Choosing the healthiest salmon can be a fishy business.

Rich in omega-3s and low in calories, we have all heard the health benefits of eating salmon. The American Heart Association says we should be eating fatty fish, such as salmon, twice a week. The omega-3s found in salmon are chock-full of nutrients that keep our ticker healthy. “They decrease the risk of heart disease by curbing inflammation and slowing the buildup of plaque inside the blood vessels,” says Michael J. Yarnoz, MD, a cardiologist in Wilmington, North Carolina. “They can also lower triglyceride levels and blood pressure.” 

But as we navigate the grocery store aisles, there are so many varieties of salmon that it’s hard to know which is actually the “healthiest.” Add in all the talk of sustainability and farming, and just a simple decision about fish can send you to the meat counter.

Before we go any further, let’s talk about the types of salmon you’re most likely to find in the market. There are five types of Pacific salmon. The largest fish, the King or Chinook, is typically the priciest but is loved for its high fat content. If you prefer a milder fish, there’s Coho, the next largest Pacific salmon type. Sockeye is third in size and is know for it’s very deep red color and strong flavor. The smallest Pacific salmons are the pink and chum, which are generally used in canned or smoked salmon due to a lower oil and fat content.  Less oil and fat means less flavor—and pity the naturally pale yellow chum salmon whose lack of pink flesh misleads people into thinking it’s not even a salmon. Lastly, the most common salmon is Atlantic, originating from—you guessed it—the Atlantic Ocean.  

Farmed vs Wild: Which Way to Go

Truth be told, there are pros and cons to both farmed and wild salmon. Farming (meaning the fish is raised in a confined area) is a great way to keep fish economical for consumers as well as maintain control over what the fish eats. It also cuts the risk of overharvesting.  However, there are concerns over the cleanliness of the farm environments, what exactly the fish are fed, and the pollution of the surrounding waters. With wild salmon, there are fewer contaminants to worry about, but overfishing has caused depletion of some species. Not to mention the fact that, in the wild, there is no way to know what exactly the fish has eaten.

Just how safe farmed salmon is to eat really comes down to the practices in which it was farmed. Net pens easily allow for waste to filter into—and out of--surrounding waters. Diseases and parasites also can spread to and from wild fish passing by. Tank systems, while costly, seem to be the safest, most environmentally sound option because the wastewater is treated rather than spread into surrounding waters.

Not only do we need to be aware of the type of farm, but organizations like Seafood Watch also warn to take note of which country the farmed salmon is coming from; it will be listed right on the tag. For example, countries such as Chile and Norway have faced numerous complaints that their farms contain waters doused with antibiotics and waste. 

Those who are against farming say that the problem with these small spaces is that fish can easily become infected with parasites, such as sea lice. To combat this, fish are fed antibiotics. They are also fed food coloring to darken the color of their meat to make it look more like wild salmon. 

Due to the kinds of feed that some farms use, farmed salmon has been found to contain more cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and toxins than wild salmon. Andrew Weil, MD says on his website that “farmed salmon likely contains residues of pesticides, antibiotics, and other drugs used to control diseases that occur when fish are crowded together in the pens of fish farms. There is concern about the health risks associated with consuming the residue of carcinogens that recent studies found can accumulate in the fat of farmed salmon at unhealthy levels.”

However, there may be more to the story. Many say that U.S. farmed fishing practices have come a long way and fisheries have learned from their mistakes. Because of so much regulation and safe practice standards, farmed salmon might not be so dangerous after all.

Celebrities such as Jessica Alba, Charlize Theron, and Reese Witherspoon have flocked to wellness coach and nutrition guru Jackie Keller for her health expertise. Keller says that U.S. fish farms are very carefully regulated and monitored now, making consumption of their fish quite safe. In fact, the seafood supplier for NutriFit, her own health food delivery company, uses farmed salmon. Keller feels confident in using farmed salmon for her meals, citing the unknowns in what wild salmon are eating. Her supplier, Santa Monica Seafood, says “in some ways, eating farmed salmon can actually be safer because wild salmon feeding practices are not recorded.”

According to Keller, much of the fear about farmed salmon comes from old studies. More recent research has found that there are actually very low levels of contaminants found in farmed salmon. In fact, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch has noted vast improvements industry wide. It ranks Atlantic salmon that is farmed in tank systems (as opposed to net pens) as a “best” choice. (A “best” choice means the fish is caught or farmed in such a way that has few human health concerns and little impact on the environment.) 

Much of the reason for the improvement also has to do with a change in salmon feed. Plant oils are now used in the feed, which have low contaminant content. The feed also uses biochemically-engineered yeast to produce fish oil, which is an important part of the salmon’s diet. 

Keller also says “more recent research has weighed the contaminant risk against the health benefits that result from eating omega-3-rich salmon. The conclusion is that every serving of salmon, wild or farmed, is a net positive.” 

Some market chains like Whole Foods have set up their own farmed fish standards. They use third-party auditors to ensure that fish are free of pesticides, antibiotics, and chemicals, fed in an environmentally sound way, and that no marine life is affected in the process. 

“Organic Salmon”: Is it Just a Name?

“Organic” salmon sounds healthy, but don’t be fooled by that word on the label. Currently, there is not a USDA organic standard for fish so essentially calling fish “organic” is meaningless. Organic standards for land animals require they must be fed organically grown feed. But that’s proven difficult to translate into fish. Wild fish eat whatever is in the wild, such as plankton, other fish, squid, eels, and shrimp, so there’s no way to know for sure that what they are eating is actually organic.  

As for farmed fish, their feed varies greatly, but typically is composed of ground-up wild fish and other ingredients in a pellet. This goes back to the same issue: There is no way to regulate wild fish. The organic salmon that we see on the market is imported from foreign countries whose “organic” standards are far different from ours. The U.S. claims that it doesn’t have the ability to enforce these organic claims so the consumer is often left open to being duped. Foreign organic standards can be far different than what we would believe to be organic. Some foreign organic fish have been treated with toxic chemicals or fed non-organic feed. 

In order to maintain the integrity of an organic label, Whole Foods will not to label anything as organic until the U.S. establishes standards for organic farmed fish and there is a “USDA organic” label. Instead, Whole Foods uses a “Responsibly Farmed” logo to show consumers that their product meets the chain’s own strict quality standards. This means feed that is free of antibiotics, pesticides, added hormones, by-products or preservatives, and environmentally sound, sustainable farming methods.

The U.S. has become stricter with its farming regulations so practices have become safer. Let the buyer beware but the safest option may be to purchase wild Alaskan when available, even if it’s pricier. If farmed salmon is the only choice, knowing where your fish is coming from and the farming practices can help you make the best decision.  Seafoodwatch.org has a user-friendly website that makes it easy to research your options before you head out to the store—or to pull up on your handheld device when you’re standing, confused, in front of the seafood case. 

 

Sources:

  1. Harvard: Getting your omega-3s vs. avoiding those PCBs.—The Family HealthGuide
  2. Dr. Weil
  3. Whole Foods
  4. Health.com
  5. Eatingwell: How to Buy the Healthiest Salmon
  6. Watershed-watch.org
  7. Seafood.org
  8. Seafoodwatch.org