Canned Tuna Vs Canned Salmon: Which Pantry Protein Is Healthier?

Photo: Getty Images / Daniel Grizelj
Besides canned black beans or chickpeas, one of the OG pantry heros has to be canned fish. Not only does it have a long shelf life, but also it’s inexpensive and packed with nutrition, like healthy fats and protein.

Yet while we often think of canned tuna as a go-to, canned salmon rarely gets much love. It has a starring role literally everywhere else in the healthy eating world, but in a can? Not so much.

But consider that salmon is one of the healthiest foods (and a perennial expert favorite), should we all be ditching canned tuna in favor of canned salmon? If you are deciding which can to open, here's what dietitian Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD, wants you to know about the canned tuna vs canned salmon debate.

Canned tuna vs canned salmon: Which one is healthier?

The short version: They're both *almost* equivalently healthy. “The two are very similar when it comes to nutrition, with canned salmon containing just two more grams of protein per serving," Michalczyk says, along with a bit more calories and fat.

100 grams of canned tuna packed in water contains:

  • 86 calories
  • 19 grams protein
  • 1 grams fat (0.2 grams sat fat)
  • 0 grams carbohydrates
  • 0 grams fiber
  • 247 milligrams sodium

Meanwhile, here's what you get in an equivalent amount of canned salmon:

  • 137 calories
  • 21 grams protein
  • 5 grams fat (1 gram sat fat)
  • 0 grams carbohydrates
  • 0 grams fiber
  • 403 milligrams sodium

The two canned fish are also comparable nutrition-wise to their fresh and frozen counterparts, so no need to stress about getting your food from a can. “You're not giving up nutrition when opting for canned,” Michalczyk says. (The current times demand it, anyways!)

However, there's one specific place where Michalczyk says canned salmon is the definitive winner over canned tuna: omega-3 fatty acids. (You know, the healthy fat compounds that are linked with good brain and heart health.) Canned tuna has 0.28 grams of polyunsaturated fats per 100-gram serving, while canned salmon offers up nearly five times that amount with 1.5 grams per 100-gram serving. Damn.

That isn't to say that all tuna is similarly mediocre in omega-3s. “Albacore and bluefin tuna have the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids, followed by skipjack and yellowfin tuna,” Michalczyk says. It just still doesn't hold a candle to the healthy king of the sea, salmon.

Love canned fish? You might also love the Mediterranean diet, which is all about salmon and other healthy fats: 

Wait, what about mercury?

Salmon again is the winner here in the battle of canned tuna vs canned salmon. “Canned salmon is lower in mercury than tuna because they eat lower on the food chain, which means they are lower in toxins,” Michalczyk says. And albacore tuna is higher in mercury then light tuna is, if you are choosing which type of tuna to go for more frequently.

Nearly all fish and shellfish contain some traces of mercury, so keep that in mind. “For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern,” Michalczyk says. Considering that very few people eat enough fish as it is, most people shouldn’t be too concerned unless they are specifically at a higher risk of adverse effects of mercury. “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advise women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury due to its impact on the developing nervous system,” she says.

So, which one should I eat?

So technically, salmon is a tiny bit healthier than canned tuna. So if you want to get in more healthy fats as well as a bit more protein, canned salmon might have an advantage. But if you're more of a canned tuna person, all power to you—that's a great, affordable healthy option, too.

Regardless of which one you choose, the current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend eating eight ounces of seafood a week, so a can or two a week can totally help you hit that goal. “Pregnant women should aim for 12 ounces a week to support healthy brain development by getting enough omega 3's,” Michalczyk adds.

When buying canned fish, be sure to make sure that they're sourced ethically. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch recommends looking for labels like "pole caught" or "pole and line caught," which means that the fish were caught using methods that ensures other animals (like dolphins or other fish) aren't accidentally harmed as well. Brands like Wild Planet Wild Pink Salmon ($41 for 12 cans) and American Tuna Pole Caught Wild Albacore ($36 for six cans) tend to fit the bill.

How to eat canned tuna and canned salmon

One fun idea for canned salmon are these turmeric salmon oat cakes or "golden cakes,” Michalczyk says. They're super easy to make and are great on top of a salad or eaten as is. “Tuna cakes are popular too and can be made the same way. They both have really similar textures, which is why you can use them in a lot of the same recipes,” she says.

“For canned tuna you can make a tuna melt with celery and cheese, canned tuna patties or canned tuna pasta, and you can use canned salmon interchangeably in all of these ways too,” she says.

In both instances, you would simply add the fish to the top of a salad or mix with a salad dressing or avocado oil mayo and eat with crackers. It makes a great snack or protein topper. Some brands, like Freshé, even can tuna with herbs, seasonings, and vegetables to make it an entire snack in a can. The possibilities are endless.

There is not much difference in when to use one over the other. “I think yes it definitely depends on the recipe here and people's preference when it comes to each,” Michalczyk says. So, go with what you like!

Now that you know all about fish, here's how to buy it sustainably. And here's your guide to buying low-mercury fish without thinking too hard about it.

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