Foods We Love: Salmon

This lean source of protein is low in mercury and rich in omega-3s, which may help protect against insulin resistance, heart disease, and more.

Share

Salmon is a mainstay of healthy eating for good reason. The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association recommend eating fatty fish twice a week. Salmon is versatile—you can eat it pan-roasted, seared, grilled, cured as lox, or raw in sushi—and it’s a source of essential nutrients.

Salmon provides protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12, potassium, and selenium while being relatively low in mercury, according to the USDA, FDA, and EPA. But it may be best known for its omega-3 fatty acids. Compared to other seafood, salmon tends to have higher levels of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are more potent than short-chain omega-3 fatty acids, such as alpha-linolenic fatty acid (ALA). The body can use EPA and DHA, but it must convert ALA to a long-chain omega-3 to use it.

Why Omega-3 Matters

Omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks of cells. They are incorporated into the cell membranes in your body and support proper cell function

Although omega-3s are considered “good” fats, what matters is not only how much omega-3 you eat but also how much omega-6 you consume.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that support brain function, growth, and development. Both can convert into prostaglandins, which are lipids that regulate cellular activity. Yet these fats function differently in the body. Omega 3s convert into anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, while omega 6s become pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. Due to increased consumption of processed foods, many Americans eat more omega-6s than omega-3s. This may lead to chronic inflammation and, in turn, increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes.

Given that omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, they are thought to help lower disease activity in autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and reduce the risk of poor outcomes in cardiovascular disease. Omega-3s further support heart health by lowering LDL cholesterol, likely due to changes in secretion of triglycerides and increased function of LDL receptors in the body, which help regulate the amount of cholesterol in the blood.

Omega 3s have also been shown in animal studies to block changes to insulin signaling—and therefore protect against insulin resistance caused by a high-fat diet.

Wild vs. Farmed Salmon: Which Is Best Metabolically?

Most of the salmon we eat can be grouped into two categories: Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon, the latter of which consists of seven subspecies—Amago, Chinook, Coho, Chum, Masu, Pink, and Sockeye. 

Today, much of the Atlantic salmon sold commercially is farmed and available all year. Most wild-caught salmon is Pacific salmon. Because salmon spawn annually, making their famous run upstream from spring through fall, fresh wild salmon can only be harvested during those seasons. However, frozen, canned, and smoked Pacific salmon are sold year-round.

Proponents of farmed salmon argue that raising the fish in a controlled habitat away from the pollutants found in natural salmon habitats allows you to avoid pollution that may be in the water. But that benefit is contingent upon the cleanliness of the farming operation. Farmed salmon spend two years in pens. The water in these farms can be contaminated by parasites, pesticides, and fish waste if not appropriately treated and cleaned frequently.

Furthermore, the diets of the two fish vary greatly. 

Wild salmon are exposed to a wide range of foods and nutrients on their journey. This diverse diet gives wild salmon flesh its characteristic brilliant color and complex, rich flavor,” says Christopher Nicolson, a third-generation wild sockeye salmon fisher at Iliamna Fish in Bristol Bay, Alaska. 

By contrast, farmed salmon are dyed pink and generally fed a single type of pellet their entire lives. The quality of the feed determines how nutrient-rich farmed salmon are, but they tend to have a higher fat content, lower protein content, and higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, so the wild variety has a slight nutritional advantage.

Buying Advice

  • Salmon varieties differ from store to store and market to market, and some sellers offer different types of Pacific salmon depending on the season.
  • Wild salmon can be found domestically from well-managed fisheries in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and New Zealand. Direct-to-consumer sources include Iliamna Fish, Lummi Island Wild, and Wild Alaskan. These are all purveyors of uncooked, unprocessed, flash-frozen salmon. 
  • When choosing Pacific salmon, Chinook has the most omega-3 fatty acids by far: almost 1 gram each of EPA and DHA per 3-ounce filet. However, Chinook also tends to be the most expensive. A more affordable option still higher in omegas is coho, which has about 0.4 grams EPA and 0.6 grams DHA per 3-ounce filet and a milder flavor. Then there’s sockeye, with the most robust flavor and about 0.2 grams EPA and 0.4 grams DHA per 3 ounces. Lastly, chum and pink salmon—often canned or smoked—each has less than 0.2 grams EPA and 0.3 to 0.4 grams DHA per 3 ounces.
  • Since wild salmon is expensive, a more economical choice is canned wild salmon, available from brands like Wild Planet Foods in retail stores nationwide. 
  • If you’re unsure how safe or sustainable a particular producer of wild salmon is, you can look up their score from the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Food Scores tool
  • Be sure fresh salmon has no signs of spoiling: It should not have a strong or ammonia-like odor, and when you touch it, the flesh should feel firm, not fragile.
  • Smoked salmon sometimes has added sugar, so check the label before buying.

Ideas for Eating

Fresh salmon filets are simple to prepare by searing, grilling, broiling, roasting, or steaming. 

  • To make for crisp, browned skin, sprinkle fillets with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Heat a cast-iron pan with a bit of coconut or extra-virgin olive oil on high until very hot. Place the filet skin down, and don’t move it for two to three minutes. Then peek underneath. Once it’s browned, flip the filet and let it cook for another minute or until it reaches your desired doneness. To serve, squeeze fresh lemon over the top.
  • For an even more hands-off preparation, coat filets in salt and olive oil and place them on a baking sheet. Rather than baking (which can result in dry fish), broil skin-side-up until the skin is lightly charred and the flesh is cooked to your desired doneness (about 7-10 minutes for the average size filet).
  • To steam salmon filets, first rub them with a bit of salt. Set inside a steamer, cover, and cook until the filets are opaque throughout. Transfer to a serving plate and cover each filet with a fistful of julienned ginger and sliced scallions. Heat neutral oil in a small pan until very hot. Pour this over the salmon and aromatics, then drizzle with soy sauce.
  • Eat fish for breakfast: Cook eggs to your liking. Serve with smoked salmon and sliced avocado, all sprinkled with everything bagel seasoning.
  • Mix salmon with lemon and Dijon to make burgers. Serve topped with tartar sauce. Or swap the beef in your lettuce tacos for salmon (rub it in the same spices you usually use).
  • Other can’t-miss flavor pairings include garlic and smoked paprika or lemon with just about any herbs (dill, thyme, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, etc.).
  • Canned salmon is a convenient alternative to fresh. Simply drain and flake up the fish, then sprinkle it over fresh salads. Or wrap it with avocado and cucumber in nori sheets.

Tips for Storing and Using

  • For best texture, let frozen individual-size filets thaw overnight in the refrigerator. 
  • If you have a frozen whole filet that you plan to divide into individual servings, it may be easier to cut through the fish when it is half-frozen. Then wrap the individual pieces in plastic to thaw entirely in the refrigerator. Once thawed, use within two days.
  • If you’re not able to use up your fresh salmon by then, preserve it by curing it. For example, marinate the fish in miso paste, or try this no-sugar cure for gravlax.
  • You can toss wrapped, thawed salmon back in the freezer for another time. The texture may not be optimal once you cook it, but it won’t be harmful to you.