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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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August 06 2018

Dear Mark: Is Farmed Salmon Worth Eating?

By Mark Sisson
51 Comments

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering just one question from the comment section of last week’s omega-3 post.

It’s a short one, maybe one of the shortest reader questions ever, and it represents one of the few cut-and-dry stances in ancestral health. Humans are omnivores, seed oils are bad for you, no curls in the squat rack, and farmed salmon is toxic poison.

Right? Maybe not.

Mike asked:

What’s with the pic of the farm raised salmon?

First of all, I’m not certain that salmon was actually farm-raised. Second, while I’m on the topic, allow me to make the case for farmed salmon. That may surprise you. For years, I’ve been a huge proponent of wild-caught salmon. It’s the only one I ever buy or consciously seek out at restaurants. I’ll eat farmed salmon if it’s the best option available, or if I’m a guest and that’s what’s for dinner—and do so happily, by the way—but I’ve always been a wild salmon guy.

However, not everyone has the means to buy fresh or frozen wild-caught salmon on a regular basis, and not everyone wants to eat canned salmon. Sometimes you just want a big slab of tender salmon with a swathe of crispy, salty skin. Sometimes all five members of your family want their own big slab of tender salmon with the crispy skin. Is farmed salmon a good, safe, effective option?

Let’s look at the evidence. First, what are the benefits of salmon, and how does farmed salmon compare?

Omega-3s

The main reason people eat salmon is to get the long chained omega-3 fatty acids—the ones we use to quell inflammation, balance our omega-6 intake, and shift the membrane composition of our cells and structures.

Farmed salmon is a great source. A 6-ounce portion of farmed Atlantic salmon has 4.4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, which is actually more than wild. A 6-ounce portion of wild sockeye salmon has 2 grams of omega-3s.

But what about the omega-6 fats? Isn’t farmed salmon “loaded” with them? Well, that same portion of farmed salmon has 3.3 grams of omega-6 fats to the wild salmon’s 0.3 grams. The ratio is “worse” than the wild salmon’s. But even then, it’s great. While the wild salmon’s omega-3:omega-6 ratio of 1:0.15 is about as perfect as you can get, the farmed salmon’s ratio of 1:0.75 is fantastic. Besides, it’s also the absolute amount of omega-6s that matter. Admittedly, 3.3 grams is nothing compared to what most people are getting from seed oils, junk food, or even random handfuls of almonds and pecans throughout the day.

There’s more to fish fats than the omega-3s. For instance, many fish fats have subfractional layers with specific health effects. Fats derived from organic Irish farmed salmon possess anti-thrombotic qualities—they reduce the formation of blood clots.

Astaxanthin

Astaxanthin is a carotenoid that gives salmon its pink hue and may provide neuroprotective effects, especially combined with omega-3s. Wild salmon obtain astaxanthin from the krill and other pink sea creatures they consume. Farmed salmon obtain it from the feed they eat, which has it added. Both farmed and wild salmon provide astaxanthin to those who eat it, but a recent study found that the astaxanthin in wild salmon has higher bioavailability.

What about the drawbacks of farmed salmon, like contaminants?

Even this issue isn’t so clear cut. For example, a 2017 study found higher levels of persistent organic pollutants, metals, and DHA in wild Atlantic salmon compared to farmed Atlantic salmon. Farmed salmon had more overall fat, mostly from saturated, monounsaturated, and omega-6 fats, but farmed was still loaded with omega-3s.

A recent study actually tracked the changes in blood markers of contaminants in response to a high intake of farmed salmon. Eating almost a pound of farmed salmon each week had no effect on blood levels of persistent organic pollutants or mercury.

Surprisingly, European farmed salmon seems to have the biggest contamination issue. Good news, though: a 13-year study of contaminant levels in Norwegian farmed salmon found that toxins are dropping as the years go on.

What about when the rubber hits the road, when actual living and breathing humans eat farmed salmon? Does it help or harm? Let’s see what’s out there:

In one 2016 study, overweight men and women who ate farmed salmon twice a week for 4 weeks had higher HDL, larger LDL particles, lower triglycerides, and an overall improved cardiovascular risk profile. Their large LDL particle number also increased, but I’m not sure what happened to their overall LDL particle number. Another study found farmed salmon reduced triglycerides and increased HDL compared to lean chicken.

Eating farmed salmon twice a week modified the plasma phospholipid composition in a favorable way, increasing DHA and EPA and decreasing omega-6 fats.

Chinese men with a high risk for heart disease improved cardiovascular biomarkers after adding farmed salmon to their diets.

This was an interesting one. A group of otherwise healthy overweight adults were told to eat add a large dose of either fatty fish or lean fish to their normal diets for 8 weeks. The fatty fish was farmed salmon. The lean fish was wild cod. What happened?

  • Cod increased DHA in white blood cell membranes. Farmed salmon increased overall omega-3s and reduced omega-6s in white blood cell membranes.
  • Farmed salmon improved postprandial blood glucose control. Cod did not.
  • Farmed salmon resulted in a smaller increase in postprandial insulin than cod.

I’m not suggesting farmed salmon is better than wild, or even equivalent, but I want to impress upon everyone who reads this blog that you don’t have to drop $15 a pound for wild caught salmon if your budget doesn’t allow it. Those $6 a pound Atlantic salmon fillets might not be as vibrantly red, might have a couple more grams of omega-6, and might have more or less pollutants depending on where they were farmed, but they’ll still have way more omega-3 than omega-6, they’ll still have astaxanthin, and they can still be part of an overall healthy diet.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to get your thoughts on this down below.

TAGS:  omega 3s

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51 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Is Farmed Salmon Worth Eating?”

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  1. Like any animal products, how they’re raised is huge. I mostly avoid farmed salmon, but Mt. Cook Alpine salmon is amazing. Better than any wild salmon I’ve tried. Of course, it’s no cheaper than wild, but more environmentally friendly and probably cleaner.

  2. Best article for me I’ve read in a while. I’ll feel much better about using it in sushi and in general.

  3. This is why I follow you, Mark. You have a real-world approach based on science.

  4. Ok, this seriously made my day! I do buy wild salmon at home, and used canned sockeye for salmon cakes. But I work in a restaurant, and if I end up eating there it’s usually farmed salmon. I was feeling a little guilty every time I ate it…don’t feel so bad now:)

  5. I like to use Faroe Island salmon. Are there any negatives to this particular farmed salmon. It is quite delicious. In fact I prefer it to wild salmon because it is fattier and does not dry out as easily.

  6. Great. article. Too often we get obsessed with eating perfectly. The same approach can be taken for eating conventional eggs rather than pastured eggs or conventional grain fed beef rather than grass fed if that’s what’s available or what you can afford. Conventional eggs and grain fed beef are still extremely nutrient dense healthy foods that Can be consumed and shouldn’t be obsessively avoided.

    1. Conventionally raised meat becomes more an issue for those that won’t eat abused animals. I simply can’t eat meat from an animal that wasn’t treated with the respect it deserved for fueling my life.

  7. I switched from wild to farmed because I can get farmed fresh, while wild is usually frozen. Fresh salmon just tastes so much better, regardless of whether it’s wild or farmed

  8. Common sense prevails, again. Thanks Mark. Strive for perfection, but do the best with what you have.

    A $6 slab of farmed salmon in lieu of a deli sandwich, Double-Double, or three-piece friend chicken meal is still an excellent choice.

  9. I wouldn’t touch the thing. I don’t like the way it smell and the way, the way white matter accumulates on the outside as it cooks, or the amount of oil that comes out to the pan. All which don’t happened with wild Salmon. And if you haven’t yet. watch the documentary in th attached link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYYf8cLUV5E

    1. Not all farms are like that.
      It’s like not eating beef anymore because of the conditions in the mega farms.

    2. The white matter is coagulated protein — also known as albumin. It occurs in wild salmon as well. I get my fish delivered from Sitka Salmon (and it all costs more than $15/pound) and I can get the same ‘white matter’ as well.

    3. My understanding is that the white protein can come out due to cooking methods – the heat is too high?

  10. This is a relief to read, frankly. I still would prefer to support wild fishing and a more sustainable source, as well as a less locally polluting source. But sometimes our budget means I need a less expensive alternative if salmon is going to be on the menu. I appreciate this perspective so I can make an informed decision.

  11. Hey Mark, thanks so much for providing such detailed and thorough analyses of so many varied topics on your site! It’s very informative while not being at all boring! ?

  12. “Farmed salmon is a great source. A 6-ounce portion of farmed Atlantic salmon has 4.4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, which is actually more than wild. A 6-ounce portion of wild sockeye salmon has 2 grams of omega-3s.”

    Is this with or without the skin?

  13. I cantankerously disagree with you Mark… curls may be performed in the squat rack under ANY the following conditions…

    1. the user is using chain weight as accommodating resistance (this looks really cool)
    2. it’s a whole body ballistic movement
    3. squats are indeed being performed while curling, and…
    4. farmed salmon and skim milk make up your brotein shake

    This is an exhaustive list, so don’t even try.

    1. Not to be confused with curling … one of those weird ice games Canadians like to do after downing a few Molson Ale’s … eh … dontcha know. 😛

  14. Farmed salmon may or may not be nutritious for human diets, but it is bad for wild salmon.

  15. I wonder how to interpret the information we are receiving about how contaminated the oceans are with antibiotics, pain killers, detergents, plastics, and even radiation from Fukishima? This data makes me wonder if farmed is better for those reasons too. Take, for example, the case of the Orca traveling the seas with her dead calf. There the issue is famine and pollution. Thanks for this info—I LOVE farmed salmon! So much yummy fat.

    1. The orca who was carrying her dead calf is from the northwestern J-pod. None of their young have survived in the last three years. They are an extremely inbred pod that have two males being the main breeders alone. The other young female who is seemingly dying is very emaciated, and they are unsure whether or not it is from starvation or possible sickness which is why they haven’t done anything yet. It isn’t all “pollution and starvation.”

      1. Just to clarify, the orcas do not breed within their pod. The Southern Resident orcas of the Puget Sound live in Matriarchal groups. The orcas leave their group for mating and then return to the pod of their mother. The males in the group are not the parent to any calf in the group. They are endangered because they eat exclusively salmon, which has been in decline and they live in an increasingly congested area (ships, military exercises using sonar, etc.).

  16. Buying farmed salmon supports and accelerates the extinction of wild salmon via concentrated sea lice and escapee interbreeding.

    Mark is right about many things. This is not one of them.

  17. What are the different farming methods of farmed salmon, and what types should we be looking for to be sure we are getting a better version of farmed salmon. The guy at the Whole Foods fish counter told me that the Atlantic farmed salmon is a better variety then the commonplace farmed salmon. It was a while ago, so I forgot the details, but I do know “omega 3’s” was in there. He convinced me and we’ve been enjoying it ever since. What do you think of Whole Foods salmon? (and we live on the Atlantic, so it’s not travelling across the country to us)

  18. Where can you get wild salmon at $15/pound?
    The local store can get wild salmon from Boston (I’m in landlocked Vermont) but they refuse to buy it.
    As of last week, King salmon was selling at $100/pound wholesale!
    King salmon (AKA Chinook) is the best, IMO.

    1. That’s insane! Even Whole Foods here in CA usually has king for less than $30 per lb. Have you tried frozen wild sockeye? I can usually find a 4-6oz filets or sockeye frozen at TJs or Whole Foods for $5-6 per.

  19. Thanks Mark. Very informative. It’s virtually impossible to get wild salmon that’s not canned in Australia. I’ve always felt guilty about eating it. But no more. And it’s delicious!

  20. I agree with Mark’s approach. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  21. Those who feel farmed salmon (and other fish) is bad for the environment, need to provide references, as Mark always does.

  22. Great post Mark – didn’t see this one coming! This could herald the way for further posts taking the same stance – whilst regular readers are fairly clear now on what the ‘perfect primal foods’ are, it would be really useful to know whether when pressed we should consume or avoid other ‘less perfect’ variants. Eg should we always avoid regular non-organic dairy? Conventional battery-farmed eggs? Grain-fed beef? For example Dr Shawn Baker (100% carnivore) actually prefers grain-fed beef and will order beef patties from fast-food restaurants. Is he right or would we be better off taking an intermittent fast in such situations?

  23. I’m concerned about large amounts of antibiotics used in farmed Salmon, and the fact that they are “kept alive” when they are not healthy/infected….

    Is this a concern ?

  24. I’m curious about antibiotic and anti-fungal use /contamination of farmed salmon. This is the main reason I usually avoid it.

  25. This is a great articulation of the differences for those of us strapped for cash. I love to stress this lifestyle is about doing the best YOU can do, and not worrying about the best your neighbor can do. Sometimes comparison is helpful, like in your article, sometimes it’s pointless. I think a great addition to this article would be the ethical aspect of farm raised fish. I think there is something to be said for a natural habitat, and I think many agree that it feels morally better to consume happy animals.

    How are farm raised fish treated? Do they have enough space? Is the habitat kept clean through natural or chemical measures?

    What about the ecological impact of the farm? Are they farming the fish responsibly, and using the fish waste for beneficial fertilizer for other crops?

  26. I enjoy this type of article and would like to see more. I get frustrated when i see the “don’t eat the worst”, “only eat the best” when there is a spectrum of each food. What do I have available and what can I afford? Usually fall in the middle. What are the acceptable choices? Thanks Mark!

  27. This is similar tothe argument of grassfed vs grain fed meat how chickens are raised etc with the large Paleo community as a whole. When you eliminate dieatry ingredients down to zerocarb and only eat meat for a period and get to see how your health really looks when it’s all you consume should be the main driver of our interests in the matter. In the ZC/carnivore community, long timers don’t give a hoot if their beef is grass or grain fed relative to the health outcome. Most are drawn inevitably to mainly beef and within that community there is no [anecdotal] evidence that grass or grain fed has any effective difference on our bottom line health to the point that most choose grain fed for the price.
    It would be interesting to see if how a ZCer would fare on an all fatty fish diet even if it’s all farmed

  28. A trusted fish monger told me that he sells his wild salmon skin on. He removes the skin from his farmed salmon because the skin is a detox organ and is where industrial contamination would accumulate if exposure levels were a concern. That made sense to me.

  29. As some said before me. I strongly advice to not support farmed salmon. For me being Primal and eating Paleo stand for more than getting the right amounts of Omega’s. I care about the environment as well.
    Some quotes from below mentioned article:

    “Many farmed fish are fed largely on wild fish. To produce farmed fish such as salmon, it takes about three times the weight of wild-caught fish. This is not only unsustainable, but adds to the serious welfare concerns about how wild fish are caught and slaughtered,”

    ”Farmed salmon are fed on oil and smaller fish, ground-up feathers, GM yeast, soybeans and chicken fat”

    ”Lepeophtheirus salmonis, or the common salmon louse, now infests nearly half of Scotland’s salmon farms. Last year lice killed thousands of tonnes of farmed fish, caused skin lesions and secondary infections in millions more”

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/01/is-farming-salmon-bad-for-the-environment

    If you cannot afford wild salmon every week/ month, just eat as much as you can afford .

  30. Hey, Mark such a really great article. Farmed salmon may or may not be nutritious for human diets, but it is bad for wild salmon is right or not??

  31. Just to clarify, the orcas do not breed within their pod. The Southern Resident orcas of the Puget Sound live in Matriarchal groups. The orcas leave their group for mating and then return to the pod of their mother. The males in the group are not the parent to any calf in the group. They are endangered because they eat exclusively salmon, which has been in decline and they live in an increasingly congested area (ships, military exercises using sonar, etc.).

  32. awesome to hear, i was staying away from farmed salmon because i too saw some article or video stating how toxic it was. Now after reading this article i’m going to bring back salmon into my weekly meals. Thanks.

  33. Perfect timing! This is something I’ve been wondering about lately. I love salmon, especially raw, but I live in Norway and salmon farming is such big business here that you can’t get hold of anything else it seems.

  34. Thank you for sane and reasonable commentary, Mark. Much appreciated.

  35. Farmed Salmon is TOXIC FRANKENFOOD!!!! They feed it toxic chemicals to get the pink color, a synthetic petroleum based poison added to their feed!

    NEVER EAT FARMED SALMON!!!

  36. Love to hear the balanced perspective on such an awesome food! It would be great to hear advice on buying the highest quality fish in areas where fresh fish is difficult to find.

  37. Salmon contains a specific type of unsaturated fat called omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids lower your risk of dying from heart diseases. Farmed salmon is a great source of Omega-3. So eating farmed salmon is really beneficial. Thanks for sharing its benefits and drawbacks.

  38. Mark – Excellent post! Really appreciate the objectivity. Naturally, my brain now turns to the question of… “Is Non Grass-Fed Beef Worth Eating?” 🙂