Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Sep

Salmon: Factory Farm vs. Wild

Wild SalmonLast week I noted in my podcast with Jimmy Moore how expensive genuine wild salmon can cost. Since then, I’ve received a healthy number of emails asking for more info, tips, and the real benefits behind buying “wild.”

What exactly are salmon “farms”? How does the farm setting change the nutritional content of salmon? Is there really that much of a difference? Is farmed salmon even worth buying?

First off, salmon farms of some kind make up about 80% of salmon on the market today. (In the United States, the number is higher – 90% by some estimates.) Thirty percent come from traditional hatcheries, and the remaining 50% are raised in aquaculture or “open pen nets” just off shore. Farms can “raise” up to a million salmon at a time. I’ll throw in a visual.

Salmon Farm

Yup, gets more than a little crowded in there.

Because the farmed salmon are largely confined and fed a steady diet of formulated protein pellets, they’re inevitably fattier. “But isn’t that a good thing?” you might ask. “More omega-3s per serving, right?” The answers are “no” and “not really” to the above. I’ll explain.

Many assessments have found fewer omega-3s per ounce in farmed salmon compared with wild salmon, but we know the farmed stuff also comes with a hefty (not healthy) wallop of other fats including omega-6s. We then deal with the problem that the omega-6s and omega-3s compete for the same receptors in our bodies. Consequently, the “net” omega-3 gain will always be less than what you’ll get with a wild serving. Here’s a nifty chart that compares the fat content of some popular wild versus farmed fish varieties (including salmon) from this PDF.

Farmed vs. Wild Salmon

And because the farmed fish are fattier, you’ll get less protein per serving as well.

To truly whet your appetite, I can’t skip the added ingredients you’ll get with a farmed fillet: dioxins, PCBs, fire retardants (those da-n things are everywhere, aren’t they???), pesticides (especially for sea lice), antibiotics, copper sulfate (to take care of algae on the nets), and – oh yeah – canthaxanthin (a dye associated with retinal damage used to make gray farmed fish various shades of “wild” pink).

As for dioxins, PCBs, and fire retardants, they show up in wild varieties as well, but the concentrations are vastly different. Tests have shown that farmed salmon contains 16 times more cancer-linked PCBs than wild salmon. The reason behind this difference? It’s those nasty little protein pellets – nuggets of mostly mashed fish and fish oil. The intense concentration of toxins from the fish feed builds up in the raised salmon over time – from fish farm to your fish dinner. Bon Appétit, by the way!

O.K., so you’re no fan of the farm anymore. To cloud the issue further, a “wild” label may only be telling a half truth. (They’re generally the less expensive “wild” brands offered in your grocery store.) As I described a few months back in Encore on Omegas, many to most “wild” salmon actually spend half their lives in hatcheries before being released. While these quasi-wild fish are a better nutritional deal than fully farmed salmon, they still bear the burdens of early exposure to toxins (dioxin, PCBs, etc.) and a less impressive omega 6:3 ratio.

So, what about truly wild salmon? As suggested, the genuine wild article only accounts for about 20% at most of the harvest. Some of the reasons it’s so darn expensive? The flood of farmed fish (and subsequent drop in asking price) has forced many traditional fishermen/women out of business. Add to this scenario the ongoing destruction of wild salmon populations by aquaculture farms, and we all end up paying a premium for the real thing.

Salmon Farm Sign

Because the farm pens are essentially open, the enormous amount of disease- and parasite- (a.k.a. sea lice – yum!) laden waste is routinely allowed to contaminate the waters around the farm. Add to this environment the megadoses of pesticide-, toxin-, and antibiotic-laced waste, and the farms create a deadly environment for wild stocks that inhabit the areas. For more on the environmental destruction caused by aquaculture farms, check out these resources from the National Geographic, the New York Times, and the L.A. Times.

Your best bet finally is this: buy less salmon in order to afford the real deal. It’s all about bang for your buck after all. A smaller wild fillet will give you equal nutrition with fewer toxins. Additionally, look for Alaskan over Northwestern salmon. And don’t rule out canned salmon for big savings. Apparently, farmed salmon doesn’t can well, which means the majority of canned salmon is wild. (Pink salmon, the most commonly canned variety, doesn’t contain as much good fats as other kinds.) It’s one way to make salmon a more affordable addition to your Primal-style salad!

Finally, if you do choose to eat farmed salmon, the Environmental Working Group (applying EPA health standards) suggests eating no more than one serving of farmed salmon a month.

And, of course, I suggest you ensure a healthy daily dose of omega-3s with a good quality, pure fish oil supplement! (We know: broken record. What can we say?)

Your comments, questions, anecdotes, or additions? I look forward to them!

kuow949, axiepics Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

On the Problems of Cultivated Fruit

Omega-3 Round Up:

Omega 3 to 6 Ratio

Omega 3 Daily Dose

Omega 3 Food Sources

Cooking Omegas

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Is no food sacred? Eventually it is going to be us being forcefed “Protien pellets”. 1 processed and synthisized pellet contains all the nutrition and nutrients a body needs! FDA approved and supported by the Corn Growers of America and Big Agra. Thank you for the heads-up mark, we just had some expensive salmon for dinner the other night and I don’t know if it was wild or farmed but I will definitely be looking in the future!

    Son of Grok wrote on September 12th, 2008
    • Just check out the 1970’s movie Soylent Green with Charlton Heston. That is where we are all headed my friend.

      Soylent Green is people!!

      Brad wrote on May 9th, 2012
  2. Hey Mark,
    You mentioned eating less but wild salmon than from farms. It makes sense, may a little side tracked question but I’ll ask it anyways. If for any reason wild salmon is out of question, should we avoid eating salmon at all ? or are farm salmons are good alternatives to no salmon?

    nodietneeded wrote on September 12th, 2008
    • Farmed salmon aka Pharm salmon is never a good option, not even if wild is not available. The salmon farming industry is pure evil, they are causing more harm to the oceans than you can possibly imagine. I know first hand how wicked they are, I saw them in court recently and I have researched them for a few yrs now. Smoking would be a better option than farmed salmon. The tobacco industry is on the same morality level but they don’t spread death to the oceans.

      Brian McKinlay wrote on March 26th, 2012
      • Now hold on a second…I am in complete agreement that commercial farms…in just about every sense..are bad for us…but if salmon were raised, let’s say in an aquaponic culture…not so many fish actually…but if they had a run per se…thaat might be just the difference needed.

        Dave Hutchinson wrote on June 9th, 2012
        • They were also saying that it’s not just where they are raised, but what they are fed. Even being in a culture with a smaller population density, they would still have to be fed a healthy, natural diet in order to have better omega ratios and fat content.

          Philip J. Mauch wrote on August 6th, 2013
  3. Protein pellets made from mashed fish, eh? The salmon equivalent of Soylent Green!

    dragonmamma wrote on September 12th, 2008
  4. I have also read that farmed salmon has to be dyed pink to give it that “healthy” wild glow, since it isn’t eating wild food! What a bargain!

    Rodney wrote on September 12th, 2008
    • Actually they put the coloring in the fish food and the customer can order the shade of pink, orange or red they prefer.

      Jim Naylor wrote on April 14th, 2010
  5. NoDiet, what we are disovering is that there is a continuum of bad to good foods. Grains are on the bad end and grass-fed beef or wild salmon on the good end. I guess farmed salmon is still better than a plate full of mashed potatoes and corn in that regard. Eating PB style is about knowing the variables and making choices based on that knowledge. Yeah, I’ll admit I do eat farmed salmon every once in a blue moon (say, at a restaurant after two nights of steak in a row) but I’ll also double my Omega 3 supplements that day.

    Son of Grok, hey you could always drink Brawndo…it’s got electrolytes (three points if you know where that’s from).

    Mark Sisson wrote on September 12th, 2008
    • Brawndo, the ubiquitous sports drink in Idiocracy. The idiots even used it to “water” their crops and couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t grow. Also, you may have mentioned this before but the Omega 6:3 ratio in farmed salmon is so out of whack that your body most likely won’t be able to use the Omega 3 from that portion. My understanding of the enzymatic function of converting Omega 3 to the anti-inflammatory compounds is co-opted when there is a high level of Omega 6 (same enzymatic function converts Omega 6 into INFLAMMATORY compounds). IMHO, farmed salmon is just not worth the money/pesticide/antibiotic/insubstantial Omega 3 benefit.

      NoFarmedSalmon wrote on August 30th, 2010
  6. Idiocracy? I am a big Mike Judge fan. He grew up here in Albuquerque.

    Son of Grok wrote on September 12th, 2008
  7. Can you tell from the packaging how “wild” the wild salmon is?

    With so much doubt in salmon, are other types of fish a better choice?

    David wrote on September 12th, 2008
    • By law fish must be labeled wild or farmed. Try frozen wild Alaska sockeye…
      it is sooooo good… they have mastered freezing and vacuum packing. It is better than so called “fresh”. “Fresh only means it hasn’t been frozen…. it has been on ice or refridgerated for who knows how long.

      Also the chart above lists wild Atlantic Salmon… I don’t think you could find that in any store.

      jim naylor wrote on February 10th, 2010
      • Salmon in the wild eat microalgae called Haematoccous pluvialis which is a highly regarded antioxidant used in Astaxanthin. This is one of the most efficacious antioxidant supplements known. Always better to use Krill oil for high quality omega 3 supplements vs. fish oil (fish eat krill, so go right to the source)

        Shweppa wrote on November 28th, 2012
        • Harvesting krill from our oceans isn’t a good idea for sustainability. We shouldn’t harvest the bottom of the food chain if we catch to much krill suddenly everything in the ocean doesn’t have enough food. If you must have a supplement make it fish oil. Or just eat some salmon, try pink salmon if your on a budget it’s wild, sustainable and affordable!

          Healthy oceans wrote on December 28th, 2012
    • I am fairly sure that by law salmon must be labeled wild or farmed. I have heard of label cheating in New York. Farmed salmon will have much more fat (white stripes between the meat layers) than wild.
      All salmon from Alaska is wild. Salmon farming is not allowed there.

      jim naylor wrote on April 7th, 2010
      • No, there aren’t any farms, but keep in mind that there are salmon hatcheries in Alaska. Personally, I think the hatcheries are a great thing (keeps the sports fishermen happy without depleting wild stock, and environmental impact is minimal). I’m familiar with DIPAC’s hatchery in Juneau, my home town. I’m guessing the fish they release into the ocean are considered “quasi wild” but they are released as trout-sized fish and grow in the wild for 3-5 years before returning to the hatchery to spawn. Their coloration is natural and they are NEVER fatty. Not 100% wild, but still nutritious and clean.

        Buying Alaskan, if you can confirm it’s Alaskan, is a very safe bet.

        Charlotte wrote on April 14th, 2010
        • Almost all of the hatchery fish in Alaska are Pink Salmon. Pinks return to spawn when they are two years old. They are the most abundant and cheapest salmon.
          The only problem with hatchery fish is that they can put too many fish in the ocean that compete with the wild fish.

          Jim Naylor wrote on September 10th, 2010
  8. Great question, David!

    We’ll be sure to address it in a future post.

    Aaron wrote on September 12th, 2008
  9. Maybe it’s me, but I find it downright discouraging that it’s so hard to find decent food to eat these days. If you would have told man in the ancient days that it would come to this, he never would have believed it. It’s a sad state of affairs when you have to be wealthy to afford food that some team of food scientists hasn’t tampered with.


    Kevan wrote on September 12th, 2008
    • I think that driving to the grocery store and finding any kind of food you could possibly think of is a bit easier than hunting and gathering in the wild with sticks and stones. It’s not so hard… it just takes a little home work.

      Jim Naylor wrote on April 14th, 2010
  10. Mark, this was my first visit and I was blown away with your research and accuracy. I’ll never look at salmon again the same way again. While softgels might be the only way to go, they give me stomach upset and I can’t take them. Will there ever be a better solution? Thanks for being an earth angel and sharing.

    Annemarie - the healing earth angel wrote on September 12th, 2008
    • Freeze your fish oil capsules. They will not upset your stomach or give you any nasty burb ups of fish oil.

      Julia wrote on August 26th, 2009
  11. I have heard that farmed fish were no where near as healthy as fish found in the wild, not to mention the cruelty of the idea of not allowing for a normal natural life for these fish. I have read that their are a lot of departures if you will from normal physical development as well. I think the sentiment is in the right place but we can perfect these tactics and give the fish a better life.

    Jen C. wrote on September 12th, 2008
  12. Mark,

    What about other canned fish such as Mackeral and Sardines. Are the canned varities of these fish also wild?


    Brett wrote on September 12th, 2008
    • Where do I purchase healthy wild salmon?

      Andrew Barmakian wrote on February 22nd, 2012
      • There are several retailers in Alaska that specialize in sending wild Alaskan salmon (and other seafood) around the United States. My favorite is Captain Jack’s Seafood Locker in Seward. They take the fish as soon as they are caught and fillet, vacuum pack, and freeze them. They usually have a few varieties in stock such as King and Sockeye. Otherwise, if you are shopping in a supermarket and you see Alaskan Salmon you’ll know it is wild because there are no salmon farms in Alaska.

        Steve wrote on September 26th, 2012
        • Is Alaskan salmon contaminated by the fukushima accident, I’m wondering…

          Rob wrote on August 13th, 2013
  13. Thanks for the question, Brett. Check back next week for answers.


    Aaron wrote on September 12th, 2008
  14. I have questions too about the “Chicken of the Sea” Pink Salmon that I’ve been eating. It seems too good to be true! The 6 oz. foil packet states: “Premium Wild-Caught Alaskan”. I like the taste and it is convenient. And it only costs a couple of bucks. The package also states that a 2 ounce serving provides 245 mg of EPA and DHA. (I eat the whole 6 ounces in my salads.)

    Mark L. wrote on September 12th, 2008
  15. I love sushi but it’s gotten that I don’t trust what type of fish is offered, so I’ve cut way down on eating it. It’s a shame.

    Amy wrote on September 12th, 2008
  16. Wow amazing research Mark. Really opened my eye’s to what is going on with Farmed Salmon…..I guess it really is worth paying that bit more for farmed organic fish. Thanks for the research and depth of the post, very good article!

    Chris - Zen to Fitness wrote on September 12th, 2008
  17. Thanks to MDA I’ve been aware of this for a while, appreciate the in depth article though!

    At my local supermarket they sell MSC Wild Alaskan Salmon fillets which are absolutely delicious. In fact, I’m having one tonight…can’t wait.

    Ade wrote on September 13th, 2008
    • Diana,Go to the archives of “Organic Gardening” and look up the recipe for “Sun Jam.” It’s fruit, sugar – and lemon. That’s it, and it turns out fresh, bright – and not too thin. Also working with fruit that has tons of natural pectin gives you an extra thick jam – blackberry jam could be used to make sculpture! wrote on July 27th, 2016
  18. Mark L,

    Pink salmon is invariably wild and cheap. It’s also likely to be one of the least contaminated with mercury and other toxins due to its lower position on the food chain (compared to larger species like king and atlantic). My research also indicates that its one of the highest in O-3’s.

    Scott Hanson wrote on September 13th, 2008
  19. I was at the butcher just now picking out all of my good WILD fish and grass-fed, hormone free organic meet for the week. I am glad I asked what was wild and what was farm raised. It just so happens that the good salmon we had last week was wild! So I am good to go

    Son of Grok wrote on September 13th, 2008
  20. I love fish but it is difficult to find fish that is not farm raised unless you catch it yourself. I saw a segment on TV about farm raised Tilapia that bothered me. The fed them pellets in a long aluminum tank. Many of the fish were eating each others poop too.

    Salmon is great but it is soooo expensive! That is why I opt for taking a high quality fish oil on a regular basis.

    Which Is Better? Eating Fish Or Taking Fish Oil Capsules?

    Jeff Iversen wrote on September 16th, 2008
  21. Trout Unlimited has a campaign running, to encourage people to buy more wild salmon and to ask for wild salmon at the grocery store. The more people know about this, the more we can help wild salmon stocks to recover. The example of the red drum fish recovery in the south, and striped bass in the north, shows what can be done.

    Check it out at

    Much of America’s farmed salmon comes from Chile. Not only does it have all the yummy additives you mentioned, but a heavy load of antibiotics as well. Here’s what’s happening in Chile:

    Doug K wrote on September 19th, 2008
  22. I’ve noticed some cans of salmon have a raised stamp on the lid that says “wild caught” whereas other salmon that claims is wild caught only says so on the label. Is there a diffence?

    Tami Link wrote on November 14th, 2008
  23. I personally eat Kelley-Clarke Wild Alaskan Canned Pink Salmon (linked here:

    Does anyone have any experience with this brand? The site says wild caught and practically devoid of mercury/other contaminants due to the fish’s short life. I have it every day as part of my big salad and would like to know others thoughts.

    Justin wrote on April 6th, 2009
  24. Farmed salmon also spread disease to the wild salmon who are trying to survive. Farmed salmon contribute to the decrease in wild salmon.

    Sylvia wrote on April 23rd, 2009
  25. Totally agree with this article. Farmed salmon will kill a person. Would like to post this article to our website if that is ok? Please let me know – thanks!

    Sara wrote on June 22nd, 2009
  26. I personally eat Kelley-Clarke Wild Alaskan Canned Pink Salmon (linked here:

    Does anyone have any experience with this brand? The site says wild caught and practically devoid of mercury/other contaminants due to the fish’s short life. I have it every day as part of my big salad and would like to know others thoughts.

    Justin wrote on July 16th, 2009
  27. Hi

    I ate salmon {wild} very little farmed salmon, tuna, along with a variety of seafoods in the form of sushi and sashimi for 11 years, as my prime source of protein and omega 3 fatty acid..I got high blood pressure, heart problems, eye problems, heavy legs, gout, thick soles on my feet, red finger and toe nails, twitching eye, loss of eye lash’s, grey hair, and a host of nasty shit like insomnia. I thought eating fish 3-4 times a week raw{sashimi} so it is not cooked in fatty oils etc, was healthy..hahaha. I damn near killed myself and went from athletic at 46 with better than perfect blood pressure, and no health problems to severe arthritis in my limbs and all the nasty crap imaginable. I was a wreck 4 months ago after eating what I thought was great food. I cured it all by stop eating all seafoods, used cilantro and chlorella to remove the Mercury, PCB’s, Cadmium, and lead. I used tart cherries and their juice, along with apple cider vinager, to relieve the uric acid buildup {causes gout} High Purines in seafood can cause uric acid build up. I used Greens + smoothie drink, as it contains Chlorella and alfalfa as it binds the murcury being flushed from all cells, including the brain, that cilantro was doing. I have reversed the crap all the seafood caused.Anyone saying Tuna or excessive amounts of seafood is safe is a fool.I know as my blood pressure soared, my right eye was twitching so bad it was unbearable and I had problems with spotty vision. At 56, my health is rapidly returning, my grey hair is turning brown with blonde highlights again, all the heavy let and gout are gone.. my muscle mass has improved and all the arthritis that was plaguing my life is either gone or almost gone. It took 11 years to wreck my health and 4 months to resore it.I now use walnuts and soy drink {silk} for omega 3.. currants for omega 6. I eat more organic foods now than ever before and I recommend a greens supplement. I love greens _ by sam Graci.Not endorsing any product just passing on my experience. I don’t care what anyone says about the health benefits of seafood. Keep it, I can be healthy without it and just might live longer.. TIA

    bill wrote on August 1st, 2009
    • You drink soy milk for omega 3’s???


      Primal Palate wrote on June 29th, 2011
    • Just a side note – nobody ever recommends “excessive” anything, and this site particular recommends informed and smart amounts of ANY food. Also, your hair does not turn color at all. Hair is dead. If you noticed a change in hair color, either 1) you lost the hair of one color and it was replaced with new hair of another color or 2) someone changed your hair color in your sleep. Diet does affect hair color, but your hairs do not change color. Sorry. Pet peeve.

      Amberoni wrote on March 7th, 2012
    • I think if you are honest with yourself you will come to the conclusion that your health issues were the result of too many carbs, not eating seafood. How do I know? I had exactly the same experience as you, with the exact same health issues, that have all been resolved by getting off all the carbs.

      And soy milk (or ANY non-fermented soy product for that matter) is the exact OPPOSITE of healthy.

      JustMyExperience wrote on December 10th, 2012
  28. Bill, always a naysayer somewhere. Actually, that sounds like a bunch of bunk to me

    Lee wrote on September 1st, 2009
  29. Hi – Can you please tell me how I can differentiate between wild and farmed salmon ONCE IT IS COOKED AND ON MY PLATE. I need to know for sure so as not to have to depend on the waitress to tell me. Thanks so much !! Suzi


    Suzi Brent wrote on November 24th, 2009
    • Once it’s cooked, it’s actually very difficult to tell whether or not it’s farmed. Sometimes you can, and in those cases, you’re looking for an excessive amount of grey/translucent fat or grease.

      An easier way to tell is by taste. Farmed salmon have a heavier processed taste, almost metallic if you will. Wild salmon tastes tangier without that metallic taste. The difference is very fine, but when you’ve sampled both types, you learn the difference. I grew up fishing for kings in Alaska so I’m very good at telling the difference!

      Obviously, the easiest method for telling them apart is before they are cooked. Wild salmon NEVER has prominent white striations (fat).

      Good luck!

      Charlotte wrote on April 14th, 2010
    • The only wild salmon that restaurants serve is Sockeye. Everything else will be farmed. Here’s a good way to know: Sockeye, Pink and Chum salmon are NOT farmed as of 2012. These 3 salmon species are plankton eaters and almost impossible to farm. Restaurants that serve pure wild are proud and will tell you, if they don’t know its farmed.

      Brian McKinlay wrote on March 26th, 2012

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