Here’s What You Need To Know Before Buying Salmon At The Grocery Store

Looking to boost your omega-3 consumption with salmon? That's great, but not just any salmon will do. Learn the terminology behind this popular cold water fish.

June 12, 2017
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Salmon is enjoying a long moment.

Maybe enjoying is the wrong term, since these cold water fish probably prefer swimming in the ocean to swimming in butter with a lemon garnish. Salmon is so popular with American seafood consumers that it is second only to shrimp, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

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But long certainly does describe the interval of salmon’s popularity, which can be traced back to a new awareness of (and obsession with) a nutrient you will surely recognize: omega-3 fatty acids.

Between 2000 and 2010, scientific journals published something like 12,500 studies on the health benefits of omega 3s. According to the literature, omega-3 fatty acids can improve heart health, give our brains a boost, and even prevent schizophrenia. Salmon is packed with this nutrient and a whole lot more.

Besides, it’s delicious. As a result, both salmon farming and commercial harvesting of the wild population have spiked since 2000.

Salmon’s popularity makes the market confusing for the average consumer. Should you buy Pacific or Atlantic salmon? Which is better for you: farm raised or wild Alaskan? Is “color-added” salmon safe?

Here’s your guide to the language surrounding one of our favorite superfoods.

Atlantic vs. Pacific Salmon

As you might have guessed, these labels refer to the oceans where the salmon in question is typically found. Pacific salmon is far more common than its Atlantic counterpart, but fish farming provides a steady supply of Atlantic salmon for the market.

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Pacific salmon is usually identified by variety, which include coho (or silver), chum (or keta), king (also called chinook), sockeye, and pink salmon. These varieties are far more likely to be fished than farmed, but ask your fishmonger for more details. Keep reading for more on the “wild-caught” vs. “farm-raised” issue.

Farm-Raised vs. Wild-Caught

Endangered salmon, like the Atlantic variety, are protected from commercial fishing. Farmers around the world have stepped in to meet the demand.

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Wild-caught salmon tends to be leaner and healthier than farmed fish. Ask your fishmonger what fishing technique was used to harvest your fillets, though. Troll lines are among the most sustainable fishing techniques because they limit harvest sizes.

Line-fishing also tends to return higher quality meat, since fishermen must personally handle every animal they harvest. Expect to pay a little more for line-fished fillets.

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Farm-raised salmon isn’t necessarily worse for the environment (or for your health). Again, it all comes down to process. Ask your fishmonger what type of farm your salmon was raised in.

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, recirculating aquaculture systems in closed tanks are far more sustainable than net pens, which can contaminate the surrounding ocean with chemicals and waste.

As consumers, we’re trained to respond to terms like “fresh” and “organic.” Of course we want our fish to be both of these things. But before you factor these labels into your buying decision, you should know that there are no USDA or other institutional definitions of these terms when it comes to salmon.

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Essentially, they’re marketing terms. That doesn’t mean you should avoid fish that carry these labels, it just means that you shouldn’t let them influence your decision.

Flash-Frozen and Sushi-Grade Salmon

These labels essentially mean the same thing. Sushi-grade salmon is flash frozen on the fishing boat. This kills parasites and makes the flesh safe to eat raw. Flash-freezing is an effective means of preserving freshness, so it’s always a good thing to look for at the fish counter.

Color-Added

Wild salmon gets its distinctive red coloring from the sea plants and algae that make up its natural diet. Farmed fish tend to eat commercial fish food, which definitely does not make the flesh red.

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Some farms respond by adding a red pigment to the feed, which is transferred to the flesh of the animal. That’s what “color added” means. It’s better than spray paint, at least.

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