Are You Eating The Tuna That’s 3x Higher In Mercury?

I love canned tuna  – love it far more than fresh. I stockpile cans of it knowing I am never more than a can-opener’s ride away from a perfect sandwich.

I was always a “solid white” (not “chunk light”) person, thinking the darker flesh the lesser of the two and sourced from the scraps -  those parts of the fish not white enough or solid enough to make the grade.  Then I learned the truth -  the “white” and “light” are not even from the same fish and in fact it’s the darker ie “chunk light” tuna flesh that is superior (from a health angle) with 3x less mercury than the white. Here’s  why:

Tuna only looks small in a tin.  In the ocean it’s big.  Very big – you can fit about 5,000 tins of tuna into a tuna.   Because of its commanding place on the food chain, it eats a lot of big fish (which have mercury in them) which  means that by the time it’s killed, enormous amounts of other fish’s mercury have accumulated in its own flesh.

Mercury is bad. It’s especially bad for pregnant women and children.  All tuna has some mercury but some tuna has far less. The smaller the tuna, the lower the mercury.

Albacore tuna (labeled “solid white” ), is the biggest of the tuna family and hence the worst offender.  Skipjack and Tongol (labeled “chunk light”) are the smallest.  This smaller size makes such a difference in mercury levels that guidelines suggest that one can eat these tuna 3x as frequently as white Albacore. For example, if you’re a 150lb adult, you are advised to limit your consumption of a can of white tuna to once every 9 days, but you can safely indulge in a can of “light” tuna every 3 days! To see how much you can safely each of each, click here.

So if you’re a “solid white” person try the “light”; by can #3 you’ll be over the white and never look back.

Bonus tip: choose water-packed tuna rather than oil-packed. When you drain oil-packed tuna, some of its natural omega 3 fatty acids leach into the added oil and go down the drain. But since oil and water don’t mix, water-packed tuna won’t loose any of its precious omega-3s when you drain the water.

Tuna thoughts?  Share them!

Photo: Better-for-you “chunk-light”. Copyright © Michelle Madden


Get Posts By Email

  • Audrey

    The dark “meat” in general (from chickens, turkeys) is higher in nutrients than the white meat (the animals liver is a great example of this), so it’s interesting to see that even in fish, there are good reasons to choose the darker flesh kind.

    • Erika

      Actually a Doctor will tell you to stay away from dark meat because of cholesterol. My husband was told to stay away from dark meat because he was dealing with cholesterol.

  • Liz

    Wow, who knew. Keep the great info coming Michelle!

  • Richard

    Really nice Michelle.
    Additionally Bluefin which is commonly used in Sushi is not only large ( hence mercury) but severely endangered.
    Additionally the great majority of Bluefin tuna is still wild-caught using methods that endanger other marine life, such as dolphins and sea turtles.

  • http://www.freshwap.net/forums/members/leelinda123.html?tab=aboutme&simple=1#aboutme weighty

    gonna send this to my mom

  • Natasha

    If mercury accumulates in the bottom, than why does the frequency of consumption matter?

    • Michelle

      Mercury accumulates at the TOP of the fish food chain in fact, so the bigger fish have more of it. Your body can only eliminate so much mercury that you feed it, hence the need to go easy when eating the big fish. Is this what you were getting at ?

      • Natasha

        sorry i wrote too quickly. I don’t know what the bottom refers to. What I meant was, if mercury accumulates, then why does the frequency of consumption matter? I did not realize that the body has some limited capacity to eliminate mercury.

  • Natasha

    While your reasoning sounds, well, reasonable, it would still be nice to see some links to your sources.

    • Michelle

      I appreciate that feedback. What makes it tough at times is that I gather my learning from such an extensive array of places (talking to people, reading food labels, books, online etc) that at times my source list for a post is vaste and varied. Moreover, much of what I write is the digested output with a heavy dose of opinion, based on a lot of input! I also think it can get distracting for readers to constantly have links throughout a post. But where it seems appropriate to do so, I will. Thanks for raising this…

  • lauda

    Great blog, thank you!

    Is there a reason that you’re draining oil-packed tuna? I typically use the oil from the can for my dressing when making a tuna salad in turn maintaining the natural omega 3 fatty acids, however would you not recommend that?

    • Michelle

      Great idea! No reason not to use the oil.

  • Karen

    You’re welcome. It’s the editor in me…

  • Emily

    The Monterey Bay Aquarium does some of the leading research on this subject. They’ve created a “Super Green List” of recommended fish to eat. This list considers both public health AND sustainable fishing practices. You can find it here: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_health.aspx.

    Michelle is correct about the mercury levels, however, harmful fishing practices and overfishing should be considered when purchasing canned tuna. It’s best if you can find canned tuna that is labeled pole- or troll- caught. Here’s some more info on that: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_factsheet.aspx?fid=274

    The Environmental Defense Fund also has research to support Michelle’s post: http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=12667

  • Jillian

    Loved all the background you provided on tuna re. size of fish as it relates to mercury content – makes so much sense. It’s these small pieces of information that make a big difference that we take for granted. I was an albacore white fan, yikes looks like I have to make the trasition.

  • http://www.thewittygourmet.wordpress.com Dave Witty

    Not all Solid White Albacore tuna is created equal. There are many companies that use pole or troll hand line techniques that are considered responsible and sustainable. These techniques catch smaller fish which are much lower in mercury then the standard albacore tuna on the market. With a price tag of $3.50+ a can, it is much more expensive but very low in mercury and sustainably caught. Wild Planet and American tuna are just a few examples.

  • Mike Caprio

    Or, you know, don’t drain the oil at all because it adds to the flavor when you mix it in a salad?

  • Andrew

    How about you just don’t drain the oil…?

  • super4me2000

    Thanks so much. I was just watching NBC’s Rajh Mathai (probably not the correct spelling) doing a segment on tuna. He said clearly that children should not eat the white or albacore tuna and should be limited to a once a month helping of the other tuna. News to me. My son does not like tuna but I, just (yesterday)went to the store and bought tuna. I felt like a cheap bas**rd because I did not buy the albacore or white and bought the regular in water not oil (times are tough all over).
    They only mentioned children under 55 lbs. As much as I like tuna and now that I have a couple of cans in the cabinet, would very much like to know what the helping is for a normal adult. I will go on and find out the proper serving but thanks for the heads up on the where and why the Merc levels are so high. Good luck to all and may all your tuna be clean and fresh!!!!!!

  • ProudMom

    I have 8 months baby boy and routinely gave him approx 7 ounces in mix of his vegetable porridge. I dont know what kind of tuna it is because in the market, even the seller cannot answer what tuna species it is. The cust is 1 x 1 inch tuna cubes. Should I stop feeding him this tuna? Any suggestion?

    • ProudMom

      Forgot something. I mean, 7 ounces for about 3-4 days meal, put the porridge inside the refrigerator and everytime he got meal, took it out and put about half glass of porridge (100 gram) inside the refrigerator.

  • fisherman steve

    moron Albacore is the second smallest, most tuna in cans is from yellowfin, the average albacore is around 70 pounds

  • Janie

    What brands have the least mercury ?

  • Adair

    Loving your blog, Michelle! My boys love tuna – so it was interesting to see the guidelines for children. We do eat the “chunk light” type, but I see now, more frequently than recommended for 50 lb boys – very helpful information.

  • http://www.thesweetbeet.com/ Michelle

    So glad you are! Ya, the unfortunate thing with tuna is that even the “better” kind still has it in it. If we could just get industrial pollution under control (the main cause of the mercury in the water in the first place), we could indulge daily!

  • Jillian

    Loved all the background you provided on tuna re. size of fish as it relates to mercury content – makes so much sense. It’s these small pieces of information that make a big difference that we take for granted. I was an albacore white fan, yikes looks like I have to make the trasition.

  • got mercury

    An excellent resource for learning more about mercury in tuna and other fish is the website http://www.gotmercury.org. They even host a calculator that helps you determine how much mercury is potentially in different types of fish

  • http://www.tuneid.com/members/leelinda123.html weight

    yeah my dad will like this

  • http://www.20somethingcupcakes.com Sarah from 20somethingcupcakes

    So informative! Loving your blog.

  • Karen

    I think you intended to use the word ‘leach’, rather than ‘leech’.

  • Michelle

    Ha! Correction made … there are no bloodsuckers that I know of that we can blame a loss of Omegas on … thanks for catching this!