Choosing the Right Type of Tuna

by in Healthy Tips, October 7, 2009

grilled tuna
We’ve featured lots of tuna recipes this week, but now we want to go back to basics: choosing between the different types. There are so many options — water or oil-packed? Canned or fresh? Chunk light or albacore?

Canned Choices
Water and oil-packed canned tuna are both delicious (especially the fancy imported kinds packed in olive oil), but all that oil jacks up the fat and calories. Oil-packed has about three times more fat than water-packed does. Water-packed is best for everyday use, and only use the oil stuff for smaller portions — say, sprinkling a small amount over a large salad to share with dinner guests. (Draining some of the oil off will also help.)

Your other canned tuna choice involves the type of fish; white albacore and chunk light are the most common. White albacore is a larger fish and, when canned, has a meaty texture with a mild flavor. Chunk light tuna is a smaller species of tuna; when canned, it has a softer, flakier texture and can have a stronger flavor.

The calories are about the same for the two (white tuna has about four more calories per ounce), and each has about 20 grams of protein per three-ounce serving. Because it’s a larger fish, albacore is higher in heart-healthy omega-3 fats but it’s also higher in mercury, which can be toxic in large quantities. (We have more on the dangers of mercury here.)

I use both kinds of tuna for different types of recipes. Firmer albacore tuna stands up better in dishes like my Tuna Pasta Salad. Chunk light works when tuna is your main ingredient. When prepping a large batch of tuna salad, I use a can of each to up the omega-3 fats while keeping the mercury levels lower.

Fresh Tuna
If you’re a sushi fan or like to grill up steaks, this is what you want. When choosing, the main thing to consider here is the size of the fish and the mercury amounts. As a general rule, the bigger the fish, the more mercury in it. Some of the larger, highest-mercury varieties include bluefin, bigeye, yellowfin and albacore, but yellowfin and albacore have half as much mercury as the bigeye. It gets even more confusing — both bigeye and yellowfin tuna are commonly referred to as “ahi tuna.” You may want to ask your server to specify next time your place your sushi order.

According to, a 150-pound person can eat two and half to three ounces of bigeye tuna per week and keep their mercury exposure within safe limits. If you eat fish multiple times a week or are pregnant, you may be better off sticking with the lower mercury varieties.

Another fresh-fish concern is the way that it’s caught or raised. In some cases, it’s smarter to pick wild; in other situations, farmed is better. Read up on our tips for choosing healthy and sustainable fish.

Bottom Line: Mix up the types you eat and stick to smaller portions of higher-mercury tuna.

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