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. Most of the product 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.