How Do You Like Your Salmon? Uninformative, Please

Danish study shows we prefer farmed salmon to wild, as long as we don’t know where the fish came from

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An unfussy eater after catching a wild salmon.
An unfussy eater after catching a wild salmon. Credit: Ron Niebrugge / Alamy Stock Photo
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

We are what we eat, they say. This gets more interesting when we have no idea what we’re eating.

Why would anybody spend money to eat gold leaf on a hamburger? Even putting aside the cost, why eat gold in any form at all? It’s all about perception, since the metal condiment enhances neither the taste nor the nutritive value of the patty. Now a study published in the journal of Food Quality and Preference drives home our vacuousness regarding food choices with the revelation that when it comes to smoked salmon, Danes think they prefer wild salmon.

But they don’t. They overwhelmingly prefer farmed salmon, as long as they don’t know what they’re eating. In fact, as long as they don’t know the fish’s provenance, they slightly prefer conventionally farmed, nonorganic salmon to organic.

The study by Mausam Budhathoki of Scotland’s University of Stirling et al of was small but feels plausible, based on the $1,770 Glamburger, gold ice cream and cones, and the fact that people will pay $113,630 per kilogram of Siberian sturgeon eggs, aka caviar – why yes, it is sprinkled with gold powder. What kind of philistine would eat Siberian sturgeon eggs without metal?

Back to smoked salmon. Budhathoki and the team tested the tastes of 92 Danes aged 18 to 65, who were given samples of conventional, organic and wild smoked salmon. Their preferences were graded along a seven-point hedonic scale.

The first round was a blind test: the test subjects did not know the provenance of their fish. In the second round, the subjects were told. Following each tasting round, the subjects marked their preferences. 

In the blind test, the subjects liked the farmed fish significantly more than the wild fish, and slightly nonorganic fish to organic. (It bears adding that organic farmers do not purport to produce tastier and more nutritious peppers or corn or fish or whatever; they purport to produce pesticide-free peppers or fish or corn or whatever.)

In the informed test, when they knew what they were sampling – their highest preference was for organic fish, then wild fish, then the non-classy conventionally farmed fish.

The conclusion is that people’s expectations about smoked fish depend more on the information they receive than their taste buds. “The blind test revealed that people simply preferred the taste of farmed salmon,” stated Budhathoki.

Fish and the Pepsi paradox

Why would they prefer conventionally farmed fish above the organic, let alone the wild fish? The study didn’t check that, but Budhathoki suggests it might be because farmed fish are fatter than wild ones, generally speaking, and therefore more flavorful than wild fish – or people have become accustomed to the look of farmed salmon on their supermarket shelves.

One might think wild fish to be the ideal meal, but first of all wild salmon are in decline, entirely because of overfishing and pollution. For example, in 2020 scientists realized that the culprit behind a massive die-off of wild coho salmon on America's West Coast was pollution from car tires washing into the rivers. Also, wild fish are not free of environmental toxins, such as PCBs and mercury, not to mention particles of plastic.

Even so, wild salmon are thought to harbor less toxins than farmed ones, but they are under terrific environmental stress. Eating farmed fish, on the other hand, comes with its own host of moral dilemmas, key ones being the suffering of the farmed fish, their propensity to infect wild fish in their area with parasites and diseases, and the environmental degradation these farms cause.

Workers at a fish farm.Credit: BOB STRONG/REUTERS

Salmon in fish farms are perennially plagued by sea lice, a crustacean that eat the fish alive. As the fish are crowded together in the farms, the lice easily jump from one to the next, and to wild fish in the area.

It bears saying that blind taste tests have forever been showing that marketing is key. Famously, in the 1980s Pepsi challenged Coca-Cola in blind taste tests and won, but it never did win the gold star of No. 1 Coke company.

Wild fish have all the cachet but none of the marketing magic of “organic.”

Which begs the question: what are organic fish? That depends where you live and what the standards for organic fish farming are. They vary.

Aren’t wild fish considered to be organic? No, on the grounds that they may, and probably do, live in polluted water and eat food contaminated with toxins.

What are we to learn from all this? Chances are we’d notice if we were given orange-dyed tofu with polka dots and told it was organic wild salmon and Siberian caviar. But evidently, when it comes to food we may succumb to mind over matter. Try experimenting with foods and misinformation at your next dinner party, or with the kids. You can have fun with this.

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