Paint Samples, Counterfeit, and Salmon

salmon fan sample

This is the actual dye samples farmers use for salmon coloring

The US Mint works hard to produce currency that fights counterfeiting. It seems every few years we have new bills in our wallets. Of course, now drug makers battle the war on counterfeit drugs, and there is the never-ending battle between knock-off designer clothes and the true designers.

Counterfeit foods have recently been ousted publicly as well, most notably the Chinese melamine incident. In 2009, Chinese food companies were accused of making deadly alterations to dairy, baby formula, and pet food. They used the chemical melamine to make food appear to have required protein levels.

Though our markets don’t contain high levels of what are known as economically adulterated foods, food producers have been known to add a little padding to their bottom line, and salmon farmers are no exception.

How can the seafood industry pull this off?

It all has to do with pigmentation. Wild salmon gains its natural pink pigmentation, also known as carotenoid, through the ingestion of krill. Salmon flesh retains pigment, providing it that desirable pink flesh which makes it famous. Carotenoid is also a powerful antioxidant and pro-vitamin A source.

It’s definitely something we want in our diets and the reason salmon is so beneficial.

So, what about farm-raised salmon? Don’t think that all fish is created equal.

What if I told you that farm-raised salmon is naturally a grayish white-fleshed fish? But, wait. When you buy it at the grocer it has that attractive pink color, sometimes even darker than that of the wild-caught cousin. That means it has even more carotenoid, right?

Not really. Salmon farmers attempt to mimic the diet of wild salmon, but it doesn’t work out that way. So, it supplements salmon feed with a synthetic replacement called astaxanthin (say that 3 times fast). It’s chemically identical to the pigment found in wild salmon, without all the nutrients of course.

Essentially salmon farmers are given a bunch of cards that look like paint samples with various shaded of pink. They then decide what color they want their fish to be and buy dye pellets accordingly.

Here’s where things get sticky. In 2006, Consumer Reports tested 23 salmon labeled as wild-caught Atlantic salmon. Of the 23, only 10 were actually wild. The other 13 were in fact farm-raised. Sounds a bit counterfeit-ish, doesn’t it?

Now that you know the importance of eating wild vs. farmed, how do you know if your salmon is really wild?

One of the key indicators is where it’s from. Of course, a dead giveaway is if the label actually states “farm raised.” But something else you should look out for is Pacific vs. Atlantic fish.

Pacific salmon, mostly from Alaska, come in 5 species: Coho, sockeye, king, pink, and chum. Most wild salmon found on the market these days are Pacific.

A time not long ago, one could find wild Atlantic salmon on the market. Sadly most spawning habitats have been destroyed by human elements including pollution, logging, and damming. Though you can find a limiting amount of wild Atlantic salmon on the market, most is actually farmed and fed pink dyes.

So don’t let labeling fool you. Stick with the 5 Pacific species. If you find a Wild-Caught Atlantic Salmon in your grocer’s freezer, place it back on the shelf and slowly walk away. It’s likely not what you think it is.



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  • Hi! I am doing a post about wild salmon and the pebble mine proposal in Alaska and have been looking all over for and image of the “salmon dye” I was wondering if I could use your image or you could give me a source? Thanks! Great article :)

  • Good Kharma keeps the wheel turning…

    (…) My blog is PR2 and has 12k backlinks- please click my source link and you will get a do-follow link there upon approval of this trackback! Let’s share the Google love! (…)…

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  • you’re such an incredible wealth of knowledge! i made a note of those five species. my trader joe’s “wild caught” salmon is often labeled as… silvernail (?) or something. will have to google that to learn more specifics since you don’t list it… thanks for the information!

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