What Color Should Tilapia Be?

Tilapia is a native of the Nile River in Africa, and because it has been consumed since the time of the Bible, it is frequently referred to as St. Peter’s fish. It is now the most widely produced farm-raised fish in the world, producing an estimated 1 billion pounds yearly.

The colors range from black to crimson or gold. The prolific Nile tilapia, hardy blue tilapia, and red Mozambique tilapia are the three species that are most prevalent in the United States. Tilapia is occasionally the freshest fish available at the market since it is produced, distributed, and harvested year-round in an efficient manner. Even live ones are sold in certain Asian food markets. Consumers prefer tilapia because of its vast availability and affordable pricing.

The flesh of cooked tilapia is flaky, white, and slightly firm. Although nutrition and water quality play a big role in flavor development, good-quality tilapia has a mild, sweet flavor.

The average tilapia weighs roughly 1 1/2 pounds when it is sold. A thin layer of darker meat beneath the skin is frequently removed when it is filleted. But purchasing tilapia whole is recommended. The delicate texture and flavor of fillets are typically lost after freezing.

You can grill, bake, broil, sauté, fry in a skillet, or steam tilapia. Either before cooking or before serving, the bitter-tasting skin should be removed.


Fresh tilapia frequently have bright, clear eyes, and their bodies should be red with firm meat.

The uncooked fillet of fish will have a pinkish-white tint after processing, and if it is cooked, it will completely turn white.

Even so, if your fish’s skin is still on, it will still have a darker covering. Additionally, fresh fillets need to be pliable when pressed and have red bloodlines.

Fish color can be impacted by a variety of elements, including nutrition, environment, and even treatment with a color fixative like carbon monoxide (CO).

The subtle nature of this technique keeps the fish fresher and longer maintaining its vibrant red hue. On the other hand, when it spoils, it becomes brown and smells awful.

On the other hand, rotten tilapia has a darkening, even discoloring, and drying out around the margins.

How to Recognize Bad Tilapia After Cooking

Tilapia that has been cooked properly should be milky white in color, have hardly any “fishy” aroma or flavor, and have firm, not mushy, flakes.

It can be stored in your refrigerator for 3–4 days at or below 4 C/39 F; after this time, it should be thrown away.

Tilapia that has been cooked and gone bad may also smell bad, have sticky cooked flesh flakes, and generally seem flat or colorless.

The cooked tilapia should be discarded if it deviates from these indications.


The most well-known species of tilapia are the red (Oreochromis mossambica) and black (Oreochromis niloticus) varieties. Both types of meat are white after preparation.

Both varieties of tilapia can grow in fresh or salt water, and the taste will change based on the environment. However, well raised tilapia will taste identical whether raised in fresh or salt water. Aquacultured tilapia is more frequently mild and sweet in flavor while wild tilapia can have a muddy or uneven flavor.

Tilapia with Carbon Monoxide Treatment

There is no immediate health danger associated with eating fish that has been treated with CO because only a small amount of gas (0.4%) was used to treat the fish. But who actually wants to eat fish that has been chemically altered in any way? Additionally, it is challenging to determine the actual freshness of fish that has been CO-treated. Some people wrongly believe that a fish treated with CO will typically appear brilliant red in color (as shown above), even though this is frequently not the case. Consumers are being duped by the use of carbon monoxide, which is most frequently discovered in frozen tilapia from China, Vietnam, and Thailand. The good news is that tilapia from Indonesia, Mexico, or Honduras is not given CO treatment (as pictured below).

less than bright

So how can you know whether something has received carbon monoxide treatment or not? Although it can be difficult to determine, generally bright flesh is a dead giveaway. A pink vein (the bloodline) usually runs through the center of a fresh, untreated tilapia filet. The vein in carbon monoxide-treated tilapia is reddish-orange in color.

Look at the tilapia that has just been filledeted. It’s more of a dark pink and faded red.

Even the part directly underneath the skin is not very red. Watch this video to see the fillet’s opposite side.

On the other hand, treated tilapia will either be identified on the packaging or will appear bright red.

You can question your local fishmonger about the provenance of the fish. Tilapia from Latin American farmers tends to be untreated, while tilapia from Chinese and Taiwanese farmers tends to be treated when shipped. An article from the New York Times from 2011 that makes mention to Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch states that if it’s from Latin America, it’s probably not treated. When grown in ponds, tilapia from China and Taiwan are rated as a “Good Alternative” even though data has been difficult to come by and there is evidence that prohibited or illegal chemicals were utilized. Mexico, Columbia when produced in pens, and Honduras are regarded as “Good Alternative” but Latin American nations like Ecuador and Peru continue to be ranked as the “Best Choice.”

When defrosted for the first time, carbon monoxide-treated tuna appears bright red. After a few days, it turns watermelon pink. – Red Glare of the Tuna Possibly carbon monoxide.

In my limited experience, tuna at higher end sushi restaurants is never that lollipop color; instead, it always appears weirdly watermelon pink in supermarket sushi. Now, I have a strong suspicion that the carbon monoxide treatment is what gave the watermelon its color. That does not mean, though, that none of the other red hues have or have not. I lack the expertise to make a judgment either way.

The color of tilapia changes.

A female tilapia has an egg sack inside of her that can hold about four eggs for every gram of body weight. As a result of an uncontrollable biological process, the female produces eggs, which are then kept in the egg sack. The female starts to bloat and experience some inside pressure as the egg sack swells. She now has to choose between spreading or leaving. No one is certain how a female with a predisposition to reproduce makes her decisions, but most experts concur that she bases most of them on the environment and perceived risks to the survival of her species. It should be noted that she could feel the urge to leave her egg sack before it is fully developed, giving the fish keeper the appearance that she is generating more eggs than other females when in reality she is only doing so more frequently and with fewer eggs.

So let’s first examine evacuation. Due to pressure, the female has decided she does not want to mate with the male. Maybe she doesn’t see any risks to their species, or maybe she just doesn’t want to reproduce. She can also view the man as weak and not want her children to inherit any of his flaws. She simply needs to press forward and expel her eggs into the water. They vanish in a matter of seconds.

Let’s now examine the opposite. She has made the decision to mate with the man. She then exits her hiding place and displays her protruding belly to the man. He responds by showing his “breeding colors,” indicating that he has the predisposition to spawn. Tilapia have chromatophores, or light-reflecting cells, in their scales. They are able to change colors as a result, letting the female know they are in the “breeding spirit.” Additionally, the male will make an area in his “lair” that is spotless for the female to lay her eggs, in this example a flower pot. The two will then begin to swim in circles around one another as though tagging each other. The male will dash into his lair in between their “dances” in an effort to entice the female to the location he has prepared.

The female will eventually approach his planned position, bear down on her egg sack, and force a few eggs out as the male keeps watch at the entrance. The male will enter the female as she swims away and fertilize the eggs. She will return inside after he has left, pick up the eggs in her mouth, and then turn around and put out a few more. Repeating this cycle will stop spawning after the egg sac is empty or until an aggressive female, sometimes known as a “alpha female,” intervenes.

The alpha female is one of the most prevalent issues in tilapia breeding. She regards herself as the colony’s ruler, as the name suggests. In an effort to convince everyone that she is a male, she might even adopt the colors of the male and settle in the lair. This is seen as a natural self-defense response.

While they are incubating, the female will carry the fertilized eggs in her mouth. The eggs produce tails after around 48 hours at 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The eggs become “egg sack fry” after 96 hours when they have a head and tail. By the seventh day, the fry are leaving their mother’s mouth and venturing out to see the outside world.

My tilapia is brown; why?

Few people are aware that imported, frozen tilapia is frequently carbon monoxide treated (CO). This subtle mechanism, which prevents the meat from oxidizing and becoming brown as the fish spoils, can keep the fish looking fresher for longer.

Is it okay to eat yellow tilapia?

Did you know that most of the tilapia raised in the Midwest of the United States is sold fresh at ethnic markets? And the majority of tilapia consumed in the US is imported from Latin America and Asia?

Tilapia raised for food is regarded as safe. In fact, the EPA and FDA have classified them as a “Best Choice” fish for young children, nursing mothers, and pregnant women.

The third in a series of consumer guides that detail fish and shellfish farmed in the Midwest region of the United States is titled “Tilapia Farmed Fish Fact Sheet.” In addition, the fact sheet offers culinary traits, preparation advice, and a recipe for sauteed tilapia.

Visit The Education Store at Purdue Extension to discover additional consumer publications and video resources.

What qualities should I check when buying tilapia?

Before purchasing tilapia that is advertised locally and online, there are a lot of factors to take into account. All of these considerations should be kept in mind by a savvy farmer to guarantee that only the highest caliber tilapia is bought. Food-grade, aquaponics-grade, and pond-grade tilapia are the three tilapia classifications. The size of the broodstock, the hatching date, the quantity of fingerlings available, the reputation of the hatcher, transporting the fingerlings, and the cost are additional considerations. Long-term benefits come from knowing at least three hatcheries that provide fingerlings of the highest caliber.