Canned salmon is catching on with foodies; can families be lured in?

Delicate salmon cakes on a white plate with a lemon wedge

Salmon: Foodies love it, nutritionists love it, health nuts love it. Yet dashing out to buy a fillet of sockeye plucked from Alaska’s Bristol Bay fishery can be inconvenient and pricey. In mid-September, Whole Foods near Dallas was telling shoppers that they’d have to wait a few more weeks for new shipments. The closest alternative was previously frozen wild-caught King Salmon for $30 per pound.

Yet in a different aisle at the same store, you could buy wild-caught sockeye—never frozen—for a mere $21 per pound. How? It was packed in a can.

Foodies have noticed. And now some specialty-food firms are doing for canned salmon what microbreweries have done for canned India Pale Ale. You can buy sustainably caught wild sockeye in a can that could just as easily have been headed for the fresh-seafood counter. You can get it smoked, too. In fact, one Seattle company even packs Alderwood Smoked King Salmon in cans and sells them to the salmon-crazed over the internet.

Should you consider steering clear of the seafood counter this week and grabbing a few tins of salmon? Actually there are lots of good reasons you should. Here are seven of them.

Canned salmon is packed with Omega-3 fatty acids. Many large fish are valued for their high levels of DHA and EPA, two fatty acids that play a crucial role in neurological health and general growth and development. Infants who don’t receive enough fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at higher risk for developing eye and nerve problems.

Scientists believe that the Omega-3s in seafood can make kids smarter, lower your risk of chronic disease — heart disease, diabetes and others — as you age and help fight a host of other conditions such as osteoporosis and dryness of the eyes and skin. They may be beneficial in people with certain mood disorders. For parents who are concerned about methlymercury, a neurotoxin that builds up in fish’s tissues, data suggest that most commonly eaten fish, including salmon, do not pose a risk when consumed in the recommended quantities.

Your body can’t make Omega-3 fatty acids on its own, but they’re plentiful in salmon — canned or otherwise. Both the American Heart Association and the United States Department of Agriculture recommend that adults and children consume fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon and tuna, at least twice a week.

Canned salmon is full of lean protein and other nutrients. Salmon is a protein powerhouse, supplying up to 20 grams per 3-ounce serving with only about 5 grams of fat or less along for the ride. We need protein for virtually every cellular process, and because it takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, it keeps those who eat it feeling full for longer—a boon, say many nutritionists, for anyone trying to lose weight.

And if you don’t object to buying canned salmon that still has the bones in it, they’re rich in calcium—up to nearly 20 percent the recommended daily allowance in a 3-ounce serving.

Canned salmon is way more affordable. In a Nielsen poll, people who acknowledged that they didn’t consume the recommended amount of fish often said it was because fish was too expensive. They may be shopping in the wrong aisle.

Salmon in cans is arguably an even better deal than canned tuna, especially once you factor in salmon’s superior nutritional value. The FDA said in 2014 that canned light tuna was the cheapest option at $3.20 per pound, compared with $4.16 per pound for canned salmon. (The FDA wasn’t measuring the boneless varieties.) But canned salmon was far more affordable than the fresh fillets sold at the seafood counter: Those cost $7.20 per pound on average.

The FDA calculated that consuming the recommended amount of salmon for a pregnant woman for maximum benefit to her fetus would cost just $2.61 a week if she opted for canned. (The cost for fresh salmon was estimated to be $4.52 per week.)

Yet canned salmon trails canned tuna in sales. Per capita sales of canned tuna were 2.3 pounds in 2013, vs. 0.4 pounds for canned salmon, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Shelf-stable tuna accounted for 28.7 percent of all U.S. seafood sales in 2010, vs. just 3.62% for canned salmon. The reason for this disparity?

“The U.S. tends to be a more price-sensitive market when it comes to canned seafood,” says Alexa Tonkovich, executive director at Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, citing a report by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency. “Prices vary widely depending on brands and product specs, but canned pink salmon and tuna can be on par in terms of price per ounce,” Tonkovich says.

Can size plays a role, too. Tuna is widely available in smaller cans, which have a lower unit price. Shrinking the can size for salmon is cost-prohibitive,says Tonkovich, and it decreases the amount of fish that plants can process. “There’s also inertia at play,” she says. “A lot of people grew up eating canned tuna, so they are more familiar with that vs. canned salmon.”

There are a host of other factors that make canned salmon cheaper than fresh: the different species of salmon, the cost of flying fresh-caught, refrigerated fish from the boat to the freezer counter, and so on. And as with so many canned foods, salmon in a can is cheaper because it creates exponentially less waste. Because can linings keep food safe and fresh for years, retailers don’t have to pass on the cost of what goes bad before they can sell it.

Canned salmon doesn’t go to waste. The protective power of cans helps after you buy canned fish, too. Ever spent a small fortune on the perfect cut of Copper River wild caught King salmon at Whole Foods, only to have fate derail your dinner plans? A day or two later, you either have to risk eating the possibly rotten fish, or toss it—along with your food budget—into the garbage.

This isn’t a problem with canned fish, which lasts a long time before going bad—up to five years if stored properly, in fact. And if you don’t use a whole can? The salmon will keep in a refrigerated airtight container for three or four days.

(Side note: If you really want to nerd out on canned food’s waste-fighting powers, see our deep dive on the subject here.)

You can get canned salmon anywhere. If you prefer the taste of fresh fish, you may be hard-pressed to find it in smaller towns and grocery stores. So look in the canned-goods aisle. This is especially true in remote and rural areas, the FDA found. In a survey in South Carolina’s Orangeburg County, for example, 100 percent of supermarkets and grocery stores reported selling canned seafood, surpassing the availability of fresh seafood. A separate survey of U.S. food outlets in the North Central Region found that 26 percent of all surveyed rural supermarkets sold only prepackaged seafood. 

Canned salmon is sustainable. In an FDA assessment of commercial fish, the agency noted a common concern among salmon-wary consumers about species depletion and habitat destruction. Its conclusion:

[F]arm-raised and wild versions of the same species are generally nutritionally similar, safe, and complement each other to meet demand for seafood now and moving forward.

You can eat or cook straight from the can. Canned salmon is already cooked, making it an easy go-to main dish at a picnic or for time-strapped stressed-out professionals eating at their desks. And even if you’re planning a fancy dinner—say, salmon burgers with soy mayo and sesame slaw—it’s easier to start with canned salmon.

Canned salmon is safe. Last week the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recalled smoked salmon that had been sold in Ontario, because it may have been contaminated with listeria. While buying and handling fresh fish, or other meats, always comes with health risks, buying canned foods provides a far greater level of security. The FDA hasn’t reported a single instance of food-borne illness resulting from faulty cans in 39 years.

Oh, and by the way, canned salmon pairs beautifully with another aluminum-sheathed marvel: canned chardonnay.


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Why Farmers’ Market Might Want To Add A Table Of Canned Foods