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 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid acid) and approximately one third is provided in the form of EPA (eiocosapentaenoic acid). The amounts of DHA and EPA 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:
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (Salmo genus) 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. Farmed salmon now accounts for about 80% of all salmon consumed worldwide, making wild-caught salmon less common in the marketplace. Among wild-caught salmon, there have also become major differences (and varying differences) in habitat quality, making it more difficult to depend on "native habitats" as an indicator of salmon quality.
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.
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.
With respect to salmon quality, we have been impressed with the work of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California. Their website Monterey Bay Seafood Watch is a great place to get up-to-date recommendations for choosing high-quality salmon (and many other seafoods). Also available is their Seafood Watch App.
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). For more on this subject, please see this Q+A.
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.
Since 1946, the U.S. Department of Commerce, through its National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), operates the National Marine Fisheries Service and its Seafood Inspection Program (SIP). In addition, under the Seafood Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Regulation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is charged with the responsible of inspecting fish processing facilities in the U.S. However, since participation in SIP is voluntary, many fish are brought into the U.S. from other countries, and the HACCP fish processing inspection service only has the funding and manpower to inspect approximately 1% of fish products imported into the U.S., many consumers have become concerned about the safety of their fish, including their salmon. Given widespread contamination of marine habitats worldwide, this concern makes sense to us. We encourage consumers of fish to take special care in choosing all fish, including salmon. "Special care" might mean asking more questions to a local fish purveyor or taking extra time to locate high-quality fish. As described earlier in this profile, we recommend a visit to The Monterey Bay Seafood Watch for detailed information on salmon quality. You may also want to consider using their Seafood Watch App.
Salmon, wild Coho, broiled
GI: very low
|vitamin B12||5.67 mcg||236||27.0||excellent|
|vitamin D||511.43 IU||128||14.6||excellent|
|vitamin B3||9.02 mg||56||6.4||very good|
|omega-3 fats||1.32 g||55||6.3||very good|
|protein||26.59 g||53||6.1||very good|
|phosphorus||365.14 mg||52||6.0||very good|
|vitamin B6||0.64 mg||38||4.3||very good|
|pantothenic acid||0.92 mg||18||2.1||good|
Density>=7.6 AND DRI/DV>=10%
Density>=3.4 AND DRI/DV>=5%
Density>=1.5 AND DRI/DV>=2.5%