What’s New and Beneficial about Salmon?

Salmon Fillets CREDIT AquaBounty

 What’s New and Beneficial about Salmon

  • With so much focus on the amazing omega-3 benefits of salmon, other unique health benefits from salmon may have been inadvertently overlooked. One fascinating new area of health benefits involves the protein and amino acid content of salmon. Several recent studies have found that salmon contains small bioactive protein molecules (called bioactive peptides) that may provide special support for joint cartilage, insulin effectiveness, and control of inflammation in the digestive tract. One particular bioactive peptide called calcitonin (sCT) has been of special interest in these studies. The reason is because a human form of calcitonin is made by the thyroid gland, and we know that it is a key hormone for helping regulate and stabilize the balance of collagen and minerals in the bone and surrounding tissue. As researchers learn more and more about salmon peptides—including sCT—we expect to see more and more potential health benefits discovered related to inflammation, including inflammation of the joints.
  • Even though contamination with mercury, pesticides, and persistent organic pollutants (POPS) has become a widespread problem in salmon habitats and with the quality of salmon itself, there are still salmon runs that pose relatively low risk in terms of contaminants. Leading this low-risk category for wild-caught salmon are Alaskan salmon. Southeast Alaskan chum, sockeye, coho, pink, and chinook salmon, together with Kodiak coho, pink, and chum salmon have all been evaluated for contaminant consumption risk involving many POPs (including dioxins, dioxin-like compounds, or DLCs, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs) and have been found to be the lowest risk category of wild-caught salmon for regular consumption. This lower contamination risk amongst all wild-caught salmon is one of the reasons we recommend selection of wild-caught Alaskan salmon as a salmon of choice. (While some salmon runs from British Columbia and the U.S. West Coast also stand out as lower risk in terms of contaminants, we do not feel enthusiastic about recommending them for consumption due to the more precarious sustainability of these salmon runs.)
  • Along with lower risk of contamination from wild-caught Alaskan salmon, we like what experts are saying about the greater sustainability of Alaskan salmon runs. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California has recently determined Alaskan salmon to be the only low-risk salmon in terms of four sustainability criteria: the inherent vulnerability of the fish, the effects of fishing on the overall habitat, the status of wild stocks, and the nature of the by-catch (the other types of fish that are caught unintentionally during salmon fishing).
  • Like other seafood, salmon is still not covered under regulations issued by the U.S. National Organics Program (NOP). However, the National Organics Standards Board has officially adopted recommendations for seafood (including salmon) and government officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have plans to implement these new regulations by adding them to the National List and issuing rules for compliance. Recommendations from the NOSB currently include:
    • organic certification of farmed salmon that meet certain standards
    • no certification of any wild-caught salmon
    • allowance of up to 25% fish oil and fish meal from wild-caught fish in the feeding of farmed organic salmon
    • permitted use of net pens and inland containment facilities

    All aspects of the NOSB recommendations remain controversial. The limitation of organic certification to farmed salmon appears to have been related to the NOSB’s desire for certainty about compliance of salmon production with organic regulations as well as its belief that verification of compliance for wild-caught salmon would simply not be possible. However, many advocates of sustainable food argue that farming creates an unnatural habitat for fish and is likely to compromise fish quality. Since organic regulations prohibit the use of animal by-products in the feeding of land animals (like cows or chickens), this area of certification for farmed fish has been equally controversial. When salmon migrate out to sea, many different types of fish are included in their natural diet. From this perspective, it would seem appropriate to allow the feeding of fish oil and fish meal from wild-caught fish to farmed organic salmon. However, at the same time, prohibited feeding of non-organic animal by-products to cows, chickens, and other land animals has played an important role in assuring organic quality. When animals are being raised for organic food, it’s obvious that non-organic animal by-products in their diet increase risk of contamination.

    While we welcome the idea of certification standards for organic seafood, we aren’t convinced that the current NOSB recommendations make good sense. For this reason, if the current recommendations are implemented into law, we will continue to recommend selection of wild-caught Alaskan salmon as a salmon of choice, even over certified organic, farm-raised salmon. However, if changes are made in the current NOSB recommendations, we’ll re-evaluate your best chances of getting optimal nourishment from any salmon that you decide to include in your meal plan.

Ichthyology

Health Benefits

BENEFITS RELATED TO OMEGA-3 CONTENT

Salmon has earned its research reputation as a health-supportive food based largely on its unusual omega-3 fatty acid content. It’s very common for 4 ounces of baked or broiled salmon to contain at least 2 grams of omega-3 fats—more than the average U.S. adult gets from all food over the course of several days. (If we consider 4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids to be a daily goal for a person consuming a 2,000 calorie diet—based upon recommendations from the 1999 Workshop on the Essentiality of and Recommended Dietary Intakes (RDI) for Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—then this would equal about 50% of this goal. For more on this, see our write-up on omega-3s.)  

About half of this omega-3 fat is provided in the form of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and a slightly lower amount is provided in the form of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The amounts of EPA and DHA contained in salmon are unusual among commonly-eaten foods. In addition to this high concentration of omega-3 fats is the relatively small amount of omega-6 fats in salmon and its outstanding ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. Four ounces of salmon will typically contain less than 1/2 gram of omega-6 fat, for an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of approximately 5.5 to 1. In the average U.S. diet, this ratio has repeatedly been shown to be lop-sided in the opposite direction, with at least 4-5 times as much omega-6 fat as omega-3 fat, and in some studies, up to 12-20 times more. In our World’s Healthiest Foods rating system for food, only two foods provide more omega-3s per standard serving than salmon. Those two foods are walnuts and flaxseeds. Both of these plant foods are outstanding sources of omega-3s! However, they cannot be compared on an equal basis to salmon because their omega-3 fats come in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) rather than EPA or DHA.

The widely-studied benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are documented in our Omega-3 Fatty Acids profile in the Essential Nutrients section of our website. In general, these benefits involve improved control of the body’s inflammatory processes, better overall cell function, improved transfer of information between the body’s cells, and better brain function. When researchers look specifically at intake of omega-3-containing fish like salmon, they find health support in all of the above areas. However, some areas of omega-3 support are what we would call “standout” areas. These areas include:

Cardiovascular Benefits

Intake of fish rich in omega-3 fat (including salmon) is associated with decreased risk of numerous cardiovascular problems, including: heart attack, stroke, heart arrhythmia, high blood pressure, and high triglycerides in the blood. Intake of omega-3-containing fish is also associated with improved metabolic markers for cardiovascular disease. Some cardiovascular benefits from omega-3 fat in fish like salmon start with only one omega-3 fish meal per week. Most of the benefits, however, start to show up in research studies with somewhat higher fish intake, along the lines of 2-3 times per week. In most studies, one serving of fish is approximately 6 ounces. Studies of fish intake and cardiovascular risk sometimes measure benefits against total grams of omega-3 fats obtained in the daily diet. In many of these studies, a daily minimum of 2 grams of omega-3s is required for measurable cardiovascular protection. (Remember that this 2-gram amount is the amount contained in approximately 4 ounces of cooked salmon.)

Improved Mood and Cognition

Many researchers consider DHA to be the most important fat found in the human brain, and the unusual concentration of this omega-3 fatty acid in salmon helps explain the research-documented benefits of salmon and omega-3 fish intake for thinking and the decreased risk of certain brain-related problems that accompanies omega-3 fish consumption. Intake of omega-3s and omega-3 containing fish is associated with decreased risk of depression, decreased risk of hostility in some studies of teenagers, and decreased risk of cognitive decline in older persons. Some studies have shown an association between IQ and omega-3 intake, and also between IQ and intake of omega-3 fish.

Especially interesting in this area of fish intake, DHA, and brain function is the relatively recent discovery of protectins. Protectins are special compounds made from DHA and preliminary research studies have shown them to have a potentially important role as anti-inflammatory regulatory molecules, especially when produced by nerve tissue. (When protectins are produced by nerve tissue, they are typically called “neuroprotectins.”) Researchers have speculated that at least some of the brain-related benefits from omega-3 fish intake may be due to conversion of the DHA in these fish to protectins that can help prevent excessive inflammation.

Joint Protection

One fascinating area of omega-3 and omega-3 fish research has involved the joints. Research on fish intake and joint protection has shown that EPA from fish like salmon can be converted by the body into three types of closely-related compounds that work to prevent unwanted inflammation. One group of compounds are the series 3 prostaglandins. A second type are the series 3 thromboxanes. A third and more recently discovered type are the resolvins. All of these omega-3 fat derivatives are able to help prevent excessive and unwanted inflammation. What’s especially interesting about salmon, however, is that it combines these anti-inflammatory benefits that are related to omega-3 content with anti-inflammatory benefits that are related not to fat but to protein. Recent studies demonstrate the presence of small bioactive protein molecules (called bioactive peptides) in salmon that may provide special support for joint cartilage (as well as other types of tissue). One particular bioactive peptide called calcitonin has been of special interest in these studies, because a human form of calcitonin is made in the human body by the thyroid gland, and we know that it is a key hormone for helping regulate and stabilize the balance of collagen and minerals in the bone and surrounding tissue. Salmon peptides—including calcitonin (sCT)—may join forces with salmon’s omega-3 molecules to provide unique anti-inflammatory benefits for the joints

Eye Benefits

Omega-3 intake and consumption of omega-3 fish has been associated with decreased risk of two eye-related problems: macular degeneration and chronic dry eye. In the case of macular degeneration (a chronic eye problem in which material in the center of the retina on the back of the eyeball begins to deteriorate and cause loss of vision), two fish servings per week is the amount that has been shown to significantly decrease risk. For decreased risk of chronic dry eye, a somewhat higher amount of omega-3 fish intake (2-4 servings per week) was the minimum amount needed, with 5-6 weekly servings showing even greater reduction of risk.

Like brain studies on omega-3 fish intake, dry eye studies have started to look specifically at neuroprotectins made from DHA in salmon and other omega-3 fish. These omega-3 derived molecules may help prevent chronic dry eye by lowering background levels of inflammation in the eye.

Decreased Cancer Risk

Intake of fish rich in omega-3 fat is also associated with decreased risk for several types of cancer. These cancer types include colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer. Some of the strongest findings for decreased cancer risk following regular intake of omega-3 fish involve the blood cell or lymph cell-related cancers including leukemia, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Similar to cardiovascular studies, cancer risk studies typically begin to show measurable benefits when omega-3 fish are consumed at least once per week.

Benefits Related to Protein and Amino Acid Content

The outstanding omega-3 benefits of salmon are not this food’s only claim to unique health support. One intriguing new area of health benefits for salmon involves the protein and amino acid content of this fish. Several recent studies have found that salmon contains small bioactive protein molecules (called bioactive peptides) that may provide special support for joint cartilage, insulin effectiveness, and control of inflammation in the digestive tract. We’ve seen recent studies, for example, on salmon peptides and treatment of ulcerative colitis. We also have to wonder whether intake of salmon peptides may be related to the reduced risk of colorectal cancer that is associated with consumption of this food. One particular bioactive peptide called calcitonin has been of special interest in these salmon and amino acid studies. The human body makes its own human form of calcitonin (through a process which takes place in the thyroid gland), and we know that calcitonin is a key hormone for helping regulate and stabilize the balance of collagen and minerals in the bone and surrounding tissue. As researchers learn more and more about salmon peptides—including calcitonin (sCT), and its relationship to human calcitonin—we expect to see more and more of salmon’s potential.

Benefits Related to Selenium

Another nutrient concentrated in salmon worthy of special mention is selenium. In terms of absolute selenium amount, salmon ranks in our WHFoods top 10, and four ounces provide about 62% of the Daily Value (DV) for this mineral. Strong selenium intake is associated with decreased risk of joint inflammation, and also with prevention of certain types of cancer, including colorectal cancer. As an antioxidant nutrient, selenium has also been shown to be especially important in cardiovascular protection through maintenance of the molecule glutathione. Each of these selenium-related benefits overlaps with other spotlight areas for salmon as a health-supportive food.

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Description

With exceptional nutritional value due to their rich concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is a favorite among fish lovers and enjoyed even by those who are not always fond of fish. Salmon are incredible fish sometimes traveling thousands of miles throughout their life cycle and within two to five years returning to the very location where they were born to spawn and die. The specific characteristics and life cycles of salmon vary with each species. (For example, king salmon has a life cycle of approximately 4-6 years, sockeye, 4-6 years, and silver 3-4 years.)

A good portion of salmon can be classified either as Pacific (Oncorhynchus genus) or Atlantic (Salmogenus) salmon, according to the ocean in which they are found. There is just one native species of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), while there are many species of Pacific salmon including chinook (or king), sockeye (or red), coho (or silver), pink, and chum. Norwegian salmon, a popular type of salmon often offered on restaurant menus, is actually Atlantic salmon that is farm-raised in Norway. The flesh of salmon ranges in color from pink to red to orange with some varieties richer in important omega-3 fatty acids than others. For example, chinook and sockeye are fattier fish than pink and chum and contain great amounts of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

The native habitats of Atlantic and Pacific salmon as described above no longer characterize most of salmon consumed in the United States or in many other countries. Because farmed salmon now accounts for about 80% of all salmon consumed worldwide, it is becoming harder and harder to find wild-caught salmon that live in their native habitat.

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History

People have been enjoying salmon as a food ever since this beautiful fish appeared in the Earth’s waters. Like other fish, in addition to being consumed in fresh form, preservation techniques such as smoking or salting were used to preserve the salmon. Smoked salmon is still considered traditional fare in many cuisines throughout the world.

Since 1980, global salmon production has increased over 400% in volume, with over 2,400,000 metric tons of salmon being produced in 2004 compared with less than 600,000 metric tons in 1980. Most of this increase has come from production of farmed salmon. (The amount of farmed salmon in today’s marketplace is more than 1,000,000 metric tons greater than it was in 1980.) Farmed salmon now accounts for more than 80% of the world’s salmon supply. Within this changing salmon marketplace, North American wild salmon, which used to account for about half of the world’s wild salmon supply, now only accounts for about 15%. The farming of salmon has increased dramatically in Europe, and Japan and Russia each currently farm about 500,000 tons of salmon.

The trend toward greatly increased salmon farming has been an ongoing concern to many researchers who study the ecological impact of farmed salmon, including the impact on wild salmon populations. Salmon farming has also concerned many researchers from a health standpoint. Farmed salmon—when raised in a non-sustainable way and without regard for the organic standards that exist in some countries outside the U.S.—have repeatedly been found to have measurable and undesirable amounts of numerous contaminants. Some researchers have raised the question of whether sustainable salmon farming is even possible, given the natural habits of salmon and the unique habitats that have historically supported their vitality.

How to Select and Store

Salmon is sold in many different forms. Fresh salmon is available whole or in steak or fillet form. Salmon is also available frozen, canned, dried or smoked. Based on a combination of sustainability and potential contamination concerns, we recommend that you select wild-caught Alaskan salmon above all other forms of salmon currently available in the marketplace. If you cannot find wild-caught Alaskan salmon in your local grocery in fresh or frozen form, we recommend that you select wild-caught Alaskan salmon in canned form as a next best alternative.

With respect to potential contamination, we base our Alaskan salmon recommendation on recent research placing these salmon at the top of the low-risk list for potential contaminants, including pesticides, and persistent organic pollutants (POPS). Southeast Alaskan chum, sockeye, coho, pink, and chinook salmon, together with Kodiak coho, pink and chum salmon have all been evaluated for contaminant consumption risk involving many POPs (including dioxins, dioxin-like compounds (DLCs) and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs) and have been found to be the lowest risk category of wild-caught salmon for regular consumption.

With respect to sustainability, we have been impressed with the work of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California and its establishment of Alaskan salmon as the only low-risk salmon in terms of four sustainability criteria: the inherent vulnerability of the fish, the effects of fishing on the overall habitat, the status of wild stocks, and the nature of the by-catch (fish other than salmon that are caught unintentionally during salmon fishing). There is one exception to this higher sustainability profile of Alaskan salmon, however, and that exception involves the by-catch related to wild-caught Alaskan chinook. With respect to by-catch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has placed Alaskan chinook salmon in a moderate versus low-risk category in terms of sustainability. For this reason, you may want to choose other species of Alaskan salmon (like chum or coho or sockeye or pink) for the lowest sustainability risk.

Sustainability issues related to the selection of non-Alaskan salmon have become more and more apparent, especially with respect to U.S. West Coast salmon. In 2008 and for the first time in its history, the National Marine Fisheries Service shut down the U.S. West Coast ocean salmon fishing season due to the large drop in numbers of chinook salmon that were returning to the Sacramento River in California. Whereas 775,000 salmon had returned to this river to spawn in 2002, by 2008 the number of salmon expected to return had dropped dramatically. The Fisheries Service had set a target spawning goal of 122,000-180,000 for the Sacramento River chinook. However, at the time when the fishing season was shut down in 2008, only 54,000 had actually returned. Scientists believe that the loss of natural habitat in the San Francisco Delta is playing a role in the jeopardized sustainability of the Sacramento River chinook salmon run and point to a need for habitat restoration in this context.

Just as with any seafood, it is best to purchase salmon from a store that has a good reputation for having a fresh supply of fish. Get to know a fishmonger (person who sells the fish) at your grocery store, so you can have a trusted resource from whom you can purchase your fish.

Fresh whole salmon should be displayed buried in ice, while fillets and steaks should be placed on top of the ice. If you are purchasing a whole fish and want to eat the skin, have the salmon scaled.

Smell is a good indicator of freshness. Since a slightly “off” smell cannot be detected through plastic, if you have the option, purchase displayed fish as opposed to pieces that are prepackaged. Once the fishmonger wraps and hands you the fish that you have selected, smell it through the paper wrapping and return it if it does not smell right.

While smoked salmon is popular, we don’t believe it to be as healthful as fresh or canned salmon. That’s because in addition to having less omega-3s than non-smoked fish, smoked fish may contain toxic substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

When storing all types of seafood, including salmon, it is important to keep it cold since fish is very sensitive to temperature. Therefore, after purchasing salmon or other fish, make sure to return it to a refrigerator as soon as possible. If the fish is going to accompany you during a day full of errands, keep a cooler in the car where you can place the salmon to make sure it stays cold and does not spoil.

The temperature of most refrigerators is slightly warmer than ideal for storing fish. Therefore, to ensure maximum freshness and quality, it is important to use special storage methods to create the optimal temperature for holding the fish. One of the easiest ways to do this is to place salmon, which has been well wrapped, in a baking dish filled with ice. The baking dish and fish should then be placed on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, which is its coolest area. Replenish ice one or two times per day.

The length of time that salmon can stay fresh stored this way depends upon how fresh it is, i.e. when it was caught. Fish that was caught the day before you purchased it can be stored for about four days, while fish that was caught the week before can only be stored for about one or two days.

You can extend the shelf life of salmon by freezing it. To do so, wrap it well in plastic and place it in the coldest part of the freezer where it will keep for about two to three weeks.

Tips for Preparing and Cooking

Tips for Preparing Salmon

Try to buy a whole salmon side or filet that is from the thickest part of the fish. For taste and texture reasons, many people prefer to remove the skin of the salmon. We definitely recommend skin removal if you are preparing wild-caught salmon other than Alaskan salmon or if you are preparing farmed salmon that is not certified organic. Our reason for skin removal in these circumstances is reduction of contaminant risk. Research has shown the skin of the salmon to contain measurable amounts of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) when salmon swim in contaminated waters. If you are preparing certified organic farmed salmon or wild-caught Alaskan salmon, however, you may want to leave the skin intact since it contains health supportive nutrients, including peptides with anti-inflammatory potential.

The Healthiest Way of Cooking Salmon

The best ways to cook salmon is by using methods that will keep it moist and tender. Salmon can be easily overcooked and become dry, so be sure to watch your cooking times.

One of our favorite ways to prepare salmon is using our “Quick Broil” method. Preheat the broiler on high and place an all stainless steel skillet (be sure the handle is also stainless steel) or cast iron pan under the heat for about 10 minutes to get it very hot. Place salmon on hot pan and broil for 7-10 minutes, depending on thickness. You do not need to turn the salmon. While grilled salmon tastes great, make sure it does not burn. It is best to grill salmon on an area without a direct flame. Extra care should be taken when grilling, as burning can damage nutrients and create free radicals that can be harmful to your health.

How to Enjoy

A Few Quick Serving Ideas

  • Combine left-over cold salmon with greens and vegetables for a delicious salad.
  • Serve seared, or broiled salmon over whole wheat pasta. Top with a sauce made with olive oil, dill weed, lemon peel, scallions and black pepper. Look for our healthy methods of Stovetop Searing and Quick Broiling.
  • Quick Broil salmon and top with a honey mustard sauce.

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