For many people in America today, canned fish seems like a vestige of the past. It conjures up old-timey images of Cannery Row and an era before fresh fish was in local grocery stores everywhere.
But recently, canned fish has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Modern consumers are learning that not only is canned fish healthy, it’s also delicious, quick to prepare, and stays fresh-tasting for a long time. It’s a lesson many have taken to heart during the pandemic, when protein supplies have been uncertain and health is top of mind.
Fresh Fish Benefits, No Cooking
Fish is one of the healthiest foods human beings can consume. Decades of studies have shown seafood offers an abundant supply of vital nutrients for our brains and bodies, from vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids to astaxanthin — the compound that makes salmon pink (Jónasdóttir 2019).
Vitamin D is important for our immune systems and bones, while omega-3 fatty acids serve as building blocks for cell membranes in our brains and bodies (Opinder Sahota, 2014). There’s strong evidence these fatty acids can reduce heart disease and more. Omega-3 may help reduce the beta-amyloid plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. And these nutrients can reduce inflammatory reactions, helping us breathe easier.
But many casual seafood consumers are fixated on fresh fish. When they go to the grocery store, they gravitate toward the “fresh” (actually, it’s virtually always thawed) seafood at the meat counter, even though flash-frozen fish that’s purchased still frozen tastes far fresher. (See: Why Frozen Seafood Tastes Better and Cuts Food Waste). But there’s also another excellent option: canned fish.
Canned fish can be just as healthy as fresh. When prepared properly, high-quality canned fish has just as much omega-3 fatty acid as freshly cooked fish does. And it delivers just as much of other nutrients like vitamin D. One place it can fall short is with astaxanthin, which can be higher in fresh or frozen salmon, so it’s smart to mix some fresh-frozen fish into your diet, too (Sutliff et. al, 2020).
However, since you don’t have to cook canned fish, it can make for a healthy snack or quick lunch and offers easy access to these important nutrients. Buying canned fish is also an excellent way to avoid worrying about storing seafood long term. That’s something many consumers began paying attention to after some products became hard to find in the early days of the pandemic. But even after the pandemic has passed, the security and convenience of having fish in the pantry, ready at a moment’s notice, will retain its appeal.
Canned Fish and Health
When it comes to the taste and health benefits of canned fish, not all products are created equal. Most of the world’s tuna is caught on longlines that hold hundreds of hooks and trail for many miles, catching species indiscriminately. These large tuna operations often leave the fish in the water for 12 hours, which means the catch is not truly fresh by the time it’s hauled in. And since these fish are larger, deep-dwelling tuna, their bodies contain more mercury and fewer omega-3 fatty acids. (See: Where do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Come From?)
Then, this mass-produced canned tuna is cooked on a rack so the softened flesh can be removed easily. Processors may add flavors and chemicals before the fish is cooked again during the canning process. The double-cooking process strips the fish of many of its nutrients, including a significant percentage of omega-3 fatty acids (Aubourg, 2001).
By contrast, Vital Choice’s skipjack tuna is packed into the can raw and cooked in the can, which helps preserve natural flavor and oils. This single-cooking process leaves the fish with far higher levels of omega-3 when compared to other major national brands.
Mass-caught, longline tuna is also responsible for most of the consumer fears about mercury. The very largest tuna, the kind commercial fisheries catch, have been eating smaller fish for years, consolidating the toxins inside themselves and passing that contamination on to humans.
Vital Choice’s tuna are troll-caught and weigh much less — 15 pounds or under. That leaves them with substantially less mercury than you’ll find in most standard store-bought tuna.
One Vital Choice supplier, an adventurous fisherman named Paul Hill, sails from Puget Sound with a crew of three on often months-long trips that can take him thousands of miles away from civilization. There, in the remote Pacific Ocean, he catches premium-quality albacore.
Quality of Canned Fish Varies
It’s not just tuna. Across all species, canned fish — and the canning process itself — can vary in quality significantly. That’s why even some seafood lovers have been left with the impression that canned fish doesn’t taste good. The flavor of canned salmon in particular is directly tied to the quality of the fish. That’s because some suppliers can their worst fish in order to hide its poor quality.
When choosing canned fish, it’s important to select a supplier that picks from fresh fish harvested at the right time of year to maximize flavor and nutritional value. Freezing fish right after they’re caught is the best way to keep the meat fresh before you cook it. But when it comes to canned fish, pre-freezing can make the fats congeal during the canning process. That’s why cracking open a cheap brand of canned salmon can be so unsightly.
You should also be sure the fish you’re buying is actually the fish you expect. Until DNA analysis became more readily available, even scientists struggled to identify what species were being put into cans (Mackie et. al, 1999). For example, many different kinds of fish are sold as “sardines.” Vital Choice sells the true sardine, a species called Sardinia pilchardus that’s native to the Mediterranean and has been caught by our family-owned suppliers for more than 150 years.
Can Canned Food be Bad for You?
Vital Choice fully cooks its canned salmon, tuna, and shellfish, so it stays good on your shelf for years. In fact, the official expiration date for our canned fish is usually about five years after it’s packaged. Of course, once you’ve opened and refrigerated the tin (in a sealed wrap or container), the fish keeps only for a day or two before it goes bad.
Another potential health concern with canned fish is that it can contain added salt, which some consumers may choose to avoid for taste or health reasons. One way to avoid that is with Vital Choice’s no salt added canned sardines. They have just one-quarter to one-sixth of the sodium found in some leading brands. (In fact, if you generally prefer no-salt fish and meat, just type “no salt” into the Vital Choice search box – we have dozens of options!)
So while canned fish packs many of the same benefits as fresh fish, the same rules that apply to seafood generally also apply to canned varieties. Know your seafood supplier and always choose good quality, wild-caught fish.
Jónasdóttir, S. H. (2019). Fatty acid profiles and production in marine phytoplankton. Marine Drugs, 17(3), . https://doi.org/10.3390/md17030151
Sahota O. Understanding vitamin D deficiency. Age Ageing. 2014 Sep;43(5):589-91. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afu104. Epub 2014 Jul 28. PMID: 25074537; PMCID: PMC4143492.
Aimee Sutliff, Lauren O'Connor, Audrey Hendrick, Minghua Tang, Kevin Quinn, Katrina Doenges, Jamie Westcott, Sarah Borengasser, Richard Reisdorph, Daniel Frank, Dingbo Lin, Wayne Campbell, Nancy Krebs, Nichole Reisdorph, Astaxanthin Levels Are Higher in Fresh Salmon Compared to Canned and Pouch Varieties, Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 4, Issue Supplement_2, June 2020, Page 128, https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzaa041_032
Aubourg SP. Review: Loss of Quality during the Manufacture of Canned Fish Products. Food Science and Technology International. 2001;7(3):199-215. doi:10.1106/4H8U-9GAD-VMG0-3GLR
I.M Mackie, S.E Pryde, C Gonzales-Sotelo, I Medina, R Peréz-Martı́n, J Quinteiro, M Rey-Mendez, H Rehbein, Challenges in the identification of species of canned fish, Trends in Food Science & Technology, Volume 10, Issue 1, 1999, Pages 9-14, ISSN 0924-2244, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0924-2244(99)00013-8.