Should You Avoid Eating Catfish?

Posted by Eric Troy on 24 Mar 2016 19:54

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As a born and raised Southerner, there is one type of fish in particular that is near and dear to my heart: Catfish. I grew up eating loads of catfish. Fried. I still adore it and anytime I'm back home the first thing out of my mouth is, "fix me up a mess of catfish."

As you may have guessed, I don't live in the South right now. At least not in the deep South. You may also wonder why I need to be back home to the South to get catfish. Can't I cook my own catfish? Of course, but there is a problem. I'll get to that.

Regardless, if you want to get me riled up, tell me catfish is bad.

Tell me it's a food you should avoid at all costs. There are reasons why we are sometimes told to avoid catfish. There are also reasons that many people outside the South think catfish is nasty.

I'll let you know about those reasons, but first, let's examine some common misconceptions.

Given my love for catfish, and my Southern heritage, you can understand, then, why I did not respond well to this video.

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To be honest, I do not agree with anything in the video. I have no use for lists of the worst and best foods. But the statements made about catfish are a good lesson on examining nutritional claims. Let's look at some of them.

1. Catfish is a "bottom feeder".

Bottom feeder is a characteristic that is uncommon among the most popular seafood. Lobster, the mainstay of some 4 and 5-star restaurants, is a bottom feeder. I might point out though, that people who live in trailer parks don't eat lobster. They eat catfish. Yes, there are cultural connotations at work here, or none would would malign catfish for being similar to another 'gourmet' food. There was a time, after all, when lobster wasn't so gourmet.

2. You dredge it and fry it

Okay, so is catfish a problem because it is a bottom feeder and full of "toxins" and "carcinogens" or is it the preparation method. TWO different things. There are many ways to prepare catfish but you can't mix and match your cons like this. The question is would catfish NOT be on the list if I baked it, grilled it, simply sauteed it? Or would it be further down the list? In other words, the preparation method is a variable that can be controlled, but catfish being full of oogy-noogies cannot be controlled.

3. Catfish doesn't have many nutrients

Bull baloney. It's full of nutrients.

Here is some data for ONE FILLET (about 87 grams) of catfish, and breaded and FRIED:

Protein 15.74 grams
Calcium 38 mgs
Iron 1.24 mgs
Magnesium 23 mgs
Phosphorus 188 mgs
Potassium 296 mgs
Sodium 244 mgs
Zinc 0.75 mgs
Copper 0.088 mgs
Manganese 0.035 mgs
Selenium 12.1 mcg

It also provides a good mixture of the B-vitamins such as Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, B6, Folate, Pantothenic acid, and B12, as well as vitamin A. Of course, your actual mileage will vary.

But, let's look at those tewwible fats:

Saturated Fat 2.8 grams
MonoUnsaturated Fat 4.8 grams
Polyunsaturated Fat 2.8 grams

The fact is that nutritionally, this is a good fatty acid distribution. Like most fish. Why is fish considered so darn healthy? This is part of the reason why. And yes, some of those polyunsaturated fatty acids in catfish (this was channel cat, btw, which are river runners and lean) are Omega-3 EPA and DHA. Sure catfish is no salmon but many many salt-water non-bottom feeder fishes can also be accused of NOT being salmon. We do not rate the nutrition of fish based on how much it is not salmon.

Still, we can talk about those healthy fats in salmon and realize that there is a culinary difference between salmon and catfish. First of all, most catfish is eaten at a younger age. Old catfish are fat catfish and fat catfish are not as palatable. You may dream of catching a 50-pounder but he will not taste as good as a ten-pounder. I guarantee it, take it from a true catfish fisherman and eater.

PCB's, Mercury, and Other Toxins

As far as toxins, guess where they are stored? In the fats. Comparing a relatively lean fish (as consumed) to a very fatty fish and then saying that the lean fish has more toxins because it is a bottom feeder is misleading. The older and fattier the fish the more the potential for heavy metals like Mercury and PCB's, etc.

Is it possible that some fresh water fishes can have more PCB's? Yes. Although as one commenter on the video's page pointed, out the majority of catfish consumed in the states is farm raised pellet fed fish. Not "bottom feeding". I grew up eating mostly fresh caught catfish from wild sources but even so we weren't above going to the catfish farm.

I brought up farm-raised catfish for a reason. There are many catfish farms in the South. However, if you are live further north and you buy 'fresh' catfish from the grocery store (which will have been previously frozen), it will most likely catfish that was farm-raised in Vietnam or somewhere else in Southeast Asia. The same problems I mentioned concerning imported farm raised shrimp and tilapia are found in imported catfish. Yes, you should avoid imported farm-raised catfish. The practices would not pass muster in the United States, and antibiotics which are banned for use by the FDA are used. Plus, it isn't good catfish. It does not taste the way catfish should taste.

Not All Catfish is Good to Eat

The catfish imported from Vietnam is not good to eat, and I'm not even question what type of catfish it is. The fact is, there are hundreds of species of catfish! Only a relative handful are good to eat. Don't get me wrong. They are all edible. They just aren't all delicious. We have many species in the South, which depending on who you ask, are considered bad eating.


The channel catfish can appear superficially similar to blue catfish, below. But, notice the spots along the sides.
The anal fin is rounded and has fewer rays than the blue catfish, below. Their coloring is gray to olive, with a
pale underside. They have eight sensory barbels or 'whiskers' around their mouths.

One of the best catfish to put on your plate, and one of the most popular and well-studied, is the channel cat, so-named because they tend to live in fast-running waters or "channels." This species, (Ictalurus punctatus) goes by many other common names:
  • blue cat
  • blue channel
  • spotted cat
  • speckled cat
  • fiddler cat
  • blue fulton
  • chucklehead

Blue cat, however, could be considered a misnomer simply because channel cats are often confused with another species, Ictaluris furcatus, or blue catfish. The two look very similar, and can have similar coloration, but blue cats don't have the small black spots down their sides characteristic of channel cat. It doesn't matter since, they are both great eating. The channel cat is probably the most popular catfish in the South, however. It is the most widely caught, and the most widely farmed, often raised alongside other fish.

In the waters where I live, in the Chesapeake region, there have long been no catfish which are good for eating. Or, at least very few you have a chance of catching. This answers the question I started with at the beginning, of why I can't get a decent catfish here, and have to "go down South" to get it.

But this is changing. At present, blue cat (Ictaluris furcatus) have been introduced into the waters of the Chesapeake Bay region. It's not good news! Blue cat in these waters are an invasive species, as many catfish can become when improperly introduced to new habitats.


Due to variances in coloration, and the inherent difficulty in telling one similar fish from another
blue catfish may be confused with channel catfish, above. However, their coloring is a pale blue to olive
with a white underside, with no dark spots on their body. They have a straight-edged tapered anal fin, unlike
the channel cat's rounded anal fin, above, with 30 to 35 rays instead of the channel cat's 24 to 29.

Having been introduced into the region in the 1970's, there numbers are now getting out of control. They have no natural predators in this habitat and there is little to stop them from severely upsetting the ecosystem and endangering native species such as blue crabs, or menhaden.

Fishermen are being encourage to catch as many blue cats out of these waters as they can, and many chefs, with Southern origins are not, are taking advantage of the growing supply of fresh blue catfish, offering up a real Southern delight on their menus. It could be many folks will reassess their opinion of catfish if they give some a try. I had a great fried catfish dinner at Gertrudes, in Baltimore (located inside the Baltimore Museum of Art) although we don't put gravy on catfish where I come from, nor a hard crunchy topping. We also don't put it on top of vinegary turnip greens. But, still, it was delicious!

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