Fish Faceoff: Wild Salmon vs. Farmed Salmon

Debating the health benefits and risks
two raw salmon steaks

Every trip to the grocery store involves dilemmas. Which bread do you buy? Are the chickens that laid these eggs really cage-free?

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One of the biggest dilemmas comes at the seafood counter. You know fish such as salmon and trout provide many health benefits and contain lots of omega-3 fatty acids, which your body can’t make itself. The only way to get them is through your diet — and the American Heart Association recommends we eat two servings of fish each week (a total of 6 to 8 ounces). But you’ve also heard alarming stories about contaminants and risks.

What is a shopper to do?

We asked registered dietitian Andrea Dunn, RD, for the nutritional breakdown on these popular fish choices.

Years of research and education materials have helped consumers, but the debate lingers on. Farmed fish has become more common as the world’s fish stocks have declined — and our demand for tasty fish hasn’t. Do you risk the downsides of farmed fish (contaminants and effects on health) for the perks (source of omega-3 fatty acids, price, availability and, to some, better taste)?

To help you choose, use this detailed look at the health benefits and risks of farmed salmon versus wild salmon.

Nutritional content

There are some key nutritional differences between wild and farmed salmon, according to USDA data. A small fillet of wild salmon has 131 fewer calories and half the fat content of the same amount of farmed salmon. And although farmed salmon may have slightly more omega-3 fatty acids, it also has 20.5% more saturated fat content — and that’s fat you do not want.

The bottom line: Wild salmon gets the edge for having fewer calories and less saturated fat.

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Risky pollutants

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs for short) sound dangerous. They are.

POPs have been linked to several diseases, including type 2 diabetes and obesity. Evidence suggests obesity might be even more of a risk factor for diabetes when POPs are present in your body. And specific types of POPs increase the risk of stroke in women.

Why does this matter? Because PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl, which is one type of POP) levels are five to 10 times higher in farmed fish than in wild fish.

The bottom line: Wild salmon wins here, hands down.

Cancer-causing chemicals

In the wild vs. farmed debate, this is a tricky issue.

Although both offer omega-3 fatty acids, eating large amounts of either type of fish to get their full benefits could expose you to cancer-causing chemicals. These chemicals come from the potentially polluted water fish swim in. That’s why your omega-3 sources need to be varied, with fish as only one piece of the puzzle.

However, one study does conclude that “The benefit-risk ratio for carcinogens and noncarcinogens is significantly greater for wild Pacific salmon than for farmed Atlantic salmon.”

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The bottom line: Both wild and farmed salmon come with risk if eaten in large quantities. But eaten in moderation, most studies conclude wild salmon is safer.

Unsafe contaminants

In recent studies contaminants in farmed salmon were generally higher than in wild salmon. Contaminants were below the approved U.S. Food and Drug Administration tolerance levels, but they still exceeded the levels considered safe “for frequent consumption” by the Environmental Protection Agency. Likewise, other research suggests that children, women of child-bearing age and pregnant women should choose wild salmon — or other sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

The bottom line: Both wild and farmed salmon contain contaminants, but wild salmon has lower levels and is considered safer overall.

Concern about antibiotics

This was a big source of debate in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Chilean salmon imports to Japan had higher antibiotic amounts than allowed under regulations. The concern: Too much exposure to antibiotics could lead to resistance to their effects. Antibiotic use in farmed fish is said to have been reduced, but it’s unclear just how much use is still occurring.

The bottom line: Farmed salmon comes with uncertainty about antibiotic use. Wild salmon does not.

Both farmed and wild salmon have nutrients we all need. But it’s becoming clearer that the risks associated with farmed fish are higher than concerns about wild fish. If you want to get the many health benefits fish such as salmon provide, your best bet is to keep it wild.

To further decrease contaminants and pollutants, Dunn suggests removing the skin (and associated fat, lateral line, and belly flap) before eating either type of salmon.

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