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Is Canned Tuna Healthy? What To Look For On A Label + How To Eat It

November 19, 2020

Canned tuna is a contentious pantry staple. Some people love the canned food for its timelessness, practicality, and price point, while others can't seem to get past the smell. While the latter group does have a point, the health benefits may outweigh the odor.

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Is canned tuna healthy?

Despite being shelf-stable, canned tuna is generally a healthy ingredient. According to registered dietitian Erica Fand, M.S., R.D, it can be a great source of protein (about 22 grams per 3 ounces), omega-3 fatty acids, and a number of micronutrients, like iron, selenium, plus vitamins B12 and D. 

It’s important to be mindful of your mercury intake while eating canned tuna, though. "Because tuna ingest smaller fish that may already be contaminated with mercury present in the ocean, the concern is that mercury levels can be higher in certain types of tuna, reaching dangerous levels for consumption." Fand recommends skipjack tuna or chunk light and canned light tuna for lower levels. 

"Some food for thought: One can typically contain about 5 ounces of tuna," she adds. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends adults eat at least 8 ounces of seafood per week1 for their health benefits. According to the guidelines, pregnant and breastfeeding women can safely eat 8 to 12 ounces of lower-level mercury seafood, such as sardines, salmon, and some canned tuna.

Is canned tuna a sustainable choice?

Compared to other types of animal protein, and even other types of seafood, canned tuna may be more sustainable. That said, it depends on where and how the tuna was caught. 

"Tuna has become overwhelmingly popular, resulting in growing concerns regarding overfishing and the methods used to catch these fish," Fand says. "Overfishing can be a significant problem, especially for the overall ecosystem. By removing fish at alarming rates and quantities, it makes it difficult for those species to replace themselves. For populations that rely heavily on fish for their main source of protein, this can also prove to be a problem," she adds. 

To find out whether the tuna you’re purchasing is sustainably caught, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Ginger Hultin, RDN, recommends looking out for these words on the label: 

  • Pole-caught 
  • Troll-caught 
  • Pole-and-line-caught 
  • Fish Aggregating Device (FAD)–free
  • Free school 
  • Unassociated 
  • School-caught 
  • Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified 
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How to pick the best canned tuna product.

Tuna may seem like a pretty straightforward product, but there are actually many decisions to make when browsing the cans. First and foremost: Should tuna be canned in water or oil?

Well, it really depends on your health goals. "If you are being mindful of the calories and extra fat, choosing tuna packed in water instead of oil is a great option," Fand says. "If you do choose tuna packed in oil, try to opt for tuna canned in olive oil rather than soybean or vegetable oil, to boost your healthy monounsaturated fats and add some flavor."  

The next thing to look out for is the actual type of fish. "Generally, 'light' tuna has less mercury than 'white' (albacore) tuna," Hultin says.  

For lower sodium levels, Fand also recommends keeping an eye out for "low sodium" or "no-salt" tuna. And of course, keep the sustainability buzzwords in mind. 

RD-approved ways to use this ingredient.

While canned tuna is most often thought of for sandwiches or salads, the product is surprisingly versatile. Fand suggests creating tuna pasta, tossing tuna into a casserole, making tuna burgers, or loaded sweet potatoes with tuna (her personal favorite). 

For appetizers, Hultin recommends topping cucumber or endive leaves with tuna. It also pairs well with vegetables, like celery, fennel, bell peppers, radishes, onion, carrots, or pickles, she says. "Boost your canned tuna dishes with these options for more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants."

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The bottom line. 

Tuna can be a nutrient-dense and inexpensive protein source, as long as you're conscious of mercury levels, sustainability, and sourcing. "Knowledge is power," says Fand, "so having a better understanding of where your food comes from and how it is prepared and packaged is always beneficial."

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