Buying Safe Salmon

Farmed vs. Wild Caught: The Ultimate Guide to Buying Safe Salmon for Your Family

Salmon is one of our favorite SuperHero Foods and one that we try to eat often, but sourcing the safest, nutrient dense salmon is nuanced. Here are some tips when buying safe salmon.

A little over half of the salmon sold in the United States are raised on farms through aquaculture, and it is predicted that by 2030 two-thirds of the global salmon stock will be raised on farms. Some farms use questionable or downright destructive practices that lead to environmental degradation, negative impacts on wild fish populations, and unhealthy fish. Other farms strive to meet all the standard regulations and raise their fish as humanely, and healthily as they can (these farms are fewer). 

At My SuperHero Foods, we emphasize the importance of what the animal you eat ate during its life. The diet of an animal influences how that animal’s meat will nourish you. This is the crux of the dilemma between farmed and wild caught salmon: what are they eating? Plus, there are also environmental and ethical issues at hand; overfishing and destructive fishing practices are depleting our fisheries at a staggering rate. Our buying recommendations at the bottom will help you navigate all that, but let’s talk about salmon diets which is a big factor buying safe salmon for your family

buying safe salmon Wild caught salmon Atlantic salmon held in water

Buying Safe Salmon: What Are Farmed Salmon Eating?

Remember, when we eat an animal, we are eating (in some form) whatever the animal ate, so this is an important question when determining whether or not we’re buying safe salmon.

Wild salmon eat mostly krill, crabs, and shrimp. This is where they get the naturally occurring red pigment which gives them their pink hue and where they get the rest of their nutrients. There is not much else to be said about their diet, since wild fish simply eat what is available and natural to them. 

Some state concerns about the contaminant levels in wild fish. However, the levels don’t appear to be terribly different from farmed fish or outweigh the benefits of eating salmon. 

Farmed salmon eat fish feed, which varies in content depending on the producer. Fish feed is generally made from 70% plants (soy, wheat, rice, corn) and 30% fishmeal and fish oil. Corn and soy are two of the most heavily sprayed crops in the United States. In fact, 93% of soybeans and 85% of corn planted are herbicide-tolerant, meaning that farmers can directly spray the crops with the herbicide. Also, this grain-heavy diet increases the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in the fish. Most of us eat too many omega 6s already, so we want the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 to be low!

How do farmed salmon get their pink color?

Some animals, like shrimp, flamingos, and salmon get their coloring from what they eat. In the case of salmon, a red pigment called xanthophyll astaxanthin is responsible for the pink color we know and look for. Astaxanthin is known to have the strongest antioxidant effects of the carotenoids we know. 

Natural astaxanthin is found in certain algae which wild salmon consume. On a farm, these salmon are not encountering the same food chain that contains that lovely red pigment. Instead, the fish food contains a synthetic form of astaxanthin. There’s still uncertainty about the long-term effects of the synthetic form of astaxanthin. Some believe that the synthetic form seems to act in much the same way as natural astaxanthin even though the chemical structure is slightly different

One study looking at industry usage of astaxanthin explains that the synthetic form is not used in direct food products because “…natural and synthetic astaxanthin differ in their structure, [and] it is not certain how long-term consumption of synthetic astaxanthin may affect human health.” But, this same study notes that 95% of the astaxanthin used in feed products (for salmon, shrimp, chicken, etc.) is synthetic. 

Wait a second– if we don’t put it in food products because we aren’t sure of the long-term effects, then why are we feeding it to fish that we are then going to eat? Well, one answer is that natural forms of astaxanthin are far too expensive and difficult for fish farms to access, and the fish need this compound in their diet to be healthy, synthetic or not. So, it’s a choice about costs, not about health. 

I say, always err on the side of caution: if you don’t know how something will affect your health, then wait until you do know!

Farmed salmon are often fed antibiotics

Because of the crowded environments of many fish farms, illness is more likely to spread fast through the population. So, farms use antibiotics to treat and prevent sickness in their stock. High use of antibiotics can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria which contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans too. When buying safe salmon, we definitely want to avoid any salmon that was farmed with antibiotics.

Antibiotics can be life-saving when used correctly, but when overused or used when not necessary, they can have significant negative impacts.

buying safe salmon

What to buy

So, there are a few different elements to consider here. Basically, we say: know your fish sources and what certifications matter. Choose trusted brands and don’t be afraid to do a little research or ask questions. 

Most of the time, wild-caught salmon is better. You don’t have to worry about what went into the feed or whether they were given antibiotics. But if you want to buy farmed salmon, look for fisheries that have high standards and willingly provide access to those standards. Safewatch provides information on their best choices for sustainable and low contaminant seafood.

When buying wild salmon:

Look for brands that are MSC certified for Best Choice. The Marine Stewardship Council does their best to ensure that fisheries don’t overfish, make minimal environmental impact, and are maintained at the current standards, but they have multiple levels. Their “Good Alternative” rating allows certain damaging fishing practices. Also, look for companies that provide transparency. 

We like:

When buying farmed salmon:

Farmed salmon is usually Atlantic salmon. All Atlantic salmon sold today is farmed because it is illegal to fish this endangered species. Again, look for companies that provide transparency and traceability. 

We like:

We hope this article empowers you with the information on buying safe salmon for your family!

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