January 2016 update: New research suggests that restricting the amino acid methionine may be a very important anti-cancer and anti-aging strategy. “ If I had cancer, I would certainly seek to restrict methionine in my diet, probably to 1 gram a day ” says Australian researcher Dr. Paul Cavuoto. Animal muscle is rich in methionine. A 3.5 ounce portion of salmon has just under 800 mg. In other words, if you have cancer, limit animals, including salmon.
Oh were it only so easy. Figuring out which salmon to buy is more like attempting your first round of Trivial Pursuit—the Slovakian edition. You need lots of obscure background information to succeed.
So what do you need to know about salmon before deciding which salmon is healthiest? Here’s some background.
BENEFITS & RISKS
The benefits: Fish provide lots of nutrients , including protein, selenium and Vitamin D, and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring and sardines provide two important fatty acids you just can’t get efficiently from anything else in your diet—docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid. DHA and EPA are omega 3 fatty acids, proven to protect against cardiovascular disease. Evidence is mounting that DHA and EPA also reduce inflammation, which has been linked to cancer growth.
The risks: But eating salmon does have its risks, including those associated with cancer, meaning you shouldn’t eat it with abandon. While most species of salmon don’t live long enough to accumulate substantial amounts of mercury, the primary concern is industrial wastes— PCBs, dioxins, furans and a whole slew of chemicals knowns as POPs (persistent organic pollutants). These get trashed into our waters, and even though some are now banned, they stick around in the environment for a long, long time. The problem is they concentrate in fat—and in fact, dairy and meat products also have their fair share of these toxins. The catch: the healthy omega 3s we’re seeking also live in fat.
The amount of pollutants vary among the many varieties of salmon on the market. By the end of this series, you’ll understand which varieties to choose and why and how much of each you can safely eat.
ATLANTIC & PACIFIC: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
They’re different species. In fact, while Atlantic is just one species and the largest, Pacific come in many species, with important differences in their feeding patterns, lifespans and amount of fat. Pacific varieties found in North America include: pink, coho ( or silver), sockeye (or red), chum (or keta or dog), steelhead (rarely caught for human consumption because it stays so close to the surface) , and chinook (or king), so named because it’s the largest. Other countries, including Russia, Japan and Korea, also have their own native Pacific species.
These are the ocean- dwelling salmon– born in cold, fresh waters, migrating to the cold seas, where they adapt to the temperatures by eating foods that build up fat, then returning to the fresh water habitats to lay eggs. Some of these species also include varieties that spend their entire lives in fresh water— Atlantic (which migrated from the ocean into the Great Lakes), kokanee, the freshwater version of sockeye, and rainbow trout, for example, the freshwater steelhead. This review will focus on your saltwater choices.
WILD & FARMED: WHAT’S THE DIFF?
The general rule: Pacific is usually wild (although sometimes farmed); Atlantic, usually farmed. (Sports fishermen still catch Atlantic salmon.)
Pacific salmon: The wild Pacific salmon you see in North American stores comes from Alaska, British Columbia and the western US states (Washington, Oregon and California) and is available fresh during the late spring to early winter. Fish farmers, mostly in British Columbia and Chile, are producing the chinook and coho species as well. Fortunately, the wild supplies in the Pacific Ocean are still ample, for the most part.
Atlantic salmon: But because wild supplies in the Atlantic Ocean are low and tightly regulated, the Atlantic salmon you see in stores is virtually always farmed.
Farmed salmon contain lots more fat than wild salmon, hence more pollutants. They sit around in pens unlike salmon that swim in the wild.
Most farmed Atlantic salmon comes from farms in Europe—including Norway, the world’s biggest producer, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark and Iceland. Some of their product is sold as “organic,” a subject we’ll tackle in a future post. Canada and the US also farm Atlantic salmon but they don’t label it “organic” because they don’t have organic standards—at least not yet.
Now here’s something to get your head around: Atlantic salmon farms do not necessarily abut the Atlantic Ocean. British Columbia farms it as does Chile, which was a huge producer until the ISA virus (infectious salmon anemia) decimated its industry a few years ago. Chile is now getting back into the act.
Salmon farming has only been around since the 1970s, but it’s wildly contentious: It’s energy- intensive, pollutes the waters, spreads diseases and gene pools to neighboring salmon in the wild, for starters.
In the mid 2000s,a study came out that shocked the industry: Farmed salmon from Europe, including some labelled “organic,” reeked of PCBs and other pollutants . And that, dear friends, was the beginning of warnings to avoid farmed salmon at all costs. But unbeknown to most, today the situation has improved. We’ll begin there in the next post.
©2012 Harriet Sugar Miller Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint.
interesting! Thanks for your info on what always confuses me!
Mama Mia! We’ll be talking this over for a LONG time. This is the most complicated information that I NEED to know.
Thanks again Harriet, for doing all the very necessary leg work.
Hello Harriet, Very interesting topic but beware of simplifications; things are quite complex once you dive into this subject: for instance, around a third (proportion varies every year, depending on species & regions: 20% of all commercially-caught AK salmon in 2011; 49% in 2010, etc.) of all “wild-caught” Alaska salmon actually start their life in fish pens: it is ‘ranched’ and results from ‘enhanced’ fisheries. The entire AK salmon fishery will loose their Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) eco-label after October 2012. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program also said it was (finally) going to look into the environmental impact of hatchery-raised Alaska salmon (see http://is.gd/AG9sty) in 2012. Some of the latter for instance was fed melamine-contaminated feed in 2007. The Alaska ‘wild’ salmon fisheries/sector would literally collapse if it weren’t for the aquaculture/hatchery boost. Hatchery fish cannot be called ‘wild’ when it comes to protection under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) as they aren’t “self-sustaining” (See Seattle Times story: http://is.gd/esrHn6). But under the current ‘wild’ Alaska salmon labeling (that’s marketing, not necessarily science-based facts…): there is no way to distinguish the wild and hatchery Alaska salmon (both are “wild-caught”, but not both are “truly wild”…). No distinction is made either by Seafood Watch & many others NGO advisories, though this may start changing soon… A distinction is however often made at harvest level, and certainly always made by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s fisheries biologists and fisheries managers setting the yearly quotas: ever wonder why? Also re. the 2004 article on PCBs in salmon; beware: there has been a lot of misinformation surrounding this. Some Alaska wild-salmon has also been found to contain more PCBs than some farmed Atlantic: PCB pollution were registered in Alaska etc… See also PSB/Frontline’s 2009 program on the PCBs legacy in the Puget Sound and its impact on salmon among others (http://is.gd/FrontlinePCBsSalmon). Much of the Baltic wild Atlantic salmon is deemed to contaminated to be consumed by humans (and traded by EU regulation), though there are allowanced for local consumption. When it comes to pesticides, in a 2002 order, a U.S. District Court in Seattle found that the federal government had failed to protect 26 endangered and threatened species of (wild) salmon and steelhead from 54 toxic pesticides. Washington and Oregon States threatened in 2004 a lawsuit against the US Department of Energy unless it evaluates the harm 40 years of plutonium production caused to natural resources at the Hanford nuclear reservation, in the Columbia River watershed – “including damage to the local wild salmonids populations”. See also the Center for Biological Diversity’s 2010 lawsuit in California re. pesticides threats to various species, incl. coho salmon. Etc, etc.. There are thousands of salmon farmers worldwide, each operating in different waters, feeding/raising their fish differently (re. vaccines, tackling sea lice, densities in pens, etc.). You will note that organic (only farmed) salmon is considered by some as much better than many a wild salmon. You will also note that MSC-certified seafood doesn’t at all consider the seafood safety aspect, only the sustainability of the fisheries (management). Even the ‘solution’ hailed as ‘the’ answer by many aquaculture critics: closed-contained aquaculture – seems to have its flaws (re. the damaged operations in BC in the March 2012 storm which may (that will be confirmed later) have led to some fish escaping in the wild: the one thing it was meant to prevent…). Basically, you can’t generalize (and beware the spin, there is a lot of politics & economic interests riding on so-called health advices). There is ‘good’, ‘less good’, and ‘bad’ salmon – ranched/enhanced/augmented, truly wild and farmed (including organic) everywhere; it depends on specific fisheries (and by that, one doesn’t mean ‘Alaska’: many fisheries there despite the MSC having a ‘blanket all-or-nothing’ approach). There is pros & cons for both ‘wild’ & ‘farmed’ salmon. A simple dichotomy that doesn’t reflect the variability & complexity of environments, trades and practices of many thousand fishers & farmers. And PS: there are no farmed Atlantic salmon coming from Greenland, but rather from the Faroes Islands.
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