All About Salmon

Salmon Nutrition, Health Benefits, Cooking, Farmed vs. Wild

salmon with vegetables and cream sauce
Salmon with Vegetables and Cream Sauce. Joff Lee/Photolibrary/Getty Images

There are so many wonderful things about salmon that it’s hard to know where to start.

It’s a fish which even people who don’t like fish (e.g., my husband) can enjoy. It’s firm enough to grill, can be cooked in many different ways, and doesn’t dry out as easily as many other fish. It comes fresh, frozen, smoked, and canned. Wild salmon can be eaten without fear of excess contaminants or mercury, and it has a very high nutrient profile, including the highly-prized omega-3 fatty acids.

What’s not to like?

Salmon Nutrition

Salmon is a highly nutritious food. Of course, it is high in protein, and the “good fats." But did you know that a 4 oz serving of wild salmon provides a full day’s requirement of vitamin D? It is one of the few foods that can make that claim. That same piece of fish contains over half of the necessary B12, niacin, and selenium, and is an excellent source of B6 and magnesium. Canned salmon also contains large amounts of calcium (due to the bones of the fish).

Health Benefits of Salmon

People who eat fish seem to be protected from a host of conditions. Some of this is probably due to the omega-3 fats, but there may be other benefits apart from this. The science isn’t clear yet as to all the reasons why eating fish (particularly fatty fish such as salmon) seems to be so darned good for us.

Omega-3 fats seem to primarily work through reducing inflammation in our bodies.

Inflammation is turning out to be at the base of many health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancers and arthritis. Omega-3’s also help prevent the blood clots which cause many strokes.

An exciting, fairly recent development is the realization that omega-3 fats have potential to help slow cognitive problems such as Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline.

Also, people who have sufficient levels of omega-3’s (especially as compared to omega-6 fats) seem to have less depression and suicide risk, as well as less aggression -- in one study, giving prison inmates this type of fat (plus vitamins) reduced aggressive behavior by a third in a mere two weeks.

Farmed vs. Wild Salmon

There is somewhat of a controversy about eating wild vs. farmed salmon. The issues fall into three main categories:

Contamination: Most of the salmon available for human consumption today is farmed, but several independent studies have found concentrations of PCBs and other contaminants at levels of up to 10 times higher in farmed salmon. In Europe, there have even been situations where farmed fished tested at high levels of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. These contaminants seem to be getting to the fish through the feed, which become concentrated in the oil of the salmon.

Farmed salmon in the U.S. are regulated through the USDA and FDA, which allows much higher levels of these contaminants than are allowed than with wild salmon, which is regulated by the EPA.

A common argument about this is that the EPA has reviewed the scientific literature and made new recommendations much more recently than the FDA. FDA regulations have not been updated since 1984, when people in the U.S. were eating much less salmon and other fish.

Omega-3’s: Farmed fish is fattier -- much as farm animals are “fattened up," the same is true of salmon. This means that there are higher levels of omega-3 fats. But there are caveats regarding this:

  1. Because of the contaminants, it is often recommended that farmed salmon be cooked in ways that reduce the fat content.
  2. New feeds are being developed with less fish meal in them and more plant foods. In general, the more plant-based ingredients, the lower the level of omega-3 fats in the salmon. (Note that in the ocean, salmon are carnivores: they eat no plants at all.)
  3. Even today, the percentage of omega-3 fats is lower in farmed salmon, apparently because of the soybean, wheat, etc., in the meal fed to them.

But there’s good news. Both wild and farmed salmon have low levels of mercury. Also, salmon is not being over-fished – especially salmon from Alaska, where they carefully manage the fisheries, is in good shape.

Additional Note: Most canned salmon is wild.


Sublette, ME, and Hibbeln, JR, et al. "Omega-3 polyunsaturated essential Fatty Acid status as a predictor of future suicide risk." American Journal of Psychiatry 163. (2006):1100-2.

Gesch, Bernard and Hammond, Sean, et al. "Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners." The British Journal of Psychiatry 181: 22-28 (2002)

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