Farmed Salmon: Does Cheaper Fish Come With Increased Risk of Cancer?

April 2, 2019 Updated: April 2, 2019

Anyone trying to eat a little bit healthier knows just how important it is to include fish in their diet. The nutrients found in seafood—particularly fish like salmon and tuna—are a key part of a balanced diet, offering up heart-healthy (and brain-stimulating) omega-3s and lean, healthy proteins.

The American Heart Association recommends that fish should be consumed at least twice a week, which leaves most people trying to eat right scouring the market and restaurants for affordable portions of the sea-dwellers they enjoy eating the most.

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While salmon remains one of the easiest (and most delicious!) sources of omega-3s and lean protein, though, not all store-bought salmon is created equally. And in some cases, the most affordable pieces of salmon are actually the most dangerous for your health.

Farmed salmon has become all too common in the Western World, where industrially-produced foods are the main source of nutrition over fresh, naturally-obtained goods.

Getting salmon from a farm may seem no different from getting sort of fresh fish, so most people don’t think twice about checking to see where their seafood is coming from. Yet, farmed salmon can be incredibly dangerous, and the relief your bank account sees when you purchase the cheaper hunks of fish from mass-production farms may not actually be much relief in the long run. From weight gain to cancer-causing chemicals, there are a handful of major risks associated with farmed salmon that may cost more in terms of health in addition to dollars.

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The Health Risks

The majority of people who regularly eat salmon do so hoping to gain some health benefits from it, but farmed salmon is actually more unhealthy than anything.

To start, the fat content in farmed salmon is different from that of the lean, free-swimming fish caught and harvested in the wild. Most farmed salmon is kept in small, unhealthy enclosures that provide very little room for free-range swimming, so the meat has similarly-high fat content to that found in chicken, beef, and pork sold from farms that keep the animals immobile and crowded into small pens.

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As detailed by Medical News Today, there’s a much higher fat content—particularly when it comes to saturated fat—in farmed salmon, which makes it far less nutritious for those looking to use fish as a good source of lean protein. There are more calories in farmed salmon, and the nutritional content is lower due to the cramped and limited living conditions (and diets) of the farmed salmon.

The real risks, though, come from the chemicals present in many of the salmon farms.

As the Cleveland Clinic reports, farmed salmon are controlled and bred using a number of chemicals that have adverse effects on human health.

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Antibiotics aren’t always used in the proper amounts, which can lead to resistance development by the fish (and therefore a higher risk of diseases lingering and transmitting to the consumers). There are also pesticides used to keep the fish from being contaminated by bugs and other pests, but the downside is that scientists still don’t know the full extent of the harm these chemicals can cause the human body. There’s a belief that pregnant women are at risk from the chemicals used, and there’s growing evidence that the chemicals can increase the risk of cancer in consumers.

There’s still no clear explanation for the correlation, but there’s one additional health risk that can’t be ignored. According to a study conducted in 2011, the risks of obesity and type 2 diabetes in consumers go up when they eat farmed salmon as opposed to wild salmon—and while scientists still don’t know if it’s due to the chemicals or the higher fat content and lower nutritional value, it’s an alarming risk that no one wants to take on.

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The Environmental Risks

It’s become tough to deny; the explosion in the world’s population has decidedly taken its toll on the environment.

The fishing industry is no exception. Farmed salmon became popular as the wild fish population started to decline, serving as an alternative to depleting the wild fish populations by only harvesting from man-made areas of salmon reproduction.

It may seem like farmed salmon is good for the environment, but there are plenty of harmful environmental risks that scientists have started to document in recent years. Even as just a 40-year old industry, the salmon farm industry has already begun to take its toll on the planet in a way that few will truly feel comfortable with.

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According to Phys.org, the nation of Norway has started to more closely monitor the effects that farmed salmon have on the environment and have been trying to combat the problems with alternative farming measures.

In most areas that aren’t as environmentally-conscious, though, the problems still exist. As detailed by Phys.org, current salmon farming practices release pesticides into the surrounding areas, meaning that it’s not just the salmon consumers who are being put at risk by the chemicals. And when farmed salmon escape their enclosures and mix with the wild salmon population in a region, they can cause rippling health effects to the wild population that can even wipe out that population in short order. Farmed salmon and wild salmon are kept separate for good reason.

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Good Alternatives

If you want some reassurance that you’re getting your salmon from the right places, a good bet is always to purchase wild-caught salmon from Alaska.

According to One Medical Group, Alaska’s salmon industry is one of the most well-regulated in the world from both a health standpoint and a sustainability standpoint. The reasoning? They keep scientists posted at the mouths of the rivers they fish in, keeping track of how many salmon return to spawn each season and temporarily shutting down fisheries any time they start to over-harvest from one area.

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“This close monitoring, along with strict quotas and careful management of water quality, means Alaska’s wild-caught salmon are both healthier (they pack 1,210 mg of omega-3s per 3-ounce serving and carry few contaminants) and more sustainable than just about any other salmon fishery.”

It’s also not a guarantee that just because salmon is farmed it’s going to be dangerous. Like the Norwegian farms, more and more salmon farms are trying to consciously avoid the health-averse practices that were used when the industry first started to boom a few decades ago. A simple Google search can tell you if a brand of farmed salmon is safe to eat, and knowing the source—something you can learn about by doing your research before you head out to the store—can help you feel more confident about the brands that avoid pesticides.

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The food production industry still has a ways to go before they eliminate all of the health risks that were introduced by mass production and attempts at efficiency. But with some diligence, things like salmon can still be consumed in a way that keeps your heart healthy—and your taste buds happy!

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