Sorting out Salmon
Not so today.
Our industrial food system has complicated food beyond reason, and our government’s poor regulatory infrastructure leaves far too much leeway for profit-minded food marketers to decide how much to tell us eaters about what goes into the food they sell us.
Salmon is the perfect example of a once-straightforwardly healthy food that’s become fraught with complications.
When salmon is just salmon, that is, living in the wild in its natural habitat and fished sustainably, it ranks pretty high up there among some of the best foods one could eat for good health. It’s a complete protein (21g total per 3oz serving cooked), containing all of the essential amino acids our bodies can’t produce on their own, but unlike most other animal proteins, it’s very low in saturated fat (1g per 3 oz serving) and an excellent source of heart-healthy omega-3 fats (that same 3oz serving contains about 1.5g of EPA and DHA, which is about a 3-day dose of what experts are starting to believe is necessary for improved cardiovascular function in otherwise healthy adults). Finally, salmon is among the lowest mercury fish, meaning that even pregnant women can enjoy up to 12oz of it weekly without worry. All that for about 150 calories!
Wild salmon is also an excellent food for babies (and nursing moms), assuming baby has no known fish allergies. Contrary to conventional lore, there’s no evidence to support avoiding fish in baby’s first 12-36 months of life as an effective allergy prevention strategy, and some limited emerging evidence that suggests withholding possibly-allergenic foods for too long may even increase the risk of childhood food allergy. As we learn more about the role DHA and EPA have in childhood brain and eye development, in fact, protein-rich and soft-textured salmon becomes an even more attractive food to introduce to your little Einstein–particularly since their burgeoning palettes are still acquiring their taste preferences. You should feel comfortable introducing texture-appropriate, low-mercury fish (but not shellfish) to babies as early as 6 months, and baby food marketers are finally catching on to the idea by introducing salmon baby foods.
Salmon, in Reality: Farmed vs. Wild
Over 90% of salmon sold in our country is farmed. The reality, sadly, is that the vast majority of “Atlantic salmon” sold in the U.S., regardless of its country of origin, is raised in penned-off, crowded water “farms” where the fish are very susceptible to infection by parasites due to the close quarters, and the large amounts of waste generated pollute nearby open waters. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, farmed Atlantic salmon is also very high in PCBs, an environmental pollutant that may have a detrimental effect on developing children at high levels. Furthermore, farmed salmon are fed commercial fish food that contains a relatively high amount of grains like corn (you can thank ongoing corn subsidies in the Farm Bill for that one), which makes the farmed salmon relatively higher in inflammatory omega-6 fats and lower in the desirable omega-3 fats than wild salmon. However, to be fair, farmed salmon still does contain a respectable amount of omega-3s. If your salmon isn’t labeled “farmed” or “wild” (which it should be, according to a new law passed in March 2009), you should assume that it is farmed, Atlantic salmon.
While wild salmon is generally endangered, particularly in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean fisheries in Alaska are very well-managed to prevent over-fishing. Their fish have lower levels of PCBs and feed on their natural prey, which contributes to their naturally high omega-3 fat content. Therefore, Wild Alaskan salmon is currently the best choice for omega-3-rich, low-toxin, environmentally-sound salmon.
Most canned salmon sold in the U.S. comes from Wild Alaskan salmon (it will be labeled as such), so if fresh Wild Alaskan salon fillets are cost-prohibitive, I’d recommend trying out some fun recipes using the canned stuff.
Alternatively, a fish called Arctic Char is very salmon-like in appearance, taste and nutritional value, and is a less expensive alternative to wild salmon. While this species of fish, which comes mostly from the US, Canada and Northern Europe, is generally farmed, the farming system used is much less harmful to the environment and the fish than the typical Atlantic Salmon farming operation. And according to a report by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, Arctic Char tolerate denser quarters much better than salmon. I’d recommend Farmed Arctic Char about as strongly as I would Wild Atlantic Salmon for all of these reasons.
It’s worth mentioning, but perhaps not dwelling on (since there’s nothing we can do about it), that plenty of imposter farmed salmon is being mislabeled and sold as “wild” to unwitting consumers, even at fancy, reputable markets. What can I say about this except that all we can do is make the best choices we can with the information we are given, and hope that unscrupulous marketers are few and far between.
Pay Attention to your Salmon’s Country of Origin
I’ve written previously about the risks associated with purchasing fish imported from countries with lax enforcement of health and environmental norms, of which China tops the list. I recommend avoiding fish imported from Asia in general and China in particular, as the FDA only inspects 1% of these imports for illegal contaminants such as antibiotics, pesticides and carcinogens. Granted, I’ve never actually come across salmon imported from China, but this warning applies to all fish, especially Tilapia, for which Chinese imports dominate the U.S. market. By law, all fish must be labeled with its country of origin; if your supermarket doesn’t provide this information, they are breaking the law and you should let them know.
The next layer of complexity: Organic and Genetically-Engineered Salmon
Currently, there is no standard for “organic” labeling of fish, though the USDA has proposed guidelines for future certification that may or may not be adopted. By definition, “organic” fish would need to be farmed fish in order to meet the standard, and the feed would need to contain 75% organic material and no more than 25% wild fish to qualify. I guess that means a farmed salmon fed 75% organic corn could be considered organic? Additionally, these proposed guidelines do not appear to take environmental concerns related to fish farming into consideration. So for the time being, I think Wild Alaskan salmon is nutritionally and environmentally preferable to any “Organic” Salmon you may come across now or in the future.
And finally, as if the salmon landscape wasn’t confusing enough, a company called AquaBounty Technologies has developed a genetically-modified salmon that has been under consideration for approval by the FDA. The salmon’s main claim to fame is that it carries a gene for growth hormone from another fish species that enables it to grow faster, making it a commercially-attractive proposition to profit-minded salmon farming operations. (There are other curious things about this new creature; see NPR’s piece on ‘Weird Facts About Genetically Engineered Salmon‘ for the details). Thankfully, the FDA Advisory Panel which met this week did not vote to approve this new Frankenfish, citing the need for more safety data related to its possible effects on food allergy promotion and the environment. But given the agency’s industry-friendly history related to genetically-engineered foods, it may just be a matter of time until this new variable to consider–assuming the FDA even requires that it be labeled– arrives at a fish counter near you.
If you want to let the FDA know that you oppose the approval of this genetically-modified salmon, you can click here to sign an online petition.
*Sigh*. It’s a lot to keep up with, and sometimes it can feel as though in our quest to eat real food that’s good for us, we’re swimming upstream. The best we can do is keep as informed as possible, keep cooking at home with the best foods and ingredients we can afford, and vote with our wallets for the food producers we feel are doing things the right way.Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.