Earlier this week, the trailer for The Meg—an upcoming summer movie starring Jason Statham, Jason Statham’s clenched jaw, and a creature described as “the largest shark that ever existed”—made its way around the internet. Even though the titular Meg (short for Megalodon) is supposedly 60 feet long and has a bite stronger than the average T. Rex, it still seems less terrifying than that graphic of tilapia “facts” that is also making its way around the internet.
If your list of Facebook friends includes anyone over the age of 55, you know the picture that we’re talking about: It’s the one with a stock photo of a tilapia underneath two vats of what might be Spaghetti-Os, and some 100 PERCENT WELL RESEARCHED AND SCIENTIFICALLY ACCURATE STATEMENTS about the fish, such as “This fish is boneless, has no skin and can’t be overcooked,” “You can’t find tilapia in the wild” and “Dioxin is found in this fish. Cancers are caused by the toxin dioxin, which can take up to 11 years to clear your body of it once consumed.”
Thankfully, the good people at Snopes investigated those claims and determined that the viral graphic’s statements are pretty dang false, including the disclaimer that tilapia is a “mutant” that is “killing our families.” First, yes, tilapia has both skin and bones, as pretty much anyone with eyeballs can determine. (And last spring, doctors in Brazil began testing tilapia skin as a potential bandage for patients with second- and third-degree burns).
Next, although they are largely raised on farms now, the fish originated in the Middle East and Africa. And while it might be true to say that dioxins are found in the fish, that’s neither surprising nor worth making a weird meme about (Who makes these memes is my real question,” one Redditor asked. “Is it just the same guy who says things like 'Obama is secretly a mechanical lizzard [sic] man pod person sent from mars to eat your children'?”
According to the World Health Organization, dioxins comprise a group of chemically-related compounds that are part of the agency’s “Dirty Dozen” of what it calls persistent environmental pollutants. They can “accumulate in the food chain” and have been detected in the fatty tissue of animals—including fish. But that’s not unique to tilapia, and Snopes couldn’t find any evidence that tilapia is more likely to have more of these compounds than any other kind of seafood.
Snopes did learn that since tilapia have such short lifespans, they might actually be less likely to accumulate dioxins or mercury than other kinds of fish, including the near-universally loved salmon. (And the WHO points out that most countries monitor their food sources for dioxins to prevent any ultra-contaminated specimens from ever appearing on our dinner plates).
In a previous attempt at debunking these tilapi-lies, Kevin Fitzsimmons, an aquaculture expert from the University of Arizona, told FactCheck.org that algae-eaters like tilapia have lower levels of dioxins than carnivorous fish, which accumulate the toxins found in the fish that they consume. “I have no idea why anyone would spread an obvious falsehood that has absolutely no basis in science or a single study with data,” Fitzsimmons said. “Anyone who looks at the facts published in hundreds of peer reviewed literature can see the many obvious nutritional benefits of eating tilapia and virtually all other fishes.”
Except for The Meg. You probably don’t want to eat that one.