Human Journey

For Delicious, Healthy, and Sustainable Seafood, Think Inside the Can

salmon cakes
The author’s salmon cakes. Photo by Katie Stoops, reprinted with permission from For Cod & Country © 2011 by Barton Seaver, Sterling Epicure, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

In my role as director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food program at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, I am often asked, “What should be for dinner?” Unfortunately, the answer is not always so easy.

Sustainable seafood is a complicated topic, one that depends on myriad variables, making a trip to the seafood counter feel like one of those SAT questions about two trains leaving the station at different times. Factor in the cost of fresh seafood per pound, and it’s understandable why some households are reluctant to experiment with cooking seafood dishes or adding them to their regular routine.

However, sometimes the best options are not in the fresh case. Fresh seafood has seasons of availability, there are price fluctuations, and there are times when what’s in the case just doesn’t inspire! The unpredictable nature of our busy lives can also make it difficult to plan a meal with highly perishable fresh seafood. Luckily, there are other aisles in which to look for the delicious bounty of the sea.

Enter the humble can.

Canned seafood represents some of the best values in any aisle of the grocery store and also some of the most delicious ingredients to be found anywhere. Canned products offer a number of virtues that benefit your wallet, your taste buds, and our oceans. A quick inventory of commonly canned species reveals a who’s who of the top of the sustainability green list: sardines, mussels, clams, oysters, crab, herring, mackerel, pink and sockeye salmons, and yes, even some species of tuna.

There are other major benefits to eating canned seafood, the first of which is that it is accessible to everyone, everywhere. Even gas stations often carry a couple options, making this affordable protein the ultimate convenience food. The extended shelf life continues that convenience factor all the way from the time of purchase until the moment your family sits to dinner.

While fresh seafood can be a bit of a hit-or-miss in terms of the quality available, canned seafood is always consistent. Much of the time the fish are processed within hours of being caught, locking in freshness and quality. And the health benefits of canned seafood are equal to those of fresh seafood. In fact, I would say they are greater in that having a consistent go-to source of fish encourages increased consumption of this heart-healthy food. Having such convenient and cost-effective protein available at a moment’s notice enables us to reduce our consumption of other less healthy proteins.

After a long day of work with little time to plan, shop for, and prepare a meal, there’s nothing more welcoming than creating a protein and omega-3 packed meal made from pantry staples to sustain you and your family.

Healthy Choices

When shopping for canned seafood you will find a huge variety of options. Keep in mind that while canned species tend towards environmentally friendly options, sustainability should still be considered. Bringing along a copy of sustainability guidelines from the Monterey Bay or New England Aquariums will help to educate your decisions. (Also check out National Geographic’s Seafood Decision Guide.)

Other factors to consider are products that are packaged in BPA-free containers (BPA is a plastic liner within cans that is considered a health risk). Also, look for products labeled low sodium—you can always add a little seasoning such as fresh herbs and spices to accentuate flavor.

When it comes to oil-pack vs. water-pack, the choice is up to you. I prefer to use oil pack as I find that the oil takes on the rich flavor of the seafood and becomes a delicious addition to the final dish. When using water-packed seafood, more often than not there is no use for the water and so it, and the flavor it has absorbed, goes down the drain.

While canned products are traditionally maligned as convenience food and not fit for fine cooking, I respectfully disagree with this interpretation. Canned pink salmon makes for excellent salmon cakes when mixed with fresh herbs and whole grain mustard (see recipe). I prefer to eat pink salmon with the bones and skin as they offer the additional benefit of high calcium. The all-too-familiar canned tuna gets a new turn in the spotlight when paired with a mayonnaise spiked with the delicious oil from the can and the enticing flavors of nutmeg and celery.

Smoked mussels make for a fine New England-style chowder, chunky with potatoes and milky broth. The convenience is easy enough to make this a new snow-day lunchtime favorite. Sardines are once again a welcome addition to the table when accentuated with the crunch of thin shaved fennel and radishes for a healthy and easy lunch. And anchovies disappear into a rush of compliments as your family devours a pasta sauce rich in flavor and omega-3s.

Choosing and preparing sustainable seafood does not have to be as mysterious as the deep, wine-dark sea. Some of the most delicious options for quick, easy, and healthy meals may already be in your pantry. So the next time you are in a pinch and need a quick meal, remember to think inside the can.

(Check out National Geographic’s Seafood Decision Guide.)

Barton Seaver is a chef and National Geographic Fellow who has dedicated his career to restoring the relationship we have with our ocean. It is his belief that the choices we are making for dinner are directly impacting the ocean and its fragile ecosystems.
  • Marika

    I think it’s really important protect the marine ecosystem for this reason I try to purchase certified sustainable seafood.
    I usually buy Friend of the Sea certified producs

  • Emily Miggins

    Hello Barton:

    I enjoy your writing and research into sustainability in various food categories–it is very important. However, early this morning I was surprised that your piece regarding shelf-stable seafood did not go a little deeper into “how to shop for shelf stable seafood” with standards in mind. I will limit my reaction to tuna fish in particular, but by no means are my concerns only limited to tuna with your piece about “thinking inside the can.”

    Using the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (SFW) guidelines and evaluations is an awesome basis by which to learn about what is taking place behind certain species of fish and their “stock status” in global fisheries, especially when a consumer may be trying to understand environmental issues in question and where the origin of the fish they are about to consume is coming from while also seeking to understand how the tuna or fish was caught and how individuals can begin to shop sustainably.

    With that said the typical corner gas station or grocery store does not carry many brands in the shelf stable category at this time, which easily reveals this level of information to consumers via marketing and on-label information. In fact its a gauntlet out there to understand whether you are buying a species such as skipjack tuna often rated a “green” by SFW from a company and fishery using good catch methods. The question really becomes one of balancing species rated as a green stock status and determining what fishing method was used to capture the fish and using your consumer vote to help mitigate the subsequent impacts to other bycatch species such as endangered sea turtles, sharks, and mammals and fish like the endangered Big Eye tuna.

    For North American consumers wanting to learn more about the perils of tuna fishing and what specific companies and brands are doing to make much needed improvements to their industrial fishing practices I highly recommend reading the Greenpeace rankings of brands and retailers found here: I would also highly suggest pushing this understanding in academia and food services on campuses; asking for more transparency in purchasing practices at universities, because I believe there is a long way to go in these establishments where sustainable tuna fish is concerned.

    For our neighbors in Canada wanting to learn specifically about Tuna brands in a can, Greenpeace also puts out this tuna ranking guide annually as well, which is applicable to shopping here in the United States in some instances:

    The fact is other than a few smaller brands and a couple larger retailer private label brands that are striving to do the right thing in tunas–there is little other available to the market that is free of a whopping quagmire of species extinction and human trafficking concerns in that innocent looking can of tuna at the corner market!

    A can of tuna is not just a can of tuna – not all Chunk Light (skipjack) or Albacore tunas are created equal. If consumers cannot find Friend of the Sea, Marine Stewardship Council certified products or various brands which adhere to specific transparent chain of custody standards such as Wild Planet or American Tuna and Oceans Natural or the large private label efforts being made by retailers like Safeway and Whole Foods Market, I think it would be in the best interest of consumers to skip canned tuna–for our oceans sake.

    Thank you for your work!

  • Jon Gonzalez

    Go to http:/ where you can order the best tasting canned tuna you’ve ever had, year-round. Most Whole Foods nationwide carry it. Caught pole and line, one at a time, cooked in can with natural fish oils. No water.

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