The Skinny on Salmon

fresh salmon fillet slices sold in market

Whether marinated and grilled on cedar planks, cooked in a chowder, or simply baked with dill and a squeeze of lemon, tasty salmon is one of America’s favorite types of fish.  For most of us, salmon qualifies as a superfood not only because it is so good for us, but because, like red wine and dark chocolate, it also tastes fabulous.  In the wild, the fish themselves have an amazing lifecycle.  Hatched in freshwater rivers and streams, salmon grow up in the ocean and then return several years later to spawn and die in the exact streams in which they were born—a journey sometimes several thousand miles long.  Although the health benefits of salmon are undeniable—it is a fantastic source of omega-3s—the variety of salmon choices at the market can be a little bewildering.  In fact, the big picture on salmon is complicated—encompassing the big business of salmon aquaculture, a variety of fishing methods, and the ecology of the ocean and the world’s fresh water supplies.  Here, however, we offer an overview of your options at the market and the tremendous health benefits that this pinky-orange-fleshed fish provides.

Wild vs. Farmed

One of the first decisions you’ll need to make is whether to go with wild or farm-raised salmon.   All Atlantic salmon is farm-raised (the wild Atlantic salmon is endangered).  It makes up about 80 percent of the salmon sold in the U.S. and is available year-round.   Most Pacific salmon is caught in the wild, but some is raised on fish farms.  Wild salmon tends to be significantly more expensive and is generally available during a shorter season, from May to October.   Many people like the taste of wild salmon better, but the taste varies because there are a variety of Pacific salmon species that are typically sold, including coho, chum, sockeye, pinks, and Chinooks.  If you are pregnant or nursing or preparing food for small children, you may want to choose wild salmon because it contains less mercury.  Wild salmon also contains higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

When considering your choice, you should know that farmed salmon contains higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a potential carcinogen, as well as a number of other contaminants (like pesticides and mercury) which they mainly absorb from the fish meal they are fed.  Although the FDA certifies farm-raised salmon as completely safe for human consumption, their judgment has been controversial in the past because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a much lower limit for PCBs in recreationally caught fish than the safe limit established by the FDA for commercially sold fish.  Nevertheless, most experts agree that contaminants are present in very low amounts and that the health benefits of consuming moderate amounts of fish (at least two servings a week) far outweigh any possible risks.  If you are concerned about the contaminants in farmed salmon but find wild salmon to be too pricey, you can remove the skin and dark flesh from your salmon and grill or broil it so that the fat drips off—this eliminates 20-30 percent of the PCBs. 

Another important aspect of the wild vs. farmed decision, however, is the ecological impact of salmon farming.  In most cases, only a net divides farm-raised salmon from the ocean.  Millions of salmon escape their nets every year, disrupting the spawning of wild salmon and spreading diseases that are capable of decimating entire runs of wild salmon.  This is one reason why many experts urge consumers to purchase wild salmon.  In fact, doing so may create the economic pressure that will help to bring about beneficial changes in salmon aquaculture as many salmon farms are developing promising new ways to raise salmon in floating tanks that will minimize their effects on the environment.

Fresh, Frozen, or Canned

From a nutritional standpoint, fresh, frozen, and canned salmon are all good choices.  Flash-frozen salmon is a nutritious, economical alternative to fresh salmon.  Most canned salmon is made from wild pink salmon.  Because canned salmon is processed with the bones—they are completely edible—canned salmon is very rich in calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D.  However, it also contains more sodium than fresh salmon.  Both varieties are equally good sources of protein.  Canned salmon contains less fat than fresh salmon, which means that it is a lower calorie option, although it also contains fewer of those precious omega 3 fatty acids (about half as many as fresh salmon).

Smoked Salmon                                                                                                                                                                         Smoked salmon can be wet-cured or dry-cured and then hot-smoked or cold-smoked.  At the market, you can choose between lox, which is wet-cured in brine and smoked, and a variety of other dry-cured options, including Nova, Irish, and Scottish varieties.  All are tasty, healthful ways to add protein and omega 3s to your diet, and you are sure to find one that pleases your palate! 

Health Benefits

Eating salmon is associated with a wide variety of health benefits—mainly because salmon (like anchovies, herring, mackerel, sardines, and other fatty fish) is an excellent source of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids.  In addition, salmon is a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and folate, and it is an excellent substitute for red meat in your diet.  Eating salmon can greatly reduce your risk of sudden cardiac death and may also improve your triglycerides, prevent blood clots, heal the arteries, increase your good cholesterol, and reduce blood pressure.  For all of these reasons, the American Heart Association highly recommends eating at least two 3.5 oz servings of fish like salmon each week.  Salmon may also help to alleviate arthritis and protect your bones as you age.  Several recent studies have confirmed that salmon truly is “brain food”; eating fish high in omega 3s can significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and memory loss.  Other studies have suggested that salmon can improve your mood and help to battle depression.

Fish Oil vs. Whole Fish

Is it possible to reap some of the same health benefits by taking fish oil rather than eating salmon?  In general, nutritionists recommend getting your omega-3 fatty acids from whole foods whenever possible.  Some studies have indicated that the body is able to absorb the omega-3s in cooked salmon much more effectively than those in fish oil supplements.  In some cases, fish oil supplements or other omega 3 supplements may be a good choice; in other cases, they may increase your risk of bleeding.  To find out if fish oil supplements will meet your individual needs, we recommend that you consult with your doctor.