4 Cans of Tuna That Get a Thumbs-Up from the Seafood Industry — And 3 That Don’t

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: The Kitchn)

In the world of nostalgic foods, there are a few standouts: hot chocolate (with mini marshmallows, of course), macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and the diner classic, the tuna melt. Just the thought of a homemade melt takes us back to sick days, snow days, and pretty much any other day that Mom was responsible for a hot lunch.

The times, they are a changin’, though, and as we considered the tuna melt recently, we wondered about canned tuna. Knowing what we do now about sustainability and the many threats facing our oceans, how can we be smart consumers of the ingredient that’s all too necessary for a classic tuna melt? What brands of canned tuna are both delicious and safe for the environment?

We reached out to fishmongers across the country to find out, and the consensus was resounding.

What Fishmongers Have to Say About Canned Tuna

While most of these experts were willing to refer us to smaller brands of canned tuna available at regional or specialty supermarkets (often in California), they were universally hesitant to recommend any of the larger brands that would be more familiar to those of us who shop at more run-of-the-mill grocery stores. Some of the fishmongers told us that they had no reason to open a can of fish in the first place (which makes sense!), while those who were more informed about canned options shared their general concerns about traceability and sustainability among the bigger brands.

The Info You Need When Buying Canned Tuna

Sheila Bowman, who works with the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has a different take. She acknowledges that canned fish is certainly different from fresh, but she also notes that it has the potential to be quite sustainable, given the fact that it doesn’t require refrigeration and therefore lends itself to less waste.

Canned tuna is also labeled with information that can help consumers make informed buying decisions. Key data elements (KDEs) — like the location of the fishery, the population health, and cleanliness of the fishing gear — are typically noted on cans, Bowman tells us. If you’re in the market for sustainable seafood only, check the label on the can for details about how the fish was caught (you might see types of gear listed) and where it came from (a fishery location or country of origin). Brands that don’t label their packaging are likely not using sustainable seafood. Sneaky!

As a general rule, if you’re not seeing a lot of these details printed directly on the label, you have reason to believe that you’re not looking at an ethically sourced can of fish.

Brands to Look For (And Brands to Avoid)

It was challenging for Bowman to make outright recommendations based on the Seafood Watch rating system, as there can be variability between cans and products of the same brand. Brands like Wild Planet and Ocean Naturals generally pride themselves on sustainability, she says. Greenpeace — a nonprofit that fights for a greener, better environment — provides a helpful shopping guide, and the Seafood Watch app can also help you make informed decisions based on the KDE info available on the cans.

Greenpeace ranks Wild Planet’s Albacore Wild Tuna and American Tuna tops in terms of sustainability and ethical practice. The other two canned tunas categorized as “green” — as in “go ahead!” — by Greenpeace are Whole Foods Chunk White Albacore Tuna and Ocean Natural Albacore Solid White Tuna.

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Wild Planet’s Albacore Wild Tuna, $4.50 per can at Target (Image credit: Target)

4 Cans of Tuna That Are Okay to Buy

Popular brands like StarKist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea are way down at the bottom of Greenpeace’s list, and are therefore not recommended if you’re trying to stick with sustainable, responsibly sourced options.

While canned tuna isn’t without its problems, it’s also not without people and programs trying to solve those problems. All of that’s to say: Keep enjoying those tuna melts!