Canned tuna is a staple pantry item, and, perhaps surprisingly, a lot is going on in that little can.
Not all canned tuna is created equal though. From a taste, texture, or health perspective, each brand is different. But canned tuna is incredibly versatile, so let's dive in and learn what you need to know to buy the right canned tuna for your needs.
Canned, jarred, packed in a pouch, water or oil-packed, or just tuna itself with nothing else, we have the details.
All About Canned Tuna – And How To Eat It Safely & Deliciously
Tuna was first packed in the U.S. in 1903 and has been an economical protein choice ever since.
Americans consume about 1 billion pounds of canned and pouched tuna each year, according to The National Fisheries Institutes Tuna Council. You probably know there are water- and oil-packed tuna, which comes in cans and jars. Now there are pouches, too, but there is so much more to know.
You have probably noticed that not all canned tuna looks the same. This section discusses the various tuna types you will commonly find in the supermarket.
White tuna is albacore, a species of tuna that is pale in color with a very mild taste. In the U.S., only albacore tuna can be labeled as “white.” A classic American tuna salad is typically made with white tuna.
Several different species are used for tuna labeled “light tuna,” which has a bolder flavor than albacore and is darker in color than white tuna. Light tuna is somewhat pinkish or even reddish in color. The stronger flavor works well in dishes ranging from pasta to casseroles – and even tuna salad if you appreciate the slightly fishier taste.
Here are varieties used for light tuna:
- The most common variety used for light tuna is Skipjack, and you will often see that called out on the label. Skipjack has a high oil content and a strong flavor.
- Yellowfin, also known as Ahi, has a firmer texture and milder flavor than Skipjack.
- Tongol tuna (sometimes spelled “Tonggol”) is tender in texture and has a milder flavor than Skipjack.
According to AboutSeafood.com, tuna is considered “an excellent source of the essential omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, proven to help maintain a healthy heart.”
It is known to be rich in protein while also being low in fat and calories. In fact, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association recommend eating fish two times a week as part of a heart-healthy diet.
Low Sodium Tuna
Canned tuna can be high in sodium, but luckily, many brands offer lower sodium choices. Read labels. It is possible to find some that are even 50% lower in sodium than their counterparts.
Solid & Chunk Varieties
Tuna labels also sport words like “solid” and “chunk,” but what do they mean? For the largest pieces of tuna, look for “solid” tuna, which is taken from the tuna loin. “Chunk” tuna will have smaller pieces and is often less expensive, but it works perfectly well in salads, casseroles, and other recipes where small pieces are not an issue.
Tuna Comes in Cans, Jars – and Pouches!
Canned tuna might be what most of us envision when we think about prepared tuna, but some tuna comes in glass jars, and, newer on the scene, there are now pouches, too.
Canned tuna is in every supermarket, and you can choose several brands and price points. The typical size cans in the U.S. are 3-ounce, 5-ounce, and 12-ounce, with the 5-ounce being the most common.
The tuna will be water or oil packed; some of that weight is from the liquid. A typical 5-ounce (142 gram) can of tuna will yield 4-ounces (113 grams) of drained tuna.
With cans of tuna in your pantry, you will never be without an easy meal. Try this updated tuna casserole, which also happens to be gluten-free.
Tuna in Glass Jars
Tuna in glass jars tends to be more expensive than canned, but in this instance, you get what you pay for. It is often of truly exceptional taste and texture; we love the Tonnino brand.
Don't compare canned tuna to these more expensive jarred versions. The jarred ones aren't quite fresh tuna steak, but they are typically light years beyond everyday canned tuna. Use jarred when you want something a little special, like this recipe for tuna pan bagnat – aka the best tuna sandwich ever!
Pouch Pack Tuna
Right next to all the cans in the supermarket, you will see pouches of tuna. Pouch pack tuna is often more expensive than canned, but it offers convenience and less mess. Bring a pouch along with you to the office or on a picnic; rip open the top, and you are ready to eat. No draining is necessary.
Flavored Tuna Options
Many brands are offering flavored tuna; lunch-to-go choices have never been easier.
Look for StarKist Tuna Creations pouches in flavors like Hickory Smoke, Herb & Garlic, Hot Buffalo, Sweet & Spicy, Ranch, and Lemon Pepper. You can even find variety packs. Chicken of the Sea Infusions Wild Caught Tuna comes in easy-to-open cups in flavors like Cracked Black Pepper, Thai Chili, and Cilantro Lime. Bumble Bee has Chipotle, Sriracha, Lemon Sesame & Ginger, and Sun-Dried Tomato & Basil. Just add some crackers, and you have a meal.
Or, speaking of crackers, Bumble Bee has a new product called Snack On The Run. A small box contains a container of prepared tuna salad in various flavors and crackers. According to AboutSeafood.com, 83% of Americans who eat tuna eat it for lunch, which is often out of the home.
Is Water-packed Tuna Packed in Water? Not Always!
Let's address water-packed tuna for a moment. You probably think your “water-packed tuna” is packed in water, right? Not so fast. Read labels carefully. Some will say water, while others will list “vegetable broth.” This is the case for most commercial and common brands in the U.S., including Bumble Bee, StarKist, and Chicken of the Sea.
The issue is that “vegetable broth” might contain ingredients you do not want in your diet. Maybe you are avoiding soy or have food intolerances to onion, garlic, or tomatoes. We contacted some top companies to get to the bottom of this for you; some calls went better than others.
Here's what we found out:
- Bumble Bee: All their tunas that state “vegetable broth” on the label contains a broth made from “carrots, peas, green and red bell peppers, onion, parsley, celery, and garlic.”
- StarKist: All their tunas that state “vegetable broth” on the label contains a broth made from “carrots, celery, garlic, onions, parsley, peas, soybeans, tomatoes, and potato extract.”
- Chicken of the Sea: All their tunas that state “vegetable broth” on the label contains a broth made from “one or more of the following vegetables: beans (including soybeans), cabbage, carrots, celery, garlic, onions, parsley, peas, potatoes, green bell peppers, red bell peppers, spinach, and tomatoes.” Calls to corporate could not discern the exact blend, although they kept repeating that if you have an “allergy” (their word) to any of the ingredients, you should not eat any of their products made with vegetable broth.
Why Does Canned Tuna Contain Vegetable Broth?
Chicken of the Sea addresses the use of vegetable broth on their website as follows:
“Why do we add vegetable broth to the canned tuna? Vegetable broth is added to our canned tuna as a flavor enhancer, resulting in a milder flavor.”
We guess these manufacturers don't think consumers want their fish to taste like fish.
Water-packed Tuna That Is Actually Packed in Water
Pole & Line Albacore White Tuna and Trader Joe's Solid White Albacore contain tuna, water, and salt. Whole Foods 365 house brand Wild Skipjack Tuna contains tuna and water.
Wild Planet brand, which we highly recommend, has one ingredient – tuna!
The Shelf-life of Tuna
Unopened cans of tuna have recommended shelf lives of up to four years. This assumes the cans are not exposed to extreme temperatures and are not damaged. Pouched tuna has a shorter shelf-life; use it up within three years.
Choosing Tuna That Is Good for You – And The Environment
The issue of mercury content in canned tuna has been discussed for years, and you probably have questions. Pollution releases mercury into our environment, including the oceans. Larger fish, like tuna, accumulate more mercury than smaller fish because they eat all those smaller fish.
The FDA keeps up to date with guidelines suggesting that pregnant women and children should watch their intake. According to the FDA and the EPA, light or Skipjack tuna will contain lower mercury levels than albacore.
How To Buy Tuna That Doesn't Hurt The Environment
The environmental issue with tuna is how it is fished. The worst-case scenario is that the tuna is fished using the “purse seine method.” With this technique, large nets are cast, and while tuna might be the target fish, many other fish and sea creatures might get caught up in the net, including endangered or protected species.
These creatures are the “bycatch.” This non-targeted and non-specific approach leads to the over-fishing of the oceans. The alternative method is “line caught,” which many consumers prefer.
What Is Dolphin Safe Tuna?
Let's get one thing clear: “dolphin-safe” doesn't mean ocean safe. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has been battling this issue for years, attempting to bring clarity to the consumer.
Since 1990 the “dolphin-safe” term started popping up within tuna marketing. Since some tuna (often the yellowfin species) swim alongside dolphin pods, and if the tuna are fished using net-casting methods, dolphins can be caught up and harmed.
The problem is that even if this method is not used, any tuna caught in the eastern tropical Pacific can only be called dolphin-safe if an independent observer verifies that no dolphins were harmed. The question is: who is watching the observer?
Tuna caught anywhere else in the world can be called dolphin safe with a simple declaration from the ship's operator. This raises the question of what their credentials are or what their motivations are. Relying on self-reporting makes this a flawed moniroring system.
Additionally, many Americans will envision Flipper, the beloved dolphin character of 1960s television. Seeing the words “dolphin-safe” tugs at their emotions, and they think buying it is a good thing. Who doesn't want to save Flipper?
Activists will point out that this marketing term completely ignores the fact that rays, turtles, sharks, marlins, and other sea creatures might be, and probably are, harmed. We do not recommend using “dolphin-safe” labeling as your main guide for now.
Some brands are very targeted with their dolphin-safe messaging. On the lid of Bumble Bee Solid White Albacore in Vegetable Oil, there is a URL to “Trace My Catch.” They are members of the ISSF (International Seafood Sustainability Foundation), an esteemed sounding organization; however, their funding largely comes from corporations, such as canned tuna fish manufacturers.
Pole & Line Albacore packs their lid with information like the name of the ship and captain and that they are a member of IPNLF (International Pole and Line Foundation).
Our point in mentioning this is to show how brands are very good at marketing, making their product appear to be “better” than it might actually be. We leave it to you to ultimately make your own decisions.
Helpful Tuna Label Reading Tips
Read labels and look for wording that says, “pole and line caught” or “troll caught,” meaning the fish were caught one at a time and not in catch-all nets.
You can also look for certifications such as the MSC (the Marine Stewardship Council) seal or look at lists compiled by Seawatch.org and seek out tuna that is designated by them as “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative.” Steer clear of those with the “Avoid” stamp.
Whole Foods has had a policy enacted for years that states that any tuna they sell will be traceable from the boat and all the way to the can. They will only sell tuna sourced from fisheries that use pole, troll, or handline catch methods and are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or rated a “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which created Seafoodwatch.org.
Greenpeace also publishes lists of canned tuna brands addressing their ethical and sustainable approach to tuna fishing. Wild Planet is well received.
For dozens of ways to put those cans and jars of tuna to work, check out 18 Ways to Use Canned Tuna for recipes from salads to casseroles, sandwiches, pasta, and more.
This article was produced by Wealth of Geeks.
Dédé is the Co-Founder of FODMAP Everyday®, a website that teaches the millions of IBS sufferers worldwide to thrive on the clinically proven low FODMAP diet. Dédé lives with IBS herself, has been a professional recipe developer for over 30 years, has written 17+ cookbooks, hosted two PBS cooking shows, and was an editor at Bon Appetit magazine. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and mini bull terrier, Nora.