Your 101 Guide To Salmon: Health Benefits, Environmental Impact & Cooking Tips
Salmon start their lives in freshwater and migrate to the ocean before eventually returning to their home waters to spawn and die. Along the way of this epic journey, they take in nutrients that make them one of the healthiest fish you can eat. Here's a deep dive into why salmon is so good for you, how to pick a sustainable piece, and how to prepare it.
Types of salmon
Most salmon on grocery store shelves is either farmed Atlantic salmon or wild-caught Pacific salmon (of which there are a few different varieties). Here's what to know about each:
- Atlantic salmon: Most Atlantic salmon is from fish farms in the U.S., Chile, or Norway. Since it's raised in tighter conditions and fed a diet of fish meal and soy, farmed salmon tends to be higher in calories and fat (both saturated and unsaturated fat). Compared to wild Pacific salmon, farmed Atlantic salmon is usually slightly lower in protein and key nutrients like magnesium, potassium, and vitamin B12.
- Sockeye (Pacific salmon): Sockeye is an abundant type of Pacific salmon that has a firm feel, deep red flesh, and a strong, rich flavor. Most Sockeye salmon is caught in Alaska. State laws prohibit fin fish farming, so Alaska sockeye is always wild-caught. This type of salmon is very high in vitamin D and vitamin B12.
- Coho (Pacific salmon): Coho has a slightly milder flavor than sockeye, and it's a bit lighter in color. It's also usually caught in Alaska, and price-wise, it tends to be a bit more expensive than sockeye.
- Chum salmon (Pacific salmon): Chum salmon has a milder flavor and lighter color than sockeye or coho. It's a smaller, less nutrient-dense fish that is often used for salmon jerky or smoked salmon products.
- Pink salmon (Pacific salmon): Like chum salmon, pink salmon is lower value and used for canning or other fish products. The small fish is abundant and lower in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than other salmon varieties.
- King salmon (Pacific): Dubbed royalty for a reason, king (also known as chinook) is the most premium salmon you can find. Wild king salmon is fatty with a rich flavor. The high demand for king salmon has caused it to be overfished in some areas, though there are strict catch limits on Alaska king salmon.
|Salmon type||Atlantic (farmed)||Sockeye (wild)||Coho (wild)|
|Protein||17.3 grams||18.9 grams||18.4 grams|
|Fat||11.4 grams||3.99 grams||5.04 grams|
|Calcium||7.65 milligrams||7.65 milligrams||30.6 milligrams|
|Magnesium||23 milligrams||25.5 milligrams||26.4 milligrams|
|Potassium||309 milligrams||312 milligrams||360 milligrams|
|Vitamin B12||2.74 micrograms||3.99 micrograms||3.54 micrograms|
|Vitamin D||9.35 micrograms||12 micrograms||7.66 micrograms|
There are plenty of healthy types of fish out there, but salmon's unique array of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants put it a cut above the rest. Here are a few reasons nutritionists recommend eating it:
It's high in heart-healthy omega-3s
As for why they're important: "There is a lot of evidence, especially for heart health, that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial. People who have higher omega-3 intakes have a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases6, basically, across the board," says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., RDN, LDN, FAHA, a professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State and past chair of the AHA Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health.
EPA and DHA are two types of polyunsaturated omega-3s you'll find in oily fish. They seem to protect against heart disease and stroke due to the way they positively impact blood lipids, blood pressure, heart rate, and heart rate variability7.
The healthy fats in salmon could also be good for cognition
It contains vitamin D for bone health, mood support, and more
"All species of wild salmon are considered to be excellent sources of vitamin D," says registered dietitian nutritionist Roxana Ehsani, M.S., R.D., CSSD, LDN. Vitamin D plays a key role in bone health10, hormone regulation11, immune function12, and gut health13. It's also been shown to promote a healthy mood. Most Americans don't get enough vitamin D from diet alone, making food sources of the vitamin, like salmon, extra important.
It fills your daily vitamin B12 needs
Since B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that's only present in animal products, plant-based eaters need to be extra diligent about consuming it daily. Signs of a B12 deficiency include fatigue, trouble concentrating, and tingly hands and feet.
It contains potassium for healthy blood pressure
Kris-Etherton notes that the typical American diet is low in potassium, which is present in many fruits and vegetables, as well as in seafood. "[Potassium] is a really important nutrient for the management of normal blood pressure and blood pressure control," she notes, thanks to the way it counteracts the effects of sodium.
It's a decent source of astaxanthin for skin health
Salmon feed on astaxanthin-rich microalgae, which give the fish its reddish-orange shade. The richer its color, the higher salmon is in astaxanthin—a pigment with powerful antioxidant properties. Lab studies show that astaxanthin is even better absorbed in the presence of dietary fat18, such as the omega-3s found in salmon, dietitian Molly Knudsen, M.S., RDN, previously reported on mindbodygreen.
It's a complete protein source
Eating protein with each meal can help with blood sugar control21, muscle growth, and bone health22. Since it's such a satiating macronutrient, protein can also help keep you full for longer, potentially contributing to fat loss. Experts recommend eating at least 25 to 30 grams of high-quality protein in each meal to reap these benefits, which is easy to do with high-protein foods like salmon.
It may help improve pregnancy outcomes
Consuming polyunsaturated omega-3s (the type present in salmon) during pregnancy can increase gestation time23. "The longer the infant is in utero, the less the risk there is of neonatal problems," explains Kris-Etherton, and research shows that increasing one's omega-3 intake can reduce the risk of preterm birth by up to 11%.
"Eating more seafood during pregnancy can also be better for a child's IQ and development," adds Ehsani. She points to one 2007 study that collected food journal information from 11,875 pregnant women. That study, published in the Lancet, concluded that pregnant women who ate less than 12 ounces (340 grams) of seafood a week were more likely to give birth to children with lower IQ scores and developmental delays24.
It can improve overall metabolic health over time
It's no wonder that salmon is a staple fish (along with sardines and anchovies) in the Mediterranean diet, which is consistently considered one of the best eating plans for metabolic health and longevity.
In short, Kris-Etherton concludes, "People really should, across the board, eat more seafood for overall health."
Overall, salmon is a very healthy and safe fish to eat, though there are some risks to know about. Here's how to navigate its pros and cons:
Since salmon has benefits for childhood development, eating it during pregnancy is actually a good idea—not something to fear. "'It's a message we've got to get out to not just pregnant women but women who want to become pregnant because it does take up to two to three months to build up omega-3 fatty acids in cell membranes. It doesn't happen immediately," Kris-Etherton notes.
Wild salmon that swim in heavily polluted waters can contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other industrial contaminants, though the risk these pose to human health is not well understood. In one risk assessment on herring and salmon conducted across four countries in 2020, though, the benefits of the fatty fish outweighed their potential for contamination31.
Still, if you're concerned about pollutants, you can buy your fish from areas that have strict clean water regulations in place, like Alaska and the North Pacific.
Bacteria and parasites
How often should you eat salmon?
While two servings a week is a good baseline, Kris-Etherton notes that for most people, there's no reason not to eat more than that—especially if you're using fish to replace less healthy proteins like processed meats.
Depending on where it comes from, salmon can be a very sustainable protein source.
Since salmon follow a pretty predictable migration pattern and travel in large schools, fishers will simply drop a "passive net" in a bay and wait for fish to swim through. Ray Hilborn, Ph.D., a marine biologist and fisheries science professor at the University of Washington, explains that this means the industry has a lower carbon footprint than other fisheries.
Bycatch also isn't as much of a concern with salmon fishing. Most bycatch happens when nets are released deep into offshore waters, scooping up a variety of species (some of which might be threatened or endangered) in the process. Since salmon nets are usually deployed closer to the surface—and further inland—the risk of catching other species is much lower.
Alaska, where most wild salmon is caught in the U.S., also has strict rules around how much fishing can occur each season. Researchers across the state monitor salmon populations year-round to determine the health of various stocks. They use these observations to set catch limits, ensuring that fishers don't take more salmon in one season than can naturally reproduce.
Because of this strict monitoring, Hilborn says that "there are more salmon in the ocean now than at any time in history, as far as we know."
That said, overfishing is still a possibility where salmon stocks aren't as closely monitored. Salmon farms can also come with their own set of environmental issues. For example, sea lice can quickly spread in crowded salmon farms and pose a major threat to juvenile salmon if it seeps to wild populations. Fish feed can also be resource-intensive to produce, potentially contributing to land clearing and deforestation.
To avoid these environmental pitfalls, look out for the following when shopping for salmon:
- MSC certified (wild): The MSC certification (a dark blue label with a white fish on it) signifies salmon that has come from a certified fishery. To be MSC-certified, a fishery has to pass certain standards related to stock condition and environmental impact. Hilborn notes that the MSC certification, while not perfect, is a good indication that seafood has been caught in a way that will leave no trace on the environment. "One of the points I always make when talking about MSC is that if you apply their standard to other foods in a grocery store, none will pass," he says. "Principle 2 says that the production of this will not alter the structure and function of the ecosystem. No form of agriculture doesn't alter the ecosystem... Anything that involves plowing a field does not maintain the structure of the natural ecosystem."
- ASC certified (farmed): The ASC certification (a light blue label with a white fish on it) certifies fish farms that have passed third-party testing for safety and sustainability standards.
To quickly compare the environmental impact of different types of salmon when shopping, you can also refer to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, which compiles this information into an easy-to-skim guide.
How to choose the best type of salmon
These insider tips will help you choose the most delicious and nutritious cut or can of salmon at the store:
- If you have the chance to smell salmon before purchasing, take a whiff! Fresh fish should smell salty but not too fishy, Ehsani says.
- Look for a piece of salmon that is moist and taut. Salmon that looks dry, soft, or slack may have been thawed and frozen multiple times.
- You can usually tell wild-caught salmon from fresh salmon by its fat lines. Farmed salmon will have thicker white lines of fat running through it.
- The deeper the color of salmon, the richer it is in antioxidants like astaxanthin. Deeper red cuts will also likely be richer and more flavorful.
Store fresh salmon in the fridge as soon as you get home and use it within a few days.
- Summer is peak salmon season, meaning you're probably better off buying frozen for the rest of the year. Salmon is typically frozen within a few hours of catching to retain its flavor and nutrition.
- Avoid frozen salmon that has frost or ice crystals; this could indicate the fish has been improperly stored or thawed and then re-frozen.
- Like with fresh salmon, go with cuts that look moist, taut, and rich in color.
Store frozen salmon in the freezer and eat it within a few months. You can either thaw it in the fridge before cooking or cook it straight from frozen. Don't refreeze your salmon once it's thawed; it'll affect the taste and quality.
Smoked or canned:
- Canned and smoked salmon tends to be higher in salt due to the curing process. That doesn't necessarily make it unhealthy, but it's something to consider if you're watching your sodium intake.
- If you can tolerate it, choose canned salmon with intact skin and bones. It'll be even higher in calcium and omega-3 fats.
Canned salmon can typically last in a cool, dark place for two years or more.
How to eat more salmon
Now for the fun part: cooking tips! While some people find preparing fish intimidating, it really doesn't need to be.
"[Salmon] is truly one of the easiest (and quickest) foods to cook," say Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton, aka The Salmon Sisters. "Preparing it can be as easy as turning the oven on, placing salmon portions in a baking dish, sprinkling with your favorite seasoning, topping with a little olive oil or butter, and baking for 10 minutes while you prepare the rest of your meal."
You'll know your fish is done when it flakes when touched with a fork and is slightly translucent at its thickest part, they add. "Salmon is delicate and keeps cooking once it's taken away from the heat, so we like to err on the side of undercooking," Laukitis and Neaton say.
How long should you cook it for?
Here are a few more quick ways to get salmon on the table:
- Mash canned salmon with avocado and serve it on toast with greens.
- Toss canned salmon into your salads or grain bowls for some extra protein.
- Wrap salmon (skin-on!) in tin foil and allow it to steam in the oven to retain its natural juices. Feel free to throw some garlic, lemon, and spices for extra flavor.
- Make a quick sheet pan dinner by placing potatoes and/or vegetables on the baking dish with your salmon.
- Sizzle your salmon in a pan with a bit of olive oil before placing it in the oven to cook the rest of the way. This will give it a crispy crust and soft interior.
- Throw a whole fillet of salmon on the grill with olive oil and lemon until the skin gets nice and crispy.
- Whip up some salmon lettuce wraps.
- Make your own cured salmon (gravlax).
- Incorporate fresh or canned salmon into fish burgers.
- Cook along with the following recipe, from Laukitis and Neaton's upcoming book Salmon Sisters: Harvest & Heritage.
Smoky Citrus, Soy & Herb Cedar-Plank-Grilled Salmon
Makes 4 to 6 servings
- 1 untreated cedar grilling plank
For the glaze:
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ¼ cup rice wine vinegar
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon packed dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- Pinch of white pepper
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
For the fish:
- 1 wild salmon fillet (about 24 ounces)
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 lemon, thinly sliced
- Finely chopped fresh herbs, such as dill, chives, or parsley
- Soak the cedar plank in water for at least 30 minutes.
- To make the glaze, in a small saucepan, combine the orange and lemon juice, vinegar, maple syrup, soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, garlic, and white pepper. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and continue cooking at a low boil until the mixture has thickened and reduced to a syrupy consistency. Remove from the heat and whisk in the oil.
- To prepare the salmon, leave the fillet whole or cut it into 4 to 6 portions. Drizzle salmon with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. You do not need to remove the skin; it will be easy to remove once it's cooked.
- Preheat a gas grill on medium heat. If you are cooking over an open fire, light the coal and let the flames burn down to a hot, glowing bed of coals. Drain the cedar plank and place the fish, skin side down, on the plank.
- Brush each piece of fish generously with the glaze and top with sliced lemons. Place the plank on the grill rack. Cook the fish just until the salmon flakes when tested with a fork and is slightly translucent at its thickest part, 10 to 15 minutes. (Another sign of doneness: when you see the first little spots of white liquid begin to ooze from the flesh of the fish.) Top generously with fresh herbs and serve immediately.
Is it good to eat salmon every day?
Eating oily fish like salmon at least twice a week is recommended. While there is probably no harm in eating salmon every day (as long as it's properly cooked and well sourced), eating more than one type of fish will be more nutritious in the long run. Try throwing some sardines or anchovies in there every once in a while too. Pregnant women should limit their salmon intake to two or three times a week.
Can you eat salmon skin?
Yes! Salmon skin is a good source of healthy fats and proteins, and it helps lock in the nutritional value of your filet. Leave it on when you can (and peep some delicious ways to crisp it up here).
Does salmon have benefits for skin?
Yep, salmon is a source of omega-3 fatty acids that can help improve and protect the skin. It also gets its pink color from astaxanthin—an antioxidant that's been shown to protect skin cells from UV light.
Salmon is a healthy source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and healthy omega-3 fats that make it a great fish for supporting cardiovascular health, immunity, brain function and mood, and more. Whether you bake it in the oven or toss it on the grill, salmon makes for a healthy protein source that's hard to beat.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.