Dear Clean Plates: Is the “Color Added” to Farmed Salmon Unsafe?

The benefits of wild vs. farmed salmon

The color in farmed salmon is the result of synthetic canthaxanthin and can lead to eye injuries.
Farmed salmon that isn't organically raised should be avoided due to synthetic additives in their diet and exposure to PCB, among other dangers.

Dear Clean Plates,

After my last trip to the market, I noticed the words “color added” on my salmon fillet’s packaging. Now I’m concerned. Where does this color come from? Is it a spray or some kind of food paint? Is it unsafe?

Lost at Sea

Dear Lost at Sea,

Surprisingly, the color in your salmon purchase comes from none of the above. Wild salmon get their familiar color naturally from the carotenoid or pigment “astaxanthin,” which is found in plankton, krill and other organisms that the fish eat. To give the farm-raised salmon you bought that appealing pink shade, synthetically-derived astaxanthin and canthaxanthin (another type of pigment) was added to its feed—otherwise, the pen-raised fish would have an unappetizing, grayish hue.

So what’s so bad about that? In its natural form, asthaxanthin is a healthy antioxidant. But in its synthetic form, “we don’t know if it’s healthy, and it may be harmful,” says Clean Plates founder Jared Koch. Furthermore, the health effects of synthetic canthaxanthin are even more questionable, as a study by the EU’s Scientific Committee on Food showed that consuming a specific amount had links to eye injuries (as in crystal deposits found on the human retina).

Perhaps more importantly, farmed (aka “aquaculture”) salmon can be packed with a host of chemical contaminants—the kinds that can cause cancer, memory problems, and neurobehavioral changes in kids. Cornell research showed that PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, concentrated in oils and fats), dioxins and chlorinated pesticides in farmed salmon ranged as high as 10 times that in wild salmon. The contaminants are thought to come partly from the fish’s feed: protein pellets made of fish and fish oil, which can build up toxins in the fish’s flesh. Also, tight pens can breed disease, necessitating antibiotics, and the pens are treated with pesticides against sea lice. All these additions can ultimately be transferred to your plate.

This said, not all farmed salmon are created equal. Organically farmed salmon has more enforced guidelines in the production of its feed, such as restricted use of pesticides and prohibited addition of canthaxanthin.

As for cheaper farmed salmon, a Cornell study recommended eating it no more than three times a year, and pregnant women may want to avoid it completely. Wild salmon aren’t all the same, either. It seems you get what you pay for: if you find surprisingly inexpensive wild salmon, that may be because it spent half its life in a hatchery (with farmed salmon conditions) before being released.

To keep your plate clean, consider saving your dollars for a little bit of wild salmon, and if you do choose to eat farmed, go organic or know the source.