How to Buy The Healthiest Salmon


By: Lisa Gosselin & Rowan Jacobsen

The new U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend Americans eat two servings of fish a week. Salmon is great choice. There are so many different types of salmon, which is loaded with heart-healthy, brain-boosting omega-3 fats, and ways to serve them that it would be hard to get bored with this fish. But that said, there are certain types of salmon to stay away from and certain questions to always ask before you buy. Here are 7 tips to help you buy the best salmon.

1. What type of salmon should I buy?

The six species of North American salmon vary in price, color and taste, but all are healthy choices. The largest is the king or chinook, prized for its high fat content, rich omega-3s and buttery texture. Sockeye, an oilier fish with deep-red flesh, has a stronger flavor and stands up well to grilling. Coho is milder and often lighter in color. Pink and chum are smaller and most often used in canning or smoking. The most common fish you will find at the market is a farmed species known as Atlantic salmon, now endangered in the wild and not a recommended choice.

2. Farmed or wild?

If possible, choose wild salmon over farmed. Groups like Seafood Watch and the Environmental Defense Fund have put nearly all farmed salmon on their "red" or "avoid" list for multiple reasons. Many farms use crowded pens where salmon are easily infected with parasites, may be treated with antibiotics and can spread disease to wild fish (one reason Alaska has banned salmon farms). Also, it can take as much as three pounds of wild fish to raise one pound of salmon. However, salmon producers are in talks with environmental groups about improving practices and a proposal is before Congress to set standards for aquaculture. Already some farms, such as Sweet Spring in British Columbia, are raising coho in closed pens, which reduce the impacts. Others, such as Verlasso in Patagonia, are using omega-3 feed additives produced from yeast rather than smaller fish, which helps cut back the ratio of pounds of fish needed to feed the salmon to 1-to-1.

3. Should I buy organic salmon?

There is no USDA organic standard for salmon and no guarantee an "organic" label means anything except the salmon was farmed.

4. Do salmon carry PCBs or other toxins?

Wild Alaskan salmon, which spend most of their lives in open oceans, generally have very low levels of toxins. Coastal and farmed salmon, depending on their feed, may have higher levels. The Environmental Defense Fund lists farmed salmon as an "Eco-Worst" choice and recommends people eat no more than one to two servings a month due to high PCB levels.

5. Is "fresh" much better than frozen or canned?

Most fish is flash-frozen when caught to preserve it for shipping. Frozen salmon is good for up to four months, when properly defrosted overnight in the refrigerator. Canned wild salmon is an excellent and economical choice. Look for BPA-free cans (Wild Planet has these) or, better yet, pouches.

6. Why is some salmon more orange than others?

Thank carotenoids, the same pigments that make carrots orange. Those magical antioxidants combat the damaging effects of free radicals. The carotenoid in salmon is a particularly potent antioxidant known as astaxanthin, which has been shown to protect against heart disease, cancer, inflammation, eye diseases, general aging and many other conditions. Astaxanthin is produced by phytoplankton, tiny plants that use it to shield themselves from ultraviolet radiation. Shrimp, krill and other tiny crustaceans eat the phytoplankton and accumulate astaxanthin in their bodies (which is what makes them pink), then salmon eat them and store the astaxanthin in their skin and muscles. Sockeye, which feed mainly on plankton, have the deepest orange color, whereas pink and chum salmon (most often canned) are the lightest. Many farmed Atlantic salmon are given feed with added synthetic astaxanthin (and sometimes another manufactured pigment, canthaxanthin) to turn their flesh orange.

7. Are fattier fish healthier?

In the case of salmon, the answer is yes. Salmon are fantastic sources of DHA, the omega-3 fatty acid that is essential for brain development, which they also get from phytoplankton. DHA is stored in salmon's fat, most often in the belly, and a 4-ounce serving of salmon can dish up 2,400 mg omega-3s. Larger species, such as king, and those which have longer upstream journeys, tend to store more fat and have more omega-3s. Farmed salmon are often fattier than wild salmon, but that's because they are fed a diet that includes grains and vegetable oils that are high in omega-6 fats, which combat the beneficial effects of omega-3s. However, the higher fat content (often as high as 16 percent versus 8 percent for wild fish) means the fish is easier to cook and retains its moistness.

Check out the slideshow above for a roundup of our favorite salmon recipes!

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