Around the time I started stocking my own pantry, many years ago, I learned a quick lesson about one of my favorite lunch staples: Canned tuna is not just canned tuna. Albacore, chunk light, packed in water, packed in oil ... what does it all mean? What's the difference between them? And does it really matter?
There's certainly no shortage of options when it comes to buying canned tuna. There's actually a lot of information on the label that gives you a big peek into what's inside and how it got there. But it can be tricky to decipher the label if you're not quite sure what everything means.
White vs. Light Tuna
Canned and pouched tuna falls into two main categories: white tuna and light tuna. These labels refer to the species of tuna contained in the can, and can also be an indicator of mercury levels. Canned white tuna refers to albacore, which typically contains a higher level of mercury, while light tuna is often a mix of several varieties of smaller tuna species — most often skipjack, tongol, and sometimes yellowtail. It's best to check the label on light tuna to see exactly which species of tuna are included. Light tuna also has a more pronounced flavor than chunk white.
There are a variety of different tuna species that are used in canned and pouched tuna. These are the four you're most likely to encounter.
- Albacore: Also labeled as white meat or white tuna. This is a large species of tuna with a light-colored, firm-textured flesh that has a mild flavor (more so than the solid or chunk light varieties). Albacore tuna also contains more mercury than other species used in canned tuna.
- Yellowfin: With its pale pink flesh and pronounced flavor, this variety is most often found found in "light" canned or pouched tuna.
- Skipjack: When it comes to canned and pouched tuna, this is the most common species available in the U.S. Though smaller in size, the Skipjack flesh is similar to Yellowfin tuna. Skipjack is also lower in mercury.
- Tongol: This is a smaller spices of tuna; it's sometimes included in light tuna.
Solid vs. Chunk
Solid and chunk refer to how the tuna is packaged and the size of the tuna pieces in the can. Solid tuna, sometimes labeled as "fancy," has larger, more firm pieces of meat with few flakes, and is often cut from a single loin piece to fit the can. Chunk tuna contains smaller pieces of meat that vary in size, and is less expensive than solid tuna.
Water-Packed vs. Oil-Packed
This label also indicates how the tuna is packaged — either in water or olive oil. Water-packed tuna is just what it sounds like: canned tuna packed in water. This doesn't change the flavor of the tuna, and it's believed to be slightly higher in omega-3's than its oil-packed counterpart. Oil-packed tuna, on the other hand, is canned tuna that's packaged in olive oil. The oil may impart a mild layer of flavor on the fish, and the quality of the oil used can range.
Other Important Sustainability Terms
Here are some other terms you may notice on your can of tuna. These refer to sustainability, and how the fish are caught.
- Pole-and-line caught: This fishing method uses a pole to catch fish one by one, and has minimal impact on other marine species. This method drastically reduces the amount of bycatch, or the waste of other sea life that get caught in nets.
- Pole-and-troll caught: This indicates that the tuna was caught using pole and line, or troll. This method drastically reduces the amount of bycatch, or the waste of other sea life that get caught in nets.
- Purse seines: This fishing method relies on a large net that encircles a school of fish, then are drawn tight. This is how most tuna are caught.
- Wild caught: Simply means that the fish were caught in the ocean and not farmed.
- FAD-Free: The tuna was caught without the use of fish aggregating devices (FAD's), which attract and often result in catching other animals in addition to tuna.
- Dolphin safe/friendly: This indicates that the fish method does not target tuna that swim with dolphins. Do note that this term does not mean ocean safe.
- MSC: This stands for the Marine Stewardship Council, a certification scheme for wild fisheries who meet various sustainability criteria, and is denoted on cans with a blue and white logo.