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Farmed or Wild Salmon?

Updated on June 29, 2013

If you are deciding whether to get farmed or wild salmon, welcome to the rest of us. We are trying to figure out the same thing ourselves. But a fairly consistent finding among health authorities is to continue to eat salmon -- be it wild or farmed. Both are low enough in mercury content and contaminates to be safe for healthy people.

However, many nutritionists and health experts do recommend wild salmon (especially Wild-caught Alaskan salmon) over farmed salmon whenever possible -- be it fresh or frozen, and canned as next best. If not possible to find wild salmon, then continue to eat farmed salmon.

There are contradictory reports in the media as to which is better. Some say wild salmon has more mercury. And other say farmed salmon has more PCB and other toxins and contaminates. Then what about the beneficial omega-3 levels? Some say wild salmon has more omega-3. Other say farmed salmon has just as much. The omega-3 in salmon depends on what the salmon is eating. In the wild, they are eating algae for their source of omega-3. In the farms, it depends on what farm feed is being fed to them.

Salmon farms varies in quality. Some are better than others. And some can raise salmon of quality that is as good a wild salmon. Many warnings you hear about farmed salmon in the media are from "feedlot fish". Although, there are some farms that are using best practices in raising their sustainable salmon and can produce quality farmed salmon, it is difficult for us to know which farms are good and where our salmon is coming from. So the safer bet is to get wild salmon.

There are only a few ways to produce wild salmon, the salmon grows naturally in the wild and fisherman catches them right out of the water. Then they put the fish for sale directly at the markets as fresh salmon (if you are near the oceans or rivers). Or they freeze or can or smoke the wild salmon for transport and later sale.

There is nothing wrong with freezing and canning the salmon. If you are not near the ocean, that is one of the few ways they can get the fish to you. Even if you live by the ocean, fisherman do not go fishing for wild salmon in the winter. So if you want to eat wild salmon in the winter, it has got to be frozen, canned, or smoked.

Wild salmon is more expensive and is not always available. If you are unable to get wild salmon, eating farmed salmon is still better than not eating salmon at all. Salmon in general are good for health due to their omega-3 fatty acids. Any risk associated with mercury or contaminates are outweighed by the salmon's benefits as long as you do not eat too much of it.

Wild Salmon has a natural deeper red color

Wild Alaskan Salmon
Wild Alaskan Salmon | Source

What's Wild Salmon and What's Farmed Salmon?

If you are eating "fresh" salmon (not frozen or canned) in the wintertime, then it is farmed salmon. Fisherman do not catch fresh salmon in winter.

If the salmon is labeled "Alaskan Salmon", then it is wild salmon. Because there are no farmed salmon in Alaska. By law, Alaska does not allow farmed salmon. [reference]

However, it is possible that some of the the salmon is partially farmed when young and then released into the wild (where they are then caught wild). [reference]

If the salmon is label "Atlantic Salmon", then it is farmed salmon. There are no more (or very little) wild salmon in the Atlantic Ocean anymore.

If the salmon is unlabelled (as in a restaurant), it is probably farmed salmon unless it specifically is advertised in the menu as "Alaskan" or "wild". Farmed salmon are more economical for restaurants.

Wild Salmon is deep red

Wild salmon has a deeper and redder color that persists even after cooking. The deeper and redder the meat, the higher the quality. The red color is due to the beneficial antioxidant astaxanthin that the salmon obtain by eating algae and zooplankton out in the wild. You want salmon with high levels of astaxanthin.

Because farmed salmon are not eating their natural algae which would give them their red color, farmed salmon turns out gray. No one wants to eat gray salmon, so they used dyes such as Canthaxanthin to make them more appetizing pink. But farmed salmon still will not be as red as quality wild salmon.

Some species of salmon turn red to indicated to potential mates when they are ready to spawn. Another reason why wild salmon are red is because of the algae and seafood that they eat in the wild. In particular, algae has an antioxidant called astaxanthin that gives salmon their red color. Astaxanthin is a natural dye and is also what makes flamingos pink (because flamingos eat crustacens and shrimps which are pink due to the consumption of algea).

Eat Wild Salmon

Elizabeth Lipski writes in her book Digestive Wellness that ...

"Personally, I buy only wild-caught fish from the United States and Canada. I never eat salmon unless it's wild caught." [pape 139 of 4th edition]

And in the book The Inside Tract, authors write that ...

"Farm-raised salmon has been shown to be significantly contaminated with many of the aforementioned toxic chemicals, including PCBs." article 7 Foods That Should Never Cross Your Lips has farmed salmon listed as among the foods to avoid.

Omega-3 and protein content

One of the main health benefits of salmon is their healthy omega-3 fatty acid. Salmon do not make omega-3. They get them from their diet. Wild salmon eat algae and other tiny seafood that provides them with this omega-3. Farmed salmon are fed fish-meal.

Farmed salmon has more fat than wild salmon. Farmed salmon has higher omega-3 and omega-6 fats. However, wild salmon has a greater percentage of the fat that is the healthy omega-3. Farmed salmon has more of the unhealthy omega-6 due to their un-natural diet and stress of crowded conditions. So the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of wild salmon is better. Article on World's Healthiest Foods explains why farmed fish provides less usable omega-3 fats due to its higher omega-6 content. In that article, it also says ...

"levels of carcinogenic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) found in farmed salmon purchased from U.S. grocery stores are so much higher than levels of PCBs found in wild salmon that they pose an increased risk for cancer."

Also wild salmon has more protein.

To see comparison of the amount of fat and fat profile of wild versus farmed fish, see chart on and note that wild fish of the same type has less fat, but a greater percentage of the fat is the healthy omega-3 fat.

Avoid deep fried fish where the oil used is frying is inflammatory and the fish contains less omega-3.

From the book The Happiness Diet, it writes ...

"Farmed fish contain a much lower concentration of omega-3s than do wild fish. farmed fish are also higher in toxins like PCBs" [page 46]

Wild Salmon Has Less PCB

Some, but not all, salmon farms use chemicals, antibiotics, and dyes in the raising of the salmon.

Wild salmon has less PCB toxins and contaminants. PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl is an industrial pollutant that is gotten into our environments and are sometimes found in fish-feeds (which are ground up fish that also contain PCB).

The PCB are concentrated in the fat of the salmon. Since wild salmon are leaner because they swim long distances in the wild, they do not accumulate as much PCB in the fat. Farmed salmon are fed pellets of grounded up fish which has bio-accumulated the toxins.

The Environmental Working group show chart of PCB containment of farmed salmon versus other foods. It says ...

"On average farmed salmon have 16 times the dioxin-like PCBs found in wild salmon, 4 times the levels in beef, and 3.4 times the dioxin-like PCBs found in other seafood."

The increased exposure to PCBs and dioxin increases the risk of autoimmune diseases. In the book The Autoimmune Epidemic, it writes ...

"Indeed, environmental exposures to dioxin and PCBs ... can cause the thymus to shrink as much as 80 percent. When that shrinkage happens, the number of regulatory or "officer" T cells decreases, and there are no longer as many of them to keep the "cadet" T cells in line. The immune system becomes unsupervised." [page 54]

The Los Angeles Times says ...

"Disease and parasites, which would normally exist in relatively low levels in fish scattered around the oceans, can run rampant in densely packed fish farms."

And hence antibiotics are used similar to how they are used in the fed-lot cattles.

You can find a great infographic of Wild vs Farmed salmon here which says that ...

"Farmed salmon are fed more antibiotics per pound than any other livestock in North America."

This is corroborated in another article here.

Increasingly, flame-retardant additives, such as polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) are appearing in fish -- more so in farmed salmon than in wild salmon. These are endocrine disruptors.

Mercury in Fish

Yes, fish does have mercury. It is not their fault; they do not produce the mercury. Humans produce the mercury and we have contaminated their water with it. Mercury does not degrade easily and bio-accumulate. Since bigger fishes eat smaller fishes, the bigger fishes tend to have more mercury than smaller fishes. In general, try to eat fish that are small enough to fit into a frying pan.

Mercury is very toxic to humans. However, it is debatable as to how much mercury is in the fish and whether that amount poses any significant risk or not. Even the experts have differing opinions and there is no easy answer to that question. However, the general consensus is that most experts feel that the benefits of eating fish outweighs the risks. Even eating farmed fish might better than not eating fish at all. As long as you do not eat too much farmed salmon.

Also, fish contains selenium which helps neutralize the mercury.

How Much?

How much farmed salmon can you eat is again up to debate. But back in 2003, the Environmental Working Group reported on high levels of cancer causing PCBs in farmed salmon and advise consumers to eat no more than one serving (8 oz) of farmed salmon once a month. They also say to trim the fat and get wild salmon instead.

More recently in 2006, when asked the question "How Dangerous Is Farmed Salmon?", Dr. Andrew Weil answered by citing a study that found that dioxin levels in farmed salmon was 11 times higher than wild salmon. Farmed salmon had PCB levels at 36.6 parts per billion as compared to 4.75 in wild salmon. He agreed with the researchers recommendation of limiting farmed salmon consumption to 0.5 to 1 meal per month. Dr. Weil said to get your omgea-3 from wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, or omega-3 supplements.

In fact, Dr. Mark Hyman says that sardines is his favorite on page 73 of The UltraMind Solution. Remember that sardines are much smaller fish than salmon. Afterall, they fit in tiny cans which is how they often come in.

But there is nothing wrong with cans. Just watch the ingredients label and get ones without too much preservatives or other things added. Dr. Andrew Weil says ...

"If wild Alaskan salmon is too pricey for your food budget, you can buy canned sockeye (red) salmon in the supermarket; it's all wild. It will give you the same omega-3 fatty acids found in fresh or frozen Alaskan wild salmon." [source]

He also mentions that is a good place where you can get wild salmon online.

Dr. Andrew Weil likes black cod, or sablefish, as mentioned on The Dr. Oz Show.

In the book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, author says that women planning to get pregnant, are pregnant, or breast feeding should avoid high-mercury fish which are shark, swordfish, tile fish, king mackerel, tuna steaks, and whale meat. And they should not have more than 2 meals a week of most fish (including salmon, catfish, and canned light tuna). For albacore (white) tuna, no more than 6 ounces a week.

Benefits Outweigh Risk

Nevertheless, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth says ...

"for goodness' sake, do not stop eating fish. The good stuff in it will do more for you than, the bad stuff will do you harm, especially if you choose your sources carefully." [page 219]

And the author does mention that he likes Vital Source.

In the 2010 book "Dr. Chopra Says", it writes on page 47-48 that it would be very difficult for anyone to get mercury poisoning from the current amount of mercury in fish and that the gains offsets any potential risk of mercury.

Also selenium helps the body neutralize the effects of mercury.

Article on also reports that for most people the benefits of eating fish out weighs any negatives. It also mentions that wild fish are preferred to farmed on. Unfortunately, it is getting more difficult to find wild salmon in restaurants these days.

Canned and frozen wild salmon

Understandably, it is more difficult to get wild salmon and they tend to be more expensive. Many restaurants do not serve them. And when you are located far from body of water, it is rare to find wild fresh salmon when out of season.

So the next best thing is to get canned or frozen wild salmon. In my opinion, they probably would still be a better choice than farmed fresh salmon.

Canned Vital Choice Wild Red Salmon was one that was mentioned on Chris Kresser podcast.


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