You know that fish and seafood are good for you.
Whether or not you’re a fan of fish you know that their omega-3 fats and other nutrients are crucial for optimal health.
But, have you ever thought of fish, seafood, and shellfish as “superfoods”? Probably not. That’s because attributes like that have essentially only been given to plants.
I have a clear memory of blueberries being the first to get that label about 20 years ago. One cup of blueberries per day were being marketed as a way to boost brain health. Blueberries’ unique antioxidants were found to reduce the risk for dementia and, the rest is history. Soon to follow were green tea, goji berries, and acai berries, and pomegranate juice (POM Wonderful anybody?).
But no food seemed to get the benefit of being called a superfood like the once humble, largely overlooked, kale did. Sigh.
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What are superfoods?
Of course, the word superfood is made up. It doesn’t have a standardized or legally defined definition. It’s been tossed around by anyone and everyone, myself included. I mean hey, I’ve even written a book with the word superfood in the title.
Full confession, it was a marketing tool and when writing a book, you go with what the publisher wants, BUT in it, I’m very clear to point out that there’s no such thing as a superfood, at least not the way they’ve been portrayed in the popular press and by those so-called health gurus.
That’s because no one food has it all. No one food can make or break your health. We know that it’s one’s overall dietary pattern that matters. But, to play devil’s advocate, gurus that promote superfoods do so with qualifying statements about how a superfood is loaded with nutrients and health-promoting properties.
If that’s the case, then animal foods meet and exceed this definition. Not only are animal foods more nutrient-dense overall (yes, except for vitamin C, carotenoids, etc), those nutrients are absorbed by the human digestive tract easier.
FUN FACT: when estimating the requirements of a nutrient from plant foods, the recommended amount is higher compared to animal sources of those nutrients precisely because they’re absorbed less efficiently from plants
In this sense, sockeye salmon makes the superfood cut. It’s LOADED with nutrients in amounts that are more concentrated than most plant foods. Not only that, some of the nutrients such as vitamins A, D3, and the long-chain omega-3 fats are in the form that is preferred by the human body; ready to go to work the minute they’re digested and absorbed.
No amount of flaxseed, soybeans, kale, quinoa, or goji berries, etc can boast what a serving of sockeye salmon can but more on this a little later. To be clear, you shouldn’t interpret that to mean that those other foods are without merit, but if push came to shove, sockeye salmon is going to give you more.
What is sockeye salmon?
Sockeye salmon and wild sockeye salmon are the same things. It also goes by red salmon, kokanee salmon, or blueback salmon, and is found in the Northern Pacific Ocean and rivers emptying into it. They can grow up to 84 cm (2 feet 9 inches) and weigh between 2.3-7 kg (5-15 pounds).
Sockeye tends to be smaller than other varieties, but it’s easily recognizable by its brilliant blood-orange colour which it gets from a unique carotenoid called astaxanthin. It’s not as fatty as Chinook, but its texture is still dense, almost meaty, and is somewhat buttery with a pure, fishy flavour. Sockeye is a solid choice for sushi, sashimi, Crudo, or gravlax/smoked salmon.
Sockeye vs Atlantic salmon
Nowadays, essentially all salmon labeled Atlantic is farm-raised unless otherwise indicated. Atlantic salmon is more affordable and while there are measurable differences in their nutrient profile, it’s not worth splitting hairs over. Both are rich in the same vitamins, minerals, and the all-important omega-3 fasts. The very omega-3s that are associated with better overall health (not to be confused with the other omega-3 fat, alpha-linoleic acid).
Mild and delicate, Atlantic salmon has a wide appeal to all taste palates, and many enjoy the fact that it tends to be more inexpensive than its sockeye salmon sibling. Anything other than Atlantic salmon is wild-caught from the Pacific Ocean, including Chinook, Pink, Chum, and Coho. As mentioned, wild-caught salmon from the Pacific is more expensive but they are valued for their desirable fat content and more assertive flavour.
Sockeye salmon nutrition
Is sockeye salmon good? Beyond good. It is jam-packed with easily-digestible, highly-absorbable nutrients. You can a lot in a small serving size. For a few calories, you get a decent amount of high biological value protein and heaps of vitamins and minerals. For this reason, it really can be thought of like a multivitamin with minerals!.
As a muscle tissue, salmon is a great source of high-quality protein. A 3.5 oz (100 g) serving of salmon has 22-25 g of protein. It has all 9 essential amino acids and it’s easily digested, absorbed and used by your body. Protein quality is a function of amino acid profile (which amino acids are present and in what amounts) and bioavailability.
To rate proteins, scientists have created different ratings over the years including Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER), Biological Value (BV), Net Protein Utilization (NPU), and Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). Of these, PER and BV hold a lot of clout acknowledging that none are perfect (1). Regarding PER and BV, the higher the rating, the better.
Protein with a high biological value will have all 9 essential amino acids in both sufficient amounts in optimal proportions and the protein will be easily digestible.
To put into perspective:
- Whey protein: PER 3.2 and BV 104
- Egg: PER 3.9 and BV 100
- Fish: PER 3.0 and BV 88
- Soy: PER 2.2 and BV 74
- Wheat gluten: PER 0.8 and BV 64
Protein is essential for health. It’s needed to build and maintain your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. Your skin is mostly protein. Protein is needed to synthesize neurotransmitters, hormones, and antibodies. And higher protein intakes help to maintain muscle during weight loss and helps to keep you feeling satisfied in between meals which may help with weight management (2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
New research suggests that to get the most of dietary protein when it comes to stimulating muscle protein synthesis, you should strive for 25-30 g of total protein at each meal (7). Keep in mind that when you eat a mixed diet with both plant and animal foods, especially at the same meal, the abundance of essential amino acids from animal proteins will round out the lower essential amino acid content of plant foods.
Getting enough high-quality protein as you age is also important for optimal health. Protein, coupled with some kind of exercise such as resistance training (weights) helps to preserve muscle. This is hugely important when it comes to a better quality of life and decreased morbidity (disease) and less mortality (death). Muscle protein is a reservoir of amino acids in times of need like when you’re fighting a cold or worse, the flu.
Having more protein on board, especially in your legs, will help prevent falls. For many, it’s not an issue of getting enough protein but rather ensuring their intake is spread out over the day. In this way, both the quantity and timing of protein helps to prevent age-related muscle loss or sarcopenia. (8, 9, 10).
Rich in omega-3 fatty acids
I think everyone’s heard the expression that fish is “brain food”. Turns out, fish and seafood, like salmon, are the best sources of the long-chain omega 3 fats that your brain is craving. In fact, most evolutionary biologists and anthropologists agree that omega-3 fats that were found in fish, as well as, grass-eating herbivores is one of the reasons by which the human brain was able to grow as big and as complex as it is.
If made available in the diet, 92% of the total omega-3 fats in the brain is DHA. Make no mistake, EPA and DPA are also important omega-3 fats. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) portion of farmed salmon has a total of 2.3 grams of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, while the same portion of wild salmon contains 2.6 grams (11, 12).
Although there is no Recommended Dietary Intake (RDA) of omega-3 fatty acids, many health organizations recommend a minimum of 250–500 mg of combined EPA and DHA per day on average (13). Keep in mind, this recommendation is the AVERAGE daily intake. You don’t have to eat fish or seafood like sockeye salmon every day; at least a couple of servings per week will average out to this goal fairly easily.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, but eating fish is effective, as are omega-3 supplements, for increasing the amount of omega-3 fats in your body, specifically your omega-3 index (a validated biomarker of your omega-3 status) (14, 15, 16, 17).
Here we have to make the distinction between sockeye salmon filets and canned salmon. Canned salmon, like sardines, include the fish bones. Bones store a ton of minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium, but also protein (collagen).
Canned sockeye salmon’s bones are super soft and when the fish is mashed to make salmon salad for sandwiches, salmon patties or flaked with a fork into a salad, the bones and its nutrients, including calcium, follow.
Calcium plays a role in many of your body’s basic functions beyond just bone. Your body needs calcium for the circulation of your blood, move muscles, and to release hormones. Calcium also helps your nervous system to carry messages from your brain to other parts of your body.
Calcium is a major part of tooth and bone health. It helps make your bones strong and dense. You can think of your bones as your body’s calcium reservoir. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will take it from your bones.
Packed with potassium
If you believed the banana marketing board, you’d think that bananas are the best source of potassium, but you’d be wrong. There are lots of other foods that have more potassium in a typical serving than bananas.
Don’t take that to mean that bananas aren’t a good source, they are, but because potassium is a mineral that’s found in all cells (plants and animals), all foods contain potassium. In fact, potassium is the most abundant intracellular (inside the cell) mineral (ion).
Salmon is very high in potassium.
Both wild-caught and farmed salmon are good sources of potassium but wild salmon has a bit more (18, 19). Back to the banana, a 212 g can of sockeye salmon has more potassium than a large banana (20).
Unsurprisingly, most fall short of the recommended 4700 mg of potassium per day. Potassium is a heavy hitter when it comes to vascular health. It helps to prevent stroke and control blood pressure and getting more potassium can even help when added to a high sodium diet (21, 22, 23). Some say the ideal ratio of potassium to sodium should be 5:1.
Potassium has long been known to play a role in fluid balance. A study looking at the impact of potassium restriction found great water retention and blood pressure in healthy subjects put on a potassium restriction (24). As an excellent source of potassium, sockeye salmon can help.
Loaded with selenium
If you haven’t really heard of it, selenium is just another mineral needed for optimal human health.
Unlike calcium, iron, magnesium or phosphorus, selenium is considered a trace element meaning your body only needs a little bit (micrograms versus milligrams). Nevertheless, it’s easy to fall short of your selenium target.
Selenium is an important player in supporting antioxidant health. It’s used to make important enzyme-based antioxidants called glutathione peroxidases. These enzymes are involved in heart health, better aging, fighting HIV and more (25, 26, 27, 28, 29). It also has a central role in cancer risk reduction, reducing cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline, and is crucial in maintaining thyroid health and preventing thyroid diseases (30, 31).
Consuming selenium-rich salmon and other seafood improves blood levels of selenium in people whose diets are low in this mineral (32, 33). One study found that blood levels of selenium increased significantly more in people who consumed two servings of salmon per week compared to those who consumed fish oil capsules containing less selenium (33).
Sockeye salmon, filets or canned, are an excellent source of highly bioavailable selenium. One 212 g (7.4 oz) or 1/2 a filet (156 g) has more than the recommended 55 mcg daily requirement of selenium (34, 35).
Boatloads of B vitamins
It’s funny, health professionals always talk about the importance of whole grains when it comes to B vitamins, that as a soundbite, it’s parroted without critical review. Yes, there are B vitamins in whole grains but animal foods are some of the richest, most bioavailable sources.
Sockeye and all salmon varieties are excellent sources of B vitamins, especially B12 and another one of the B vitamins that’s rarely talked about and severely under-appreciated, choline. A 100 g (3.5 oz) serving of sockeye salmon provides the following amounts of your daily B requirements: 18% vitamin B1, 29% vitamin B2, 5o% vitamin B3, 20% vitamin B5, 47% vitamin B6, 7% of vitamin B9 (folate) and 51% of vitamin B12.
B vitamins work together to maintain the optimal functioning of your brain and nervous system (34). They’re also involved in turning the food you eat into usable energy, help support healthy moods, reduce the risk for dementia, DNA repair, maintaining healthy skin, reducing both inflammation and the risk for heart disease (35). Those with pre-diabetes, diabetes and regular consumers of alcohol are at a greater risk of B vitamin deficiencies, especially vitamin B12 and thiamin (B1). (36, 37, 38)
All salmon varieties, including sockeye, are a great source of vitamin D3 (not to be confused with the inferior vitamin D2 found in plants).
A 100 g (3.5 oz) of can of sockeye salmon has about 760IU (20 mcg) of vitamin D3 and salmon filets have about 535 IU or 13 mcg. While there’s still debate of the ideal amount of vitamin D3 we should get, the recalculated RDA (read minimum) is really 1000 IU (25 mcg) and not the current RDA of 600 IU (15 mcg). You can read more about that in the paper: The Big Vitamin D Mistake – Papadimitriou
Regardless of the ideal recommended intake, 600 IU or 1000 IU, salmon is a vitamin D3 rockstar when it comes to helping prevent vitamin D3 deficiency. Getting more vitamin D3 has been shown to improve overall health, prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease, reduce the risk for colds and the flu, possible improve depressive symptoms and more.
A source of astaxanthin
Asta-what? I know you’ve likely never heard of this one. Asta-‘zan’-thin is a carotenoid like lutein and zeaxanthin, lycopene and beta carotene are.
Astaxanthin is a carotenoid pigment that occurs in trout, microalgae, yeast, and shrimp, among other sea creatures. It’s most commonly found in Pacific salmon and is what gives the fish its pinkish color.
Astaxanthin has many outstanding health benefits. Studies have demonstrated its ability to lower heart disease risk by reducing the amount of LDL cholesterol that gets damaged (oxidized LDL) while increasing the beneficial HDL cholesterol at intakes of 3.6 mg per day (39, 40).
This awesome carotenoid helps to protect your brain and nervous tissue, along with the anti-inflammatory properties of the omega-3s (41). Intakes as low as 2 mg daily have been shown to benefit the skin too (42).
For reference, sockeye salmon has about 3-4 mg of astaxanthin per 100 g or 3.5 oz serving (43).
Collagen and glycine
Throughout human history, we have eaten what’s now referred to as “snout to tail”; eating, and benefiting from, the entire animal.
It’s settled science that learning how to use fire to cook foods, plants, and animals, AND eating nutrient-dense animal foods that were made more digestible with cooking, made us human.
By accessing nutrients in food, including protein and omega-3 fats, the human brain grew in both size and complexity.
One of the nutrients that came from eating the whole animal was the now deficient amino acid glycine and collagen.
Collagen is found in bones, ligaments, tendons and the skin of animals. It’s digested into glycine (among other amino acids) which you use to make and repair the collagen in your own body (teeth, bone, cartilage, muscles, ligaments, tendons,skin, etc).
It’s estimated that the modern diet is deficient in glycine by a conservative 10 g per day. Eating the skin of sockeye salmon, and other salmon varieties provide your body with much-needed collagen and glycine.
Sockeye salmon health benefits
Is sockeye salmon healthy? You know it is. There are many benefits that come with eating salmon and the nutrients it has.
Promotes cardiovascular health
Eating salmon on a regular basis benefits your entire cardiovascular system: heart, blood vessels and the blood itself (44, 45, 46).
Eating more omega-3s helps to balance the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3; when this ratio is off; can increase the risk for heart disease (47, 48).
Also, some research has shown that consuming salmon and other fatty fish has been found to lower triglycerides and raise levels of omega-3 fats more than fish oil supplements do (49, 50).
As part of the brain, the optic nerve, and the retina also have a huge need for omega-3 fats, especially DHA, as one of the main structural fats of the cell membrane (51).
As a concentrated source of the omega-3s EPA, DPA, and DHA, salmon may help to alleviate dry eye by reducing inflammation but more research is needed (52).
Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for glaucoma patients as they increase ocular blood flow, decrease intraocular pressure, and improve optic neuroprotective function (53, 54).
Supports healthy moods
The central nervous system (CNS – the brain and spinal cord) has the highest concentration of fat second only to fat tissue itself. Omega-3s are found throughout the CNS and play a role in structure and function.
Fish, seafood and their omega-3 content have been examined for their beneficial role in supporting healthy moods including lower rates and risk for depression and anxiety (55, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60).
Chronic inflammation is associated with chronic diseases, and, in turn, chronic diseases drive inflammation (61, 62, 63).
Fatty fish have long been promoted as an anti-inflammatory food because it can reduce markers of inflammation (64, 65, 66, 67). It’s for this reason that any inflammation-lowering dietary play, like the so-called Mediterranean diet or those of South East Asia, have fish and seafood as a foundational part.
Benefits the brain
Your brain is about 60% fat and of that, about 15-20% of that are omega-3s (assuming you get enough of them in your diet). As stated, DHA makes up 92% of the total omega-3 content.
As structure and functional fats, EPA, DPA, and DHA support brain health in many ways. As mentioned, they support health moods but also reduce the risk for dementia, cognitive decline, and memory loss, as well as, maintain the precious grey matter – likely supporting better memory longterm (66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71).
Canned versus sockeye salmon filet
Consider the differences in the following.
A 212 g or 7.4 oz can of sockeye salmon has:
- a mere 332 calories
- 36 g protein
- 442 mg calcium (more than one cup of milk)
- 575 mg potassium (equivalent to one and a half medium bananas)
- 2 mg zinc
- 60 mcg selenium
- B-complex vitamins including B1, B2, B3, B6, B12 and choline
- 1.38 mg iron
- 1600 IU of vitamin D
- 270 IU of vitamin A
- 5 g of total omega-3 fats of which 1100 mg is EPA, and 1700 mg is DHA and 268 mg of the lesser-known omega -3 DPA (the same as 4 to 5 high potency omega-3 capsules!!).
A 155 g serving of sockeye salmon filet has:
- a mere 335 calories
- 42 g protein
- 10 mg calcium (because there’s no bone)
- 580 mg potassium
- 1 mg zinc
- 58 mcg selenium
- B-complex vitamins including B1, B2, B3, B6, B12 and 102 mg choline
- 1 mg iron
- 1040 IU of vitamin D
- 325 IU of vitamin A
- 2.2 of total omega-3 including 463 mg EPA, 144 mg DPA and 868 mg DHA
Getting more sockeye salmon in your diet
Getting more sockeye salmon into your diet is as simple as getting more into your diet. But it might not be easy. If you like both canned and filets, then you have more options for recipes.
While some may not eat a whole can of sockeye salmon in one sitting as I do – I throw it on a large salad for a filling lunch or dinner – any amount of salmon is better than none.
Even half a can, twice a week will go along way to get more omega-3 fats and other key nutrients.
Salmon filets are easy to cook. They can be poached, steamed or done as sheet pan dinners. Standard cooking temperature to bake salmon is 400 F or 204 C and cook for about 12 to 15 minutes. Or how about sockeye salmon recipe with sake and quinoa?
One concern when consuming any type of fish or seafood is the potential presence of mercury and other environmental contaminants.
Mercury contamination is of particular concern to pregnant women, nursing women, women who may become pregnant and children under 12 because this compound can cause damage to a fetus or child’s developing brain.
For individuals in high-risk groups, both Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting fish that is very high in mercury such as swordfish, shark, tilefish, albacore tuna, orange roughy, martin, King mackerel, ahi tuna and bigeye tuna.
Otherwise, omega-3 rich fish are encouraged during pregnancy to support brain development both in utero and for the first 2 years after birth AND to help prevent post-partum depression (72).
Of note, those species of fish that are potentially problematic are those that are high in mercury but low in selenium. Selenium protects against mercury toxicity from fish.
Fortunately for those who love sockeye salmon, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has found that all types of Alaskan salmon, including sockeye salmon, are low in mercury.
Despite any fear-mongering you may have read online, Pacific salmon is also low in PCBs, dioxins and organochlorine pesticides.
Salmon is considered delicious by most people. It has a unique, delicate flavour and texture with a less “fishy” taste than many other fatty fish, such as sardines, herring, and mackerel.
Salmon is a nutritional powerhouse that is one of, if not the best, sources of the much needed, under-consumed, long chain omega 3 fats EPA, DPA, and DHA. Salmon and sockeye salmon provides several impressive health benefits. Consuming at least two servings (200 g or 7 oz) per week can help you meet your nutrient needs and reduce the risk of several diseases.
It is also extremely versatile. It can be steamed, sautéed, smoked, grilled, baked or poached. It can also be served raw in sushi and sashimi.
Additionally, canned salmon is a quick and inexpensive option that provides the same impressive health benefits as fresh fish. In fact, almost all canned salmon is wild rather than farmed, and its nutrition profile is excellent.
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Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.