Green Kitchen: The Cheap Healthy Guide to Canned Tuna for the Planet and Your Mouth (or Something)

Green Kitchen is a bi-weekly column about nutritious, inexpensive, and ethical food and cooking. It's penned by the lovely Jaime Green.

Eating delicious meat cheaply and environmentally is not easy. Grass-fed beef often starts at $7 or $8 a pound in New York City, and shows up twice or three times that at the farmers market. Fresh and frozen fish see the same price points, as do pork and lamb.Chicken is cheaper but chicken gets boring.

Which brings us to my recent love affair with canned tuna.

It is full of protein, super-cheap, easy to prepare, and does not send my fish-allergic boyfriend into fits with its cooking fumes. But while my local Whole Foods handily grades its butchered meat and fresh fish, cans of tuna are harder to suss out.

Well, harder to suss out unless you’re at a computer. The Environmental Defense Fund has a handy ranking of seafood choices based on eco-friendliness, and canned tuna is included. (The fish’s page also includes health concerns for adults and children, related to tuna’s mercury content.)

Canned tuna tends to come in two varieties – Albacore, or white, and “light,” which can be one (or several) of several tuna varieties. When it comes to what’s good for the planet, US or Canadian Albacore is tops, with general canned white and canned light both scoring the “eco-ok” middle rating.

In terms of mercury content, Albacore’s is higher, and so should be consumed less frequently, especially by kids. (The EDF recommends children under 6 eat it no more than once a month, and sets the limit for kids 6-12 at twice a month. Adults can handle it more often more safely.) Canned light (as long as the label doesn’t include Yellowfin tuna, which has about the same mercury as Albacore) is okay for younger kids about three times a month, and once a week or so for older children.

(The EDF page on mercury in canned tuna recommends canned salmon as a healthier option – "not only because the fish are low in contaminants and high in heart-healthy omega-3s, but also because they are sustainably caught” – but I haven’t fallen in love with that taste yet.)

I was relieved to learn – admitted months after getting back into the tuna habit – that this convenient can really isn’t such a bad option. (I’m not feeding any babies nor planning on gestating one any time soon.)

There is, of course, also the issue of taste.

I’d been buying store-brand canned tuna from Whole Foods, mostly out of a mostly-blind-faith sense that their fish would be more sustainability-minded than the StarKist or whatever I could get at my local supermarket, and for $1.39 a can (versus 99 cents or so), it wasn’t too bad a price. (According to Whole Foods’ website, both of their tuna varieties are caught responsibly, and are relatively low in mercury.)

But then I started worrying that I was a snob. And chunk light tuna was on sale for 75 cents a can at the supermarket. I bought two.

I kinda wish I’d saved that second seventy-five cents.

Whereas my fancy-pants Whole Foods tuna shows its extra 64 cents in nice chunks of recognizable fish flesh and easily drained water, the cheapo can started to splurt out fish puree as soon as I tried to drain it mid-can-opening. Inside that (five-ounce, rather than WF’s six) can I found fishy mush. It tasted okay, though the texture was alarming, and why does a can of tuna need vegetable broth in the ingredients? I will be sticking to my ever-so-slightly pricier chunk tuna from now on, thank you. And enjoying it (not too many times in a week) guilt-free.

Although I’m a big fan of standard tuna salad (with, sorry Kris, mayo, and plenty of diced celery), I’m always looking for ways to do it different, and with more vegetables. This recipe from TheKitchn scores on both counts – shredded raw cabbage adds a great crispness, and fresh herbs makes everything springy. I changed the original up a bit, first of all using one can of tuna for one big, healthy, satisfying serving, and second choosing dill over chives. (It was what I had on hand, it is delicious, and it goes well with the yogurt that subs in for some mayo. Kris, you’re welcome.)

I’ll probably slow down my tuna habit a bit now for mercury concerns, but when I do go for it, this is a super-easy and healthy way to appreciate – and eat – that beloved chicken of the sea. Especially when I’m a little sick of land-chicken.


If this looks good, you'll love:

Crisp Cabbage and Tuna Salad
Serves 1
Adapted from TheKitchn.

1 5- or 6-can of tuna, drained (calculations reflect Whole Foods Tongol tuna)
1/4 a medium head of cabbage, cored chopped finely (about two cups)
1 ½ T mayonnaise (you could use reduced-fat to save calories, but don’t lie, it tastes awful)
2 T Greek yogurt (I used 2% fat)
1/3-1/4 c chopped dill
salt and ground pepper to taste (this works well with a lot of pepper)

1) Combine everything in a bowl.

Approximate Calories, Fat, Fiber, Protein, and Price Per Serving
335 calories, 17.1g fat, 4.5g fiber, 32.9g protein, $2.04

1 6-ounce can of tuna: 120 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 28g protein, $1.39
1/4 medium cabbage: 44 calories, 0g fat, 4.4g fiber, 2.3g protein, $0.25
1 1/2 T mayonnaise: 150 calories, 16.5g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.10
2 T 2% fat Greek yogurt: 19 calories, 0.6g fat, 0g fiber, 2.5g protein, $0.20
1/4 c dill: 2 calories, 0g fat, 0.1g fiber, 0.1g protein, $0.08
Salt and pepper: 0 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.02
TOTAL: 335 calories, 17.1g fat, 4.5g fiber, 32.9g protein, $2.04
PER SERVING: 335 calories, 17.1g fat, 4.5g fiber, 32.9g protein, $2.04