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.
At last! Here are my recommendations for which salmon to choose and how much of it. If you’re in a rush, just skip down to the “Final Answer.”
Caveat: Keep in mind that this portion control approach is not rocket science. I’ve based the conclusions on scientific studies, but the research is limited, and every single piece of salmon you buy will differ in its fat content, where the healthy omega 3s and the pollutants live. As I’ve said before, I’m just exploring the human health consequences of eating salmon—not the ethical and environmental considerations. The decision is yours. If you’re not eating fish, however, you might want to check out a micro-algae source of the fishy 3s.
THE APPROACH: Take a look at all the other sea-based sources of 3s in your diet–anchovies, sardines, herring (hopefully not from the Baltic; that sea is polluted) , mackerel (some, not all, high in mercury) and Alaskan Black cod (yum, but also some concerns about mercury).
Many organizations recommend that the average adult eat 500 milligrams daily of the omega 3s derived from fish—DHA and EPA, also referred to as long chain or n-3 PUFAS, for polyunsaturated fatty acids. (The standards are for good cardiac health. Standards for inflammation control and cognition don’t exist because the associations are not considered proven. Still, there’s robust evidence that increasing your 3s will improve both.)
Assuming you’re just eating salmon and no other fish sources of 3s, choose from the below, and limit your portion sizes. If you’re eating other oily fish, reduce the salmon. As we discussed in the first post in this series, the 3s reside in the fat of the fish; so do the industrial pollutants. That means you need to eat the fat but control the amount of fish you consume, which will vary according to the cleanliness of the species. (Conversion chart for grams to ounces available here.)
- FARMED ATLANTIC SALMON: LIMIT TO 200 to 250 GRAMS/ WEEK
During the winter months, this is often your only fresh choice. (Rainbow trout and steelhead—both farmed– are also available, but their diets are lower in omega 3s than farmed Atlantic. )
Conventionally farmed salmon—Where does it come from? If it’s from North America or Chile, land animal parts are allowed in the feed. That includes parts from chicken and sometimes pigs. Plants are also used in the feed. While land plants and animals have been substituted for sea sources in order to clean up the feeds, the land supplies are higher in omega 6 fatty acids, which we eat too much of. Chile’s use of soy in its feed would presumably result in very high 6s. BC uses more canola, which has a better 3:6 ratio than soy.
Conventionally farmed salmon from Europe—No land animals in feed.
Organically farmed salmon from Europe and Whole Foods’ “responsibly farmed” salmon (sold as “natural farm-raised salmon from Iceland”)— No land animals in feed. No pesticides in plant portion of organic feeds. Whole Foods prohibits certain pesticides. Fewer chemicals used overall in both, although all the standards vary in their stringency.
- WILD CHINOOK (KING): LIMIT TO 300 GRAMS/WEEK
Large, fatty, lives for long time in the ocean and feeds on smaller fish, thus more likely to accumulate fat and pollutants than species that are shorter lived or feed lower on the food chain.
Choose Alaskan rather than BC. Many of BC’s Chinook populations are more likely to be coastal residents, meaning they feed near the coasts where the waters may be more polluted. (And you don’t want to eat fish that have been feeding in BC’s Strait of Georgia, located between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland.) Alaskan Chinook (and some BC Chinook populations—but how to know which ones?) feed further out at sea in cleaner, more remote areas.
- WILD COHO AND SOCKEYE: LIMIT TO 400 GRAMS FRESH /WEEK or 1 SMALL CAN OF SOCKEYE
Coho– Like Chinook, coho eat smaller fish and come in two varieties: coastal and remote feeders. But unless you do a DNA test , there’s no way for you to know which variety you’re eating. Choose Alaskan to avoid the possibility of eating coastal coho that reside in BC’s Strait of Georgia. Because coho has less fat than Chinook, you need to eat a bit more to get your omega 3 ration.
Sockeye (or red)—Available fresh or canned. Sockeye, when young, feed lower on the food chain than Chinook and coho—on plankton, which is made up of small crustaceans and plants. The species still has significant fat content so limit your portions: 400 grams fresh or 1 (maybe a little more, but not more than 2) of the small cans (7.5oz/213 grams) weekly. Cans vary. Check the cans for the amount of 3s and do the math. Remember you want .5 grams (500 milligrams) a day of 3s from the sea.
Alaskan and much of BC sockeye is good. How about sockeye from the Fraser River and others that empty into the Strait of Georgia? Here’s what salmon migration expert Dr. David Welch has to say: Although young BC sockeye spend several months along its coast as they migrate north, they grow considerably, reaching 250 times their weight as youth. That means any contaminants they’d pick up in the Strait of Georgia will be a small portion of their final body weight. Plus, they’ll also eliminate some contaminants during their 2 ½ years at sea.
- WILD PINK AND CHUM: EAT AROUND 2 SMALL CANS PINK/WEEK or PIG OUT ON CHUM Both come in cans.
Chum (or keta or dog)— Feeds low on food chain in its youth. Likely as a result, it’s low in pollutants and very low in fat. In fact, it’s so low in omega 3s that you’d need to consume at least 900 grams of fresh chum a week to get the recommended dosage. That’s a lot of chum.
Pink – Also feeds low on food chain, is low in pollutants, but has more fat and hence more 3s than chum. You need up to 2 of the small cans (7.5 oz/213 grams/each) of pink a week for your omega 3s. Again, check the cans for their omega 3 counts.
For both pink and chum, choose Alaskan or BC. Because they spend so little time in coastal waters and leave when they’re small, their ability to pick up coastal contaminants is limited, says Welch.
FINAL ANSWER: Wild Alaskan salmon from the Bering Sea are as clean you can get. Problem is: You can’t usually get. The choice then comes down to wild Alaskan from southern Alaska or somewhere in BC, and the answer depends:
Fresh salmon— Alaskan coho as well as sockeye from Alaska and parts of BC win top prizes; eat around 400 grams/week. Choose another fresh fish, and eat less. All options are acceptable, if you adjust your portion sizes. Flash frozen is also good.
Canned salmon–If you’re a salmon lover and want to indulge year round and often, choose the cheap, canned pink salmon and eat around 2 of the standard small cans (7.5 oz/213 grams/each) weekly. Or opt for canned sockeye, and stick to around 1 of those cans. Still want more? Add some chum, also canned. Cans vary. Remember you want .5 grams (500 milligrams) of omega 3s from the sea daily, so check the cans and do the math. With all 3 species, choose Alaskan or BC– but tell them to clean up BC’s Strait of Georgia!
Canned salmon may be a bit lower in omega 3s than fresh but still good as long as it’s on the approved can list. That’s coming next as our anti-cancer investigation continues.
NEXT: CANS TO BUY AND CANS TO AVOID
©2012 Harriet Sugar Miller For permission to reprint, media outlets should contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Individual bloggers, feel free to reblog and credit.
Author’s note: If you read this post prior to April 21, 2012, you may notice that the conclusions on the number of cans to eat/week have changed. Actually, they haven’t really. I felt I was too vague in the early recommendations (I just defined cans as small ones). The new recommendations are for cans that are the standard 7.5 oz/213 grams. Companies sell cans of all sizes.