the entry of millennials in the market, changing consumer patterns, and producers’ educational and marketing efforts.

“Producers are getting the word out that it is a sustainable alternative: it involves controlled feed, water. So people believe in these things now,” he said.

The millennials

During his presentation, Chu profiled the millennials, or those born in the 1980s to early 2000s, who are entering the workforce and becoming economically independent. “These are the people raised on information or know how to get the information. Albeit they are not necessarily getting the factual information, but they know how and where to get some sort of information,” he said.

Designer tilapia, or what he fondly referred to as “Gucci” tilapia, offers a healthier fish product to the consumer and bigger profits for the farmer.

“Tilapia is a cheap product. Where I am from, it is $5 per lb for fresh fillet. It is lower compared to salmon and tuna. With the value-added tilapia, the tilapia industry can get into that market in terms of price.

“People are willing to pay extra for a premium product. However, I haven’t seen any such premium product from the tilapia industry yet. Why not try to create it, right?” he said.      

It could command a high price, based on the amount being paid for premium products, like GMO-free corn and red beans, and antibiotics-free chicken. These are two to three times the amount of their regular counterparts, Chu said.

The team analyzed the FAC of tilapia fillets in US supermarkets in order to understand the claims about poor lipid quality of tilapia. Although samples from different countries of origin showed high variations in FACs, the market study indicated healthy FAC in tilapia fillet lipids.

Acknowledging that there is a need for more premium products, the researchers conducted growth trials to improve FAC through enhanced diets.

Enhanced diets

The effective customized diet has “excellent n-6 to n-3 ratios, especially compared to the current American diet of 10:1.” It is composed of algae oil, fish oil, high oleic sunflower oil and soybean oils at various concentrations.

Someone from the audience asked Chu: “Why not just inject the healthy fatty acid in tilapia fillet?”   

Chu replied that consumer perception plays a big factor. “If you go to the consumer and say, ‘I injected oil into this fillet,’ would you want to eat it?  A big problem for the food industry now is we have to worry about what the consumer is thinking of us. It’s across the whole food industry,” he said, using Subway as an example. Subway had to change a bread ingredient when consumers found out that it is the same item used in making yoga mats.

“Consumer perception plays a big factor. Less-processed, wholesome products — people pay extra for these things,” he said.   Tilapia ranks fifth among the most eaten seafood in the US, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Its image, however, suffered from the “worse than bacon” backlash in 2008. The comment was based on study conducted by a research team in Wake Forest that exaggerated how tilapia’s n6:n3 ratio was bad for the health.

Enhancing fatty acids in tilapia

To create the value-added product, Hyun Sik Chu and his team focused on enhancing the fatty acid composition of fish by feeding it customized feed. The researchers outlined the types of fatty acids they wanted to increase or reduce.

Omega-3. Improve Omega 3 fatty acid because it is an extremely important part of human diet, especially in young children. It has anti-inflammatory characteristics.

Omega-6. Minimize the impact of Omega 6. Too much Omega-6 fatty acid exacerbates health problems: atherosclerosis, which causes cardio-vascular diseases, the leading cause of death for most ethnicities in the US.

Omega-9. Increase the impact of Omega-9 fatty acid. It has been known to reduce LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and atherosclerosis.

Ruby Gonzalez

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