There is a world of difference between wild salmon and farmed salmon both in terms of nutritional value and safety. Let's start with nutrition. Wild salmon has much higher levels of omega-3 than farmed salmon because wild salmon eat a diet higher in omega-3 and this gets incorporated into their tissues. Furthermore, the tiny crustaceans wild salmon eat contain high quantities of two healthy antioxidants, astaxanthin and canthaxanthin. On the other hand, farmed salmon are fed food pellets that look similar to dog chow. These contain inferior fish mill, GMO corn, GMO soy, and no natural antioxidants. This produces gray salmon with inferior nutrition that must be artificially colored so they resemble wild salmon.
On the safety side, farmed salmon is significantly higher in lead, mercury, dioxins, and PCBs than wild salmon. In fact, these toxins found farmed fish have become such a safety concern that many health experts advise never to eat farmed fish.
So, how do you tel if salmon in a store is wild and safe?
Can you just read the label?
You may be surprised to learn that a high percentage of the salmon you see in grocery stores labeled as "Wild Salmon" is actually farmed salmon! In fact, there have been several undercover investigations into this matter.
On March 8 2005, a food reporter with the New York Times became suspicious at how many grocery stores in the New York City area were offering "wild salmon." To see if this fish was actually wild as labeled, they bought "wild salmon" from eight random grocery stores and had them analyzed by Craft Technologies, an independent professional laboratory. By analyzing the red pigments in the fish to determine if they were natural or artificial, the laboratory determined that six out of eight of the stores were selling FARMED SALMON labeled as "wild salmon!" This included some of the fanciest stores in Manhattan and they were selling the farmed salmon at top dollar wild salmon prices!
In the winter of 2013-2014, Oceana, an ocean conservation organization, collected 84 samples of salmon labeled as "wild" from grocery stores and restaurants. They had them tested using DNA analysis. A whopping 43 percent were mislabeled! Most of the mislabeling involved selling farmed salmon as wild salmon, although other mislabels included substituting a lower priced salmon species for a higher priced salmon species, like Coho Salmon for Chinook Salmon. This type of mislabeling was found at a wide variety of retail outlets, including upscale stores and restaurants where the average consumer really would not expect this type of deception.
Because salmon is so often mislabeled, if you want to ensure that you and your family are getting safe and highly nutritious wild salmon, you simply cannot fully trust the label. It is important to learn how to distinguish between wild salmon and farmed salmon.
Below, you will find several practical tips on how to tell if salmon labeled as "wild salmon" is truly wild.
Take a Close Look At the Coloring and the Marbling Of Fat In the Tissue
Before you buy salmon, closely inspect the exact piece(s) of fish you are buying BEFORE they wrap it up for you. Generally speaking, wild salmon will have a much more vivid color than farmed salmon. Wild King (Chinook) Salmon should be a deep pink color (salmon colored). Wild Sock Eye Salmon should be a deep red color. Wild Coho Salmon should be a deep orangey pink color. However, as you study the color, you need to keep in mind that farmed salmon, that would otherwise be gray, is artificially dyed to mimic the look of wild salmon so you need to also learn the additional information we present below.
A wild salmon of any species should be EVENLY colored. Wild salmon should NOT look mottled or spotty in color. One side should NOT look a lot lighter than the other side. The edges of the fillet should look just as vivid in color as the center.
Wild salmon will have much thinner bands of fat than farmed salmon. So, if you see bands of thick whitish fat, you should be suspicious even if it is labeled as "wild." King (Chinook) Salmon will have more fat than Coho Salmon or Sock Eye Salmon so distinguishing between wild and farmed is harder in this species. Sock Eye Salmon has very little fat so you'll either see no bands of fat or only faint bands of fat.
Wild Salmon Is Almost Always Identified To Species (Some To Location)
Almost all wild salmon is caught in the Pacific Ocean and will almost always be identified by species names like King, Chinook, Spring Chinook, Sock Eye, Coho, and Chum. The signs will often be labeled with "Wild Pacific" in the name. For example, "Wild Pacific King Salmon" or "Wild Pacific Spring Chinook Salmon."
The most reputable sellers of wild salmon will pinpoint exactly where the salmon was caught. You'll see signs like "Copper River Wild Sock Eye Salmon" or "Wild Alaskan Salmon From the Nushagak River." The undercover investigations discussed above, and others like them, have all reported that most wild salmon labeled in the store by species and exact location where they were caught have a much lower chance of being farmed salmon mislabeled as wild salmon.
All "Sock Eye" Salmon Is Wild
Because of its life cycle, fish farmers never raise Sock Eye salmon. Therefore, if the salmon is bright red and labeled "Sock Eye," it is very likely wild and not mislabeled.
"Atlantic Salmon" Is Farmed Salmon 99.99% Of the Time
Don't be fooled by the word, "fresh." If you see a sign that says "Fresh Atlantic Salmon," you can be almost certain it is fresh farmed salmon. Wild Atlantic salmon is on the brink of extinction and nearly all the "fresh" salmon offered in markets on the east coast is now farmed. Frozen Atlantic salmon is also farmed. "Alaskan Salmon" Is Always Wild
Fish farming is not allowed in Alaska. Therefore, if you can trust that the fish is really from Alaska, then you know for sure it is wild.
Organic Salmon Is Not Wild Salmon
Although it may sound good, there is no such thing as organic wild salmon. Organic salmon is farmed salmon that has been raised at a fish farm on an artificial diet that is organic. Health wise, this would be much better than most farmed fish. However, it is still not as nutritious as wild salmon caught in relatively pristine waters.
Buyer Beware! "Wild Salmon" Versus "Wild Caught Salmon"
There is a BIG difference here. Wild salmon means the salmon was born in the wild and grew in the wild until the day it was caught. Wild caught salmon can mean it was born in the wild and caught in the wild as a juvenile and then brought to a fish farm to "fatten up" and grow into a much larger fish before selling it. Sneaky!! Unfortunately, these "wild caught" salmon have the same diet as farmed salmon for much of their life, and therefore, are just as dangerous to your health as farmed salmon.
Avoid “Ranched” Salmon Too
This is another marketing ploy some stores use to sell fish that are caught as a very young fish and then brought to a fish farm for "ranching."
Be Particularly Wary Of Salmon Labeled as "Wild" From November To March
In the summer months, there is much more wild salmon available so there should be less farmed salmon mislabeled as wild salmon. However, just like the New York Times food reporter became suspicious during the off season when he saw a plethora of salmon labeled as "wild salmon," so should you if you see this. This is especially true for the period from November to March.