What’s the Difference Between Farmed and Wild Salmon?

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

There are so many food production concerns these days, whether it’s about pesticides, GMOs, or sustainable meat or fish. It’s nearly impossible to tackle them all and tackle them successfully — especially when the best answer isn’t always clear. And that’s exactly the case when it comes to choosing between farmed and wild salmon.

If you’ve come across the topic before, you know that it’s one that’s been hotly debated. And the truth is that if you look hard at the real differences between the two, there isn’t one straight answer when it comes to which is the better choice. That choice may change every time you make it due to varying factors. Here are the basic differences you need to know.

Salmon Sustainability

For a while, salmon farming practices were considered unruly. There was talk of antibiotic use, pollution, over-crowded tanks, and more. While these truths still exist, there are a number of fish farms that are now farming responsibly.

On the other hand, wild salmon fisheries are generally sustainable — they’re well-managed and the fish population is healthy — but in some parts of the world, the wild salmon population is in danger. So the answer isn’t so clear-cut. Instead, it’s a matter of talking with your fishmonger and learning about where your salmon is coming from. There may be instances where the farmed fish is a more sustainable choice.

Salmon Farming and Nutrition

According to the USDA food database, the nutritional difference between farmed and wild salmon is actually not as vast as you may think. While farmed salmon actually contains just a little more healthy omega-3 fatty acids than wild, it also contains a little more unhealthy saturated fat, so the difference doesn’t mean all that much.

Vitamin and mineral levels are pretty equal between the two, although farmed salmon has a bit more potassium, and wild salmon has a little more folate and vitamin A. They can be considered comparable overall.

Salmon Production and the Question of Flavor

It’s hard to give a black-and-white comparison of the flavor between farmed and wild salmon. Farmed salmon generally tends to be rich and fatty, while the flavor of wild salmon varies greatly based on the species. King salmon is exceptionally buttery, sockeye is more oily and fishy-tasting, and coho is overall quite mild.

It should also be noted that color isn’t particularly an indicator of flavor. The color of all salmon is due to carotenoids, which is also what makes carrots orange. This antioxidant is consumed naturally in an unmeasured amount by wild salmon so they generally tend to have a deeper color than farmed salmon, who are given it in their feed in a controlled amount.