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 like you need a marine biology degree before you hit the market. Should you choose Atlantic, Alaskan, or sockeye? Which has more heart-healthy omega-3s and fewer toxins—farmed or wild salmon?
And in addition to your own health, how does your choice—whether wild salmon from Alaska or farmed salmon from Chile— affect the environment?
Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time you’re stumped in the seafood aisle.
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U.S. Atlantic salmon
Other names: U.S. farmed salmon Should you buy it? Yes
It wasn’t long ago that buying U.S. Atlantic salmon was out of the question. Although wild populations are still nearly extinct, farms off the coast of Maine that grow U.S. Atlantic salmon are expanding.
Nutritionally, they are just as good as wild. "I lump wild and farmed salmon together," says Charles Santerre, PhD, a professor of food toxicology at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind.
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.
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Imported Atlantic salmon
Other names: Farmed salmon Should you buy it? It depends
Most Atlantic salmon come from farms in Chile, Norway, and Canada, and they have elicited a litany of environmental complaints.
Chilean farms, in particular, pollute the waters where fish are raised with antibiotics and waste. On the other hand, farms in Maine and Eastern Canada are government regulated to keep their impact low, says Barry Costa-Pierce, PhD, professor of fisheries and aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island, in Narragansett.
Supermarkets in the U.S. are required by law to label the country of origin of many foods, including seafood.
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Alaskan or wild salmon
Other names: Chum, keta, king, pink, red, sockeye, sake Should you buy it? Yes
Wild salmon are caught off the coast of Alaska or the Pacific Northwest. If you have the choice between those two areas, opt for Alaskan salmon because the populations are not as depleted, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Either way, Costa-Pierce says U.S. salmon fisheries are kept in close check so they don’t take too many fish from the ocean.
By going wild, you’ll get a firmer, less fatty fish. While it is still just as healthy as farmed, Santerre says the wild variety is a slightly gamier-tasting fish.
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Other names: Silver salmon Should you buy it? Yes
You may not know if your store has coho because, like other species of wild salmon, it’s just labeled wild.
Coho are smaller and eat less than other salmon, resulting in fewer polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which may cause cancer. (Mercury is not a concern in either wild or farmed salmon.)
Many experts say the risk posed by PCBs is outweighed by salmon’s omega-3 benefits. But David Carpenter, MD, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at University at Albany, in New York, says people should have only one meal a month of most salmon. But with coho, he says, you can have an "almost unlimited consumption."
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Brand names: Bumble Bee, Wildcatch, Chicken of the Sea Should you buy it? Yes
What happens if you can’t find environmentally friendly farmed salmon where you shop? And wild salmon costs about twice as much, plus it isn’t always available between October and May. Then what?
Canned salmon is a good way to get wild salmon cheaper and year-round (most brands use wild Alaskan salmon), along with all the same nutritional benefits of salmon, Santerre says.
But you might have to taste-test a few brands to find the flavor and texture you like best.
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Genetically modified salmon
Other names: AquaBounty salmon Should you buy it? Not yet
If the FDA approves genetically modified salmon, you could see a new type of farmed salmon within several years. (The genetic change doubles the growth rate.)
There are more debates on the environmental side; some say that AquaBounty’s salmon would be an improvement (the fish grow faster and consume fewer resources) and others say the farming in inland tanks would be hard to manage.
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Other names: Alpine char Should you buy it? Yes
Americans should eat 8 ounces of seafood a week, according to USDA Dietary Guidelines.
"But it shouldn’t be just salmon," says David Love, PhD, from 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. Most of it comes from clean, sustainable farms, says the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Small, oily fish like 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, Love says.
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While salmon and other oily fish are super healthy, keep in mind that there can be too much of a good thing.
Santerre and his colleagues created an iPhone app available through Fish4Health to help you track how much seafood you should eat.
To make the best choices for the environment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program offers 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.
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