Swai Fish: The Controversial Catfish From Southeast Asia

Ever since the prices of fish like salmon, bass, trout, and even tuna (fillet not canned) started to rise, many exotic fish have been making an appearance in markets. Fish like tilapia are extremely inexpensive and can be found in any market. Swai fish is another fish has been making headway in many markets. However with these “new” species of fish showing up, many people are asking; “Is it healthy for you?” 

For a lot of people, eating healthy is very important. You want to make sure that you get all of your vitamins and proteins throughout the day. When people look at fish, they usually see it as a very healthy option. Fish like salmon and tuna have a hearty amount of heart healthy omega 3 fatty acid. The problem with seafood is that it can be very expensive. 

The Southest Asia Shark

What kind of fish is Swai? Swai fish is officially known as iridescent shark. However, the name is misleading. It is not a shark like the great white or even like a sand shark. Swai fish are part of the shark catfish (Pangasiidae). It gets its name from its appearance. The question of where do Swai fish come from is actually where a lot of the controversy comes from. The Swai is native to the rivers in Southeast Asia, most commonly found in the Mekong Basin and Chao Phraya River.

swai fish

When younger, the Swai fish can radiate a glow from the edges of its fins, thus the name Iridescent Shark. It can grow up to four feet and weigh almost 100 pounds. They are an omnivorous fish and will sometimes eat other fish. Their color is either dark grey or black, and in addition to their glow, younger fish have a stripe above their midline that disappears when they get older. Wild Swai fish are actually considered endangered. It’s only through a stong farmed population that we are able to have plenty of Swai on the global fish market. 


Swai in The Markets

This fish currently does not have any gourmet recipes behind it, instead is sold very cheaply in the United States, Europe, and Asia. It has many names depending on where you are in the world. In the U.S. it is known as Swai, in Europe it is panga or pangas, and in Asia it is either Cream Dory or also Swai. In asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, the Swai fish sells for around $3.99 USD a pound. Swai is actually cheaper than cod, haddock, and many other popular fish options.


Swai fish is a white-flesh fish with a sweet mild taste and a light flaky texture. It can be boiled, grilled, or breaded and fried. A 3.5 ounce serving of the Swai contains about 90 calories, 4 grams of fat, 45 grams of cholesterol, and 50 milligrams of sodium. So overall it seems like a healthy choice.


Swai Fish Fillet

The Swai fish has a fairly sweeter taste than most fish. It matches very well with pasta dishes, along with being very delicious on it’s own. Another benefit to this fish is that it is very moist. This means that when cooking, it does not require a lot of oil. And while some cooking oils can be not so great for you, this is a good thing. The popularity of this fish comes mainly from the taste because it can be used in a multitude of dishes. The mildness of the taste helps the fish to pair well with different sauces and herbs when preparing dishes. This helps to keep the fish tasting new and fresh as it does not have only one or two different recipes for it.

swai fish: fillet

It can be cooked in a number of ways, from grilling to bread and frying. Once it is finished cooking, the originally beige body will turn white, much like when cooking tilapia. The fish also becomes very flaky and soft which makes it that much more appealing. Some of the most popular herbs and flavorings that chefs will often use are lemon, pepper, dill, and basil.


Is Swai Fish Healthy?

The Swai fish is a species which controversy surrounds. Mainly because people are worried about how safe it is to eat. There are many opposing views. Some sources saying that you should avoid this fish at all costs, while others are saying that it is a very good alternative to other expensive fishes.


The controversy comes from the fish’s natural habitat. The Mekong River has been a subject of debate because it runs through many towns and villages, as well as factories. The consideration is that the river is full of pollution for that reason. It is the assumption that villages dump their sewage into the river and it is very likely that factories release their chemicals into the river. The concern is well found. The other source of controversy is that vendors do not follow any quality control when selling the Swai fish. This can compromise the quality of the fish greatly. An example being that there are reports from France that document fish farmers injecting fish with unregulated hormones to stimulate growth. The fish are often kept in cages in the rivers before the harvest.


This is not so surprising or foreign. In the United States, the living conditions for cows, chickens, and pigs in factory farms is about the same. They are kept in small cages and forced to eat hormones and antibiotics to keep them relatively healthy and grow faster.


Farm Raised Swai

The other side of the coin features Swai fish that are farm raised rather than caught in the wild. In this instance, the Swai are raised in freshwater ponds and farmed in a safe, clean environment which is free from pollutants and toxins. The ponds in which the Swai are kept have their own filtration system which helps to regulate and mimic natural water levels that the fish are use to. Swai that is farmed has shown to be much healthier than wild Swai.


The Controversy Continues

The controversy does not stop there as it may end up turning into a conspiracy. In the United States, there is a ban on Swai fish in three states. Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. This ban was put in place because there were reports about illegal antibiotics turning up in samples of the fish. However, this ban has been questioned by many people. The reason that there is some doubt in the reasoning behind the ban is because of those three states farm a lot of their own catfish. Since Swai is sold at a very cheap price, there is a possibility that the ban was put in place to protect the multi-million dollar catfish industry.

swai fish: farming

Difference in Opinion over Swai

The vast difference of opinion, again, does not end there either. Two reputable sources that often help consumers and business make choices about fish have two different opinions. These sources are the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise Program and the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch (Hailing from Canada and the United States, respectively).

The Ocean Wise Program does not recommend Swai for consumers. This is because the expert behind the program say that open-cage farming in Southeast Asia has an association with outbreaks and infection of wild Swai populations. They also note there are also concerns with the feed quality, farm operating standards and the biological impact of using wild stock for culturing.


The Monterey Seafood Watch ranks all fish into three groups. These groups are “best choice, good alternative, and avoid.” When ranking United States catfish, the Seafood Watch ranks it “best choice” because of the sustainability of the farming process. However, in regard to Swai fish, which remember is a type of catfish, they rate it as a “good alternative” with some conditions. They say that the farming of Swai in Southeast Asia has increased immensely in the recent years. They also say that Swai has the potential to be a very sustainable species.


Although, there are a few conservation concerns with the practice of open cage aquaculture along with the fact that there is little to no management of the farms in Asia. When talking about the strong potential, there are companies in Vietnam, along with other countries, that use the best practices and get help with regulations from import associations.


History of Catfish in The United States

The controversy surrounding the Swai along with other foreign catfish goes back to around 2002. Vietnamese catfish caused a decrease of 20% in domestic catfish sales. In response to this, the Catfish Farmers of America did what a lot of people still, unfortunately, do today. Complain to people of higher authority. AKA, cry to mommy and daddy. They wanted Congress to pass something that would slow their competition. Specifically, they wanted a law that would define marketplace catfish in the United States as being the only “Channel Catfish” species which they raise. While being very unethical, Congress put its support behind it. Not at all surprising.


In 2003, Trent Lott, a Mississippi Senator put an amendment to an unrelated bill. This amendment said that only the U.S. species of catfish could be called “Catfish” in the marketplace. Talk about being salty. In addition, Congress also put high tariffs on the import of Vietnamese Swai.


Farmers did not stop there, later when the threat came back, they went back to Congress. This time around they wanted the name changed back to create even more problems for Vietnamese farmers in terms of importing. That was not all. They went as far as to make a TV ad that basically said that most foreign catfish was uninspected.


Swai Stays

Despite the Swai name being dragged through the mud, the fish was still the 10th most popular seafood among consumers in 2009. Also, people actually prefer Swai over U.S. catfish. Swai is not a fish that goes down easily. A study was done to compare the quality and safety of Swai and U.S. catfish. This study was done by Doug Marshall who is a professor of food science and technology at Mississippi State. The frozen imports were shown next to frozen, local fish. As it turns out, both fish had the same quality and safety indicators. Also, both were nutritionally the same. In fact, the U.S. brand of catfish was actually a little fatter.


Another event in 2001 was when a group of U.S. catfish farmers traveled to Vietnam to get the facts from the source. Expecting to find horrid conditions in which farmers were raising these Swai, the surprise was that the operations were vastly better than what they had thought.


Swai Health Benefits

Swai has many health benefits when it comes to eating healthy. Besides it is very economic and easy on your wallet, it is also easy on your body. Swai is a fairly fatty fish. 4-ounce fillet has 100 calories with 45 calories coming from fat. The actual fat content is also pretty good. It has 5 grams of fat, with 3 grams of unsaturated fat, which is good for your heart, and 2 grams of saturated fat. It also has 15 milligrams of cholesterol and 300 milligrams of sodium. That is around 5 and 12% of the daily allowance. The fillet’s macronutrient is protein in which it has 15 grams. That is 30% of the amount you need every day.


Even though about half of the calories come from fat, the fat in fish is different than other fats. Fish fat is extremely high in omega 3 fatty acids and other heart healthy fats. These fats keep your blood flowing freely and actually prevents the formation of clots. Thus, protecting you from health risks like heart attacks and strokes. Omega 3 is also often taken as a pill called fish oil. 

swai fish: fish oil

Pay Attention

While there is a lot of controversy and the possibility of a conspiracy, the safety of Swai really all depends on where it comes from. Like most foods, the manner in which it is produced contributes a lot into whether it is or is not good for you. When talking about Swai fish, and any fish for that instance, pay attention to where it comes from. Probably, you will want to avoid wild caught Swai fish as the quality of the water is often the biggest issue among people. However, farm raised Swai is the best bet. The waters are most likely free from pollutants and the fish are raised in a sustainable fashion. Just look at the labels and you will be fine.








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Patrick Sands

Hey, I'm Pat. I am a Millersville grad with a Bachelors of Arts in English. I love to write, play video games, watch movies and TV, basically be a total nerd whenever I can. Green and Growing is important to me because it allows me to help others be as green and eco-friendly as possible. With Climate Change being what it is, it is even more important for people to get educated about their environment. This website allows me to do my part in that. Also, I'm a huge goof who tries to add some humor into anything I write. Stay Excellent out there!

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