by Marion Nestle
Apr 16 2007

The Color of Salmon

Wild salmon are a gorgeous salmon pink because the fish eat marine krill, tiny crustaceans loaded with pigments – mainly one called astaxanthin but also another called canthaxanthin. These get incorporated into the salmon’s flesh and can be identified by testing laboratories….

Farmed salmon, alas, are not fed krill. Instead they are fed pellets like the ones fed to cats or dogs. As a result, their flesh is an unattractive gray color. Research on the industry-important question of what best sells salmon demonstrates two things: the darker its pink color, the more likely you are to choose it over more lightly colored salmon; and if the salmon is gray, you will not buy it at all.

So salmon farmers resort to cosmetics.



“So salmon farmers resort to cosmetics.”

I am left wondering just how salmon farmers go about coloring the fish? What dyes or products are used in the process?

Eat well, be well,

Tracy Austin

Thanks for being the first person to write in, and please accept apologies for the delay. I devote a section of What to Eat to this precise topic: “Label Quandary #3: Artificial Color.” In this section, I explain how to know whether salmon has been colored, whether the dyes are safe, and what the producers of “organic” salmon use. The section is backed up by endnotes that give references and explain some of the chemistry. Again, thanks!

Hi Marion,

What are the overall advantages to eating krill eating salmon vs farmed salmon? Also, is wild salmon caught in a way that maintains the population?

I wonder about the longevity of populations of wild fish vs farmed fish. Is there a way we can balance these two worlds so there is farmed fish that is healthy to eat and the wild stock is not decimated?

Best wishes! Your work is so appreciated.

Mary Hardy

  • Marion
  • June 19, 2007
  • 1:08 pm

Yes. Definitely. It is certainly possible to raise farmed fish more healthfully for people and the planet but doing so will make fish more expensive. Krill are microscopic sea plants and animals low on the food chain, meaning that they are not big enough to have accumulated methylmercury, PCBs, or other toxic contaminants. The fish counter is the wild west of the supermarket, raising so many issues that it takes 5 chapters in What to Eat to cover them. I’m wondering how readers deal with buying fish. Let me know!

Hi Marion,
Fish shopping is definitely a wild west experience. In all honesty, I tend to shop blind. I hate to admit that but if the fish looks good and seems fresh I buy it…or I buy it frozen from Costco or Trader Joes. I try to stay informed but given the challenges of food buying in general, fish and meat shopping presents special challenges.

My minor adjustment is I shop for a range so I am not heavily impacting or relying on a particular species and I try to balance my fish eating with vegetarian choices and occasional poultry meals. This seems equivalent to using low energy light bulbs while running the air conditioner as a strategy for lessening global warming.

Shopping for food presents similar challenges.

  • July 17, 2007
  • 12:32 pm


  • Andrew Solomon
  • August 11, 2007
  • 10:14 am

Because of the cost of wild salmon, I generally buy canned: it’s a lot less exciting and can’t be a meal in itself (but does fine in pasta sauce), but at least I’m getting Alaskan salmon at a reasonable price. Sad that we have to do these things for healthier choices.

  • Anna
  • August 17, 2007
  • 2:16 pm

I don’t buy farmed fish, period. There are too many health & environmental issues to make farmed fish a good choice for my family.

When I buy fish, I used the Monterey Bay Aquarium guidelines and buy wild caught by sustainable method. Sometimes that means not buying if it isn’t the right season, or using canned salmon (great source of calcium if the bones are mashed and left in and economical to boot).

Another point no mentioned is usign krill oil instead of fish oil for omega 3 supplmentation. Less likely to be mercury and heavy metal contaminated compared to fish higher on the food chain. Higher cost, though.

Overfishing and protecting fish habitat are important issues that need more attention. Farmed fish is probably not the answer, as it seems to be leading to a similar situation as feedlot factory farms, polluted waterways, higher antibiotic and pesticide use, genetically modified fish breeds (which can escape and interbreed with wild fish), overfishing to supply the feed pellets, reduced nutrition from feeding “fish chow” (sometimes heavy on grain & soy!), etc. Farmed fish seems to mostly serve as a way to make fish available all year round as a cheap food. Exacty the opposite of high quality, highly nutritious, Slow Food.

  • Juan Carlos
  • November 14, 2007
  • 10:17 am

Hello Mario, I live in Chile. We have a great production of farmed salmon. My question is if in Asia does exist a normative about indicate “color added in the label of product?

  • Marion
  • November 14, 2007
  • 10:55 am

I don’t know the answer to your question but my understanding is that all farmed salmon is color-added. If the product is imported to the United States, it is supposed to indicate the color additive on the label.

  • Amy
  • July 2, 2008
  • 3:43 pm

I have a friend in the fish food industry. He told me the color in farmed salmon is created by adding carrot in the fish food. I’m not sure which form of carrot, but I guess that’s why they say it’s “natural food color”.

[...] diet than wild salmon (see nutritionist Marion Nestle’s book “What to Eat” or her brief post on the matter), I find the former point hard to swallow, and the latter just sounds silly. Meanwhile, both omit [...]

[...] and algae, and the taste of the ocean works up the food chain. Farmed fish in closed ponds eat pellets similar to what you’d feed your cat or dog. That affects the flavor, just like the difference [...]

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