Salmon…one of the healthiest fish you can eat. It’s loaded with Omega 3 fatty acids–the kind that keeps you healthy by improving your heart, liver, and cell function. If you eat your salmon fresh and wild from the Pacific Ocean, read no further.
However, if you get your salmon from the grocery store, read on.
There is, by law in the US, small print at the bottom of the salmon tag in the grocer’s fish case that reads, “color enhanced through feed”. Pretty vague, I know. I have to admit, I had visions of the salmon’s food containing red M & M’s or Easter-egg red #5 food dye….but that’s not the case.
What is that color?
Let’s start with basics. Some animals get their color, both inside and out, by the things that are contained in their diet, and some animals inherently possess their color as part of their structure. Flamingos are the most notable example of this. The bright pink birds get their beautiful color by the krill, or tiny crustaceans that they eat, while cardinals possess the “red color” of their feathers chemically, in the structure of their feathers. Salmon are one of the fish that possess the red color in their flesh as well as increase the color by the red colored food in their diet. Some other animals that possess the “red coloring” are shrimp, krill, trout, crayfish and lobster. There is one chemical substance that is responsible for the red color in all these creatures: astaxanthin.
Astaxanthin is a phytochemical. That is, it is a naturally occurring chemical in photosynthetic plants. (remember photosynthesis in 9th grade science?…plants use the process of photosynthesis to make their food from CO2 and light).
Now, the salmon that is in most grocery stores comes from the Pacific, and is “farm raised”. This means that there are fish farms that grow fish specifically for the purpose of supplying food stores and restaurants with fresh fish. These fish farms also want to produce great looking fish as well. It has been shown that when consumers are choosing food (be it apples, chicken, or fish) the consumer will most times choose the brighter colored food over a dull colored one. Even if told the dull colored food is more nutritious.
So it makes sense that fish farmers will add color to the salmon’s diet to make their flesh pinker. The color that is added is…you guessed it, astaxanthin. The same substance that they would be eating in the wild to make their flesh pinker. The colorant, when used for fish feed, is synthetically produced, but chemically identical to the astaxanthin occurring in nature. The US FDA approved astaxanthin as an additive for fish feed in 2009. Not how nature intended, but not as bad as the red food dye #5.
Astaxanthin for human consumption
The colorant astaxanthin is thought to be a beneficial and powerful antioxidant in and of itself for human consumption. So much so, that people are taking it in capsule form for benefits of the heart, and joints.
If you eat processed foods, you are probably eating astaxanthin without even knowing it. Many candies, most eggs, fruit and vegetable juices, cereals, baked goods, (and the list goes on and on) contain astaxanthin known as their “given brand names” (depending on the company producing them)
It is also worth noting that there are several varieties of salmon that produce different looking flesh. Some are naturally redder than others. The Alaskan sockeye salmon has an intense red color, higher Omega 3 and less dense flesh than the pink or chinook salmon. The less common varieties are usually wild caught, not farm raised, but check the lables.
Truly healthy salmon
While it is true, that wild salmon is obviously better and healthier in many ways over farm raised salmon, the “color enhancing” is not one of those reasons.
Wild salmon are not kept in small tanks and are not fed specific manufactured food. Just like free-range chickens are “naturally healthier”, the wild salmon, swimming free and eating fresh food are also “naturally healthier”, and believe it or not, the farm raised salmon contain far more environmental contaminants and disease than the wild and farm raised are often sicker fish with more incidence of parasites and other illnesses.
Canned salmon is almost always wild, and a good, less expensive choice when it does not contain any added preservatives or color. (read your labels!)
What I do:
When I ate fish, I tried to choose wild salmon. Wild is just better. As far as eating animal products, I know now that I can get my Omega-3 fatty acids just fine from foods like chia seeds, walnuts, and greens without eating animal protein. But the choice is yours.
I loved Trident’s product “Salmon Burgers” which use wild salmon and natural ingredients and taste amazing! I got mine at Costco. Trident is also a family owned company that practices good wild harvesting techniques that don’t endanger the supply.
I welcome your comments as discussion can only increase knowledge.
Thanks for reading and live healthy!