The Best Salmon to Eat

Pretty much every type of salmon is a good choice.

Most everyone loves salmon. It's rich in protein and healthy fats, it's good for your health, and it tastes delicious.

But sometimes it seems as if you need a marine biology degree before you hit the market. Should you choose Atlantic or Alaskan? Which has more heart-healthy omega-3s and fewer toxins? What is meant by farmed and wild? And in addition to your own health, how does your choice affect the environment?

Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind the next time you're stumped in the seafood aisle.

U.S. Atlantic Salmon

Though wild populations are nearly extinct, farms off the coast of Maine that grow U.S. Atlantic salmon are expanding.

Nutritionally, the farmed version is just as good as the wild. "I lump wild and farmed salmon together," said Charles Santerre, PhD, a professor of food toxicology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Farmed Atlantic salmon often contain at least as many omega-3s as wild salmon because they're raised on a diet of other omega-3-rich fish.

Imported Atlantic Salmon

Most Atlantic salmon come from farms in Chile, Norway, and Canada, where environmental concerns have arisen.

Chilean farms in particular pollute the waters where fish are raised with antibiotics and waste, according to research published in 2019 in Reviews in Aquaculture. However, efforts are being made to reduce the environmental impact, according to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. On the other hand, farms in Maine and Eastern Canada are government regulated to keep their impact low, said Barry Costa-Pierce, PhD, president of Ecological Aquaculture Foundation LLC.

Supermarkets in the United States are required by law to label the country of origin of many foods, including seafood, according to the US Department of Agriculture (ISDA) so consumers can stay informed and know exactly where the salmon originated.

Alaskan or Wild Salmon

Wild salmon are caught off the coast of Alaska or the Pacific Northwest. By going wild, you'll get a firmer, less fatty fish. While it is still just as healthful as farmed, Dr. Santerre said the wild variety is a slightly gamier-tasting fish.

The most sustainable type of wild salmon is produced in Alaska, where the runs are healthy and well managed, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. The salmon population isn't in danger of being depleted, and to prevent overfishing, boats are legally restricted in the amount of fish they are permitted to catch.

Coho Salmon

Coho is smaller and eats less than other salmon, resulting in their having fewer polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PCBs are manmade chemicals that can cause health effects, such as cancer or immune system issues.

Many experts say the risk posed by PCBs is outweighed by salmon's omega-3 benefits. David Carpenter, MD, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany in New York, said people should have only one meal a month of most salmon. But with coho, said Dr. Carpenter, you can have an "almost unlimited consumption."

Canned Salmon

If you can't find environmentally friendly farmed salmon or wild salmon in season, you can try canned salmon.

Canned salmon is a cheaper and year-round alternative to fresh wild salmon (most brands use wild Alaskan salmon), with all the same nutritional benefits, said Dr. Santerre. A 2022 Journal of Nutritional Medicine and Diet Care study looked at salmon, among other canned, dried, or smoked fish, that can be a source of vitamin D3, which is good for bone health.

Genetically Modified Salmon

The FDA granted approval for genetically modified salmon, AquAdvantage Salmon, to be produced in the United States in 2018. Its nutritional benefits, such as omega-3 levels, are similar to those of Atlantic salmon, according to the FDA.

However, this type of salmon is not widely available in the United States; it can be purchased in Canada.

Other Fish Options

Americans should eat 8 ounces of seafood a week, according to USDA Dietary Guidelines.

"But it shouldn't be just salmon," said Dave Love, PhD, a senior scientist with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. "People should look at all oily fish."

A member of the salmon family, arctic char is a good substitute with a flavor and omega-3 content similar to salmon.

Small, oily fish such as sardines, Atlantic mackerel, and herring are also good options. They are caught wild from an ocean full of them, and they're just as healthy as salmon, said Dr. Love.

Additional Resources

To make the best choices for the environment when choosing which salmon to buy, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program has offered a rating of the impact of different seafood industries.

You can also ensure you're getting the best by buying farmed salmon that is Ecolabel-certified and wild salmon with a Marine Stewardship Council–certified label.

Overall, you don't have to worry too much about salmon downsides. Just about every version of this fish is nutritious and delicious.

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