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:

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  1. Nobody seems to notice that the “farmed” has no taste, excessive fat (never get to swim in the ocean), is fatty & mushy…etc., as well as the environmental damge, lack of omega-3’s, excessive omega-6’s, etc. AND you can get frozen WILD salmon year ’round, for about half the price (salmon freezes well). So, why bother? GO WILD!!

    Thomas Tizard wrote on May 2nd, 2011
    • Farmed salmon generally live in the ocean, therefore they swim in the ocean.

      peter wrote on June 28th, 2011
  2. After reading The Primal Blueprint cover to cover, I decided to hunt down some wild salmon. Was I ever happy to find out that mid-June is the time when fresh wild salmon is available in the meat markets. I bought some, froze a bunch of it, but broiled a fresh piece. Oh my goodness! There is absolutely NO comparison between the taste(lessness) of farmed salmon and wild caught. You can see right off the bat by the color of the fish that it is going to taste better and be better for you. I’d MUCH rather have less of the wild caught (due to higher price) than a lot of the farmed stuff. Grok on!

    Lori wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  3. The majority of Atlantic farmed salmon still has more Omega-3 than Omega-6. The percentage of fatty acids varies from 12.5%-37% n-3, and 2.2-17% n-6. As it is fattier than wild salmon it may contain more absolute quantities of n-3 than wild salmon.

    It is not correct to say that the net omega-3 gain is less than wild salmon.


    Mike wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  4. You don^t need all that much Omega-3 to begin with to recieve the health benefits of Omega-3. so what if farmed salmon has a little less.Too much omega-3 can pose health issues. Farmed salmon allows an abundance of good,nutritious,food at cheaper prices.Just don&t eat it everyday,twice a week is good.If we left all plants(fruits & vegetables)alone without pesticide,many would not be available all year round,they would be much more x-pensive & we would suffer more because of the impressive lack of variety. There is no scientific evidence that links cancer to eating farmed fish moderateltely

    kim wrote on June 25th, 2011
  5. It’s very difficult to find wild salmon in Spain and costs about 6x the price of Norwegian farmed salmon (say $35 per pound). I’m kind of going off farmed salmon though. It just doesn’t smell like fish when raw. It has an odour of feed pellets, or what I can only describe as a farm smell rather than a fresh fish smell. It is also rather flabby and fatty.

    Mike wrote on June 26th, 2011
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    Elmer Haustein wrote on June 29th, 2011
  7. Hi, Mark .
    what do you think about Norway’s production of salmon . Is it good enought?
    see for example.


    Sergey wrote on August 5th, 2011
  8. I refuse to eat farmed salmon before I even heard of the PB! I think it tastes fishier (a definite drawback for me) and once I heard what an environmental nightmare it was, I refused to eat it at all. I also knew of the reduced nutritional value before this as well.

    Lazerguppie wrote on August 9th, 2011
  9. i think you might be misinformed on the Canthaxanthin issue:
    Canthaxanthin (pronounced /ˌkænθəˈzænθɪn/ ( listen)) is a carotenoid pigment widely distributed in nature. Carotenoids belong to a larger class of phytochemicals known as terpenoids. from the Food Standards agency: it is believed that canthaxanthin and some other carotenoids may have positive nutritional effects on the diet – they are believed to act as dietary antioxidants.
    also the farmed fish from Chile was shown to have less Dioxins than the wild fish. Most of our Salmon here in the U.S. is from Chile not North America where the high levels of Dioxins were found. overall if we dont have aquaculture we wont have enough fish to eat! the aquaculture industry needs to address the antibiotics issue and the effluence issue, but we cant just ignore the benefits of farming fish.

    john wrote on September 6th, 2011
  10. Great article! Most sashimi salmon will be farmed salmon, because it is available year-round. Alaska does produce most of the wild salmon in the U.S., but hatcheries do contribute nearly 1/3 of the current marketed catch (pinks, then chum or “silver bright” salmon). All sockeye are truly wild (and delicious). The hatchery releases are closely managed in Alaska and are labeled as “wild caught”, but Russia, Japan, and China are building hatcheries and flooding the North Pacific (now at 500 billion salmon released annually), potentially affecting the food source for truly wild salmon stocks.

    ron medel wrote on September 21st, 2011
  11. people wake up most “wild alaskan” is from a hatchery… this

    it’s all a scam. i’m sick of these people. no one is honest anymore

    may wrote on October 12th, 2011
    • You are being dishonest because you are making comments without knowing ALL the facts. A lot of the PINK salmon from Alaska are born in hatcheries and are released into the wild soon after. No Sockeye and very few King salmon are from hatcheries. Hatchery fish are not drugged throughout their life and do not pollute the inshore waters like farmed salmon. I’m sick of people that read one story then assume that they are now an expert…. Far from it. Go back to sleep.

      Jim Naylor wrote on October 12th, 2011
  12. I read every posting. I am getting ready to buy more canned kippered herring. The brands I buy are King Oscar , Appel and Polar the last two are alledgely from Germany and wild caught. We always look and purchase wild caught fish except my wife who eats Talapia. When I saw eating one serving of salmon per month I got ill. I eat kippers for breakfast almost every morning for forty years. I eat fish at lunch from fried catfish to blue gill and sushi at least half of my other meals. I eat meat less then a dozen times a year. I am obese however have lower then normal blood pressure a resting pulse of 58 blood test and physicals every six months. I just ordered 64 six oz. cans of wild caught herring.
    If anyone has any difinitive answeres on over indulging in fish. Presently consuming almosy 3,000 calories per day in fish. I would need some guidence.

    muggsy maguire wrote on October 30th, 2011
  13. So very biased in your facts. Does EWG write your analysis? Maybe to be fair you should mention that the dyes used are made from the same carotenoids that wild salmon get their color from. Also the carotenoid canthaxanthin is the only one shown to cause retinal damage and it’s use is strictly controlled. One would need to eat 3kg of farm raised salmon daily to be harmed. I find the remainder of your analysis on nutrition is essentially accurate though outdated. The information on toxins is likewise outdated and misleading.

    Terry wrote on November 27th, 2011
  14. I have a question, I am trying to find where to purchase canned Atlantic Salmon and am having no luck, could you please help me? Thank you.

    Diane wrote on December 1st, 2011

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