– Farmed salmon is actually very white or brownish-white in flesh. Farmed salmon don't get the natural diet that gives the meat its pink color like wild salmon, says Kjell Jensvoll, owner of Jensvoll Fish.
Kjell Jensvoll was originally a fisherman in northern Norway who moved south and established a fish shop in Haslum in Bærum. An ardent supporter of wild fish, he occasionally sells farmed fish.
– Farmed fish is not the real thing, says Jensvoll.
– Yes, a type of beta-carotene is added to farmed salmon feed, Liv Helen Zeppele chimes in from behind the fish counter.
They say it is not known among customers.
NRK interacts with research communities to gain more knowledge about the color of farmed salmon.
Saves color in muscles
Salmon's well-known pink color is due to the ability of its muscles to store dyes from the food it eats. This ability is not found in any other species of fish, says Trine Ydrestle, a researcher at Nofima.
Ytrestøyl has a PhD in salmon pigmentation and has worked with it for over 20 years.
As salmon live and swim freely in oceans, lakes, and rivers, they eat food that naturally produces a pink color in their muscles. Wild salmon feed on shrimp, shrimp shells, crab, algae and plankton.
– The red color in salmon and trout comes from the pigment astaxanthin. Fish cannot produce this dye, the color comes from the feed, says Ytrestøyl.
But farmed salmon don't get access to shrimp, crab or other natural foods that color the muscles. Salmon raised in cages live on industrially produced dry feed. Fish feed on pellets. Artificially produced astaxanthin is added to feed to compensate for the lack of pigments in feed.
It's the same substance that turns lobster red when cooked, Ytrestøyl explains.
– Synthetically produced astaxanthin is similar to that found in nature and is not harmful. It also contains an antioxidant, says Ytrestøyl.
Astaxanthin can also be obtained from a special type of yeast.
Astaxanthin Salmon contains substances that boost the immune system and protect against disease.
During the spawning migration, the salmon changes color to the eggs so that the roe also turns reddish pink.
Salmon should have more color
The content of dry feed for salmon has changed in recent years. Previously, farmed salmon received high protein from fish meal and fish oil. Now, soy, wheat and rapeseed oil are added more than ever before.
The problem with the farming industry is that salmon in cages do not absorb the dye astaxanthin very well.
According to Research funding by the fisheries and aquaculture industry is patchy or inconsistent Red color in salmon has increasingly become a quality problem for farmed salmon in Norway. Pigment levels in fish have been reduced in recent years, and in 2020 the lowest pigment levels were reported in farmed salmon.
– Farmed salmon have turned white in recent years, and the cause is unknown, but research is being done to determine whether it is due to stress or disease, says Ytrestøyl.
As a result, more and more dye must be added to the feed for farmed fish.
The threshold value for the use of the additive is regulated by the European Union.
– In order for such feed additive to be approved for use, it must be documented that it does not harm the animal, the consumer or the environment., says Robin Arnsrud, research director at the Institute of Marine Research, HI.
In recent months, NRK has had several reports showing high levels of disease in farmed salmon. Some of the key words are mass death in farming facilities along the entire coast from western Norway to Møre, large outbreaks of lice, gill-diseased salmon with respiratory problems, and self-dead salmon that the Norwegian Food Safety Authority deemed to be on the market.
The question is whether the reduced ability of farmed salmon to absorb dye also affects fish health. That is currently being studied.
Researchers still don't know if there's a link between the decrease in red color in fish meat and the increased incidence of disease in farmed salmon.
A strong pink color pays more money
– Astaxanthin is essential for fish health as an antioxidant. Additionally, it is considered attractive to consumers. This pigment has the dual function of coloring the muscles and adding an important antioxidant, says researcher Gunnar Sundstahl Eriksson from the Institute of Veterinary Medicine.
Research is now being done to understand which genes are involved in salmon's red color so that the farming industry can breed salmon that absorb the color more efficiently.
Because the perfect pink color has a direct impact on the profitability of the industry.
Several consumer studies have shown that consumers associate dark pink with good quality salmon. Studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay more for salmon with a deep pink color in the flesh.
But consumers in different countries have different preferences for how deep the pink color of salmon should be. Breeding companies order pink according to a color chart, reminiscent of what we know from paint stores.
In Japan, consumers prefer pink salmon, for example, in France and Italy, they prefer dark pink.
Some farming companies go organic and add dye to feed in a more natural way by using shrimp shells and algae.
– Astaxanthin is assessed as safe for animal health, public health and the environment, says Ann-Cicely Hansen, senior adviser at the Norwegian Food Safety Authority.
The Norwegian Food Safety Authority also conducts inspections of salmon feed manufacturers.
– In 2024, Hansen says, the focus will be on using additives under the supervision of pre-manufacturers.
At the fish store, general manager Jensvoll says consumers' ignorance of salmon's color seems a little strange.
– When wild salmon and farmed salmon are next to each other on the counter, customers usually point to the farmed salmon because it is stronger in color. Wild salmon is a much lighter pink, says Jensvoll.
He had no doubts about which salmon he wanted.
– Wild salmon, of course. It swims freely in the ocean and makes a good living. It tastes great and is healthy.
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