Salmon Benefits: Researchers Discover the Compounds that Make the Fish so Healthy

Salmon Benefits: Researchers Discover the Compounds that Make the Fish so Healthy
  • Salmon is a heart-healthy food that is rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Researchers conducted a study in which participants ate a Mediterranean diet for two five-week periods, including two servings of salmon per week.
  • They subsequently identified specific compounds in salmon that are associated with certain health benefits, such as lower cholesterol.

Even if you have only a passing interest in diet and nutrition, you probably know that salmon is good for you.

Of course, that statement does come with a few caveats. After all, not all salmon is created equal. There is the great debate over wild versus farmed fish; and questions about which variety of salmon is the most nutritious and the best tasting — do you prefer coho, sockeye, or chinook?

Setting these questions aside though, the evidence is clear: salmon is nutritious and delicious. It is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and, of course, those heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Now, a recent study in The Journal Of Nutrition offers more support to that claim and takes a deep dive into the biological components that make salmon a superfood.

Scientists at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus are studying salmon through the lens of metabolomics, a field of study that focuses on tiny molecules known as metabolites, which are the result of metabolism, a chemical reaction that converts nutrients into energy.

When you eat food for energy, that’s your metabolism at work. Metabolites are formed during this process, and they can be measured in your blood and urine. Scientists study metabolites like tiny biological clues to see how things you’ve eaten can affect your body at the molecular level.

The goal for researchers at Anschutz was to identify specific metabolites derived from salmon and then see if they correlated with any beneficial health outcomes, like improvements to cholesterol.

“While the general benefits of salmon and omega-3s have been demonstrated in previous studies, assessing their unique and abundant metabolites related to health was a fascinating component of the study,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS RD, a Dietician with Cleveland Clinic, and co-author of Regenerative Health, told Healthline. She wasn’t involved with the study.

Identifying 508 compounds in salmon

To investigate beneficial salmon metabolites, researchers recruited 41 participants who had to adhere to a special diet for two 5-week periods, with at least a 4-week break in between. During the diet intervention periods, participants adhered to a controlled Mediterranean diet that included 2 servings of salmon per week. The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy diet that emphasizes vegetables, fish, and whole grains, while limiting sugar and refined foods.

Participants in the trial were aged 30-69 and had either overweight or obesity, but didn’t have other acute illnesses or metabolic diseases, such as diabetes.

Samples of all the food that were prepared for the participants were also analyzed in a lab to examine their metabolites. In total, scientists identified 1,518 individual compounds from the food. Only 508 of these were identified as being specific to salmon. After the salmon metabolites were determined, researchers were able to compare them with blood samples from participants.

When they looked at the number of salmon-specific metabolites that increased in blood tests while on the Mediterranean diet, only 48 were relevant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these compounds were fats, providing further proof of the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) found in salmon.

From initially more than 500 potential compounds, scientists had identified just a few dozen that could then be linked to what they called cardiometabolic health indicators.

Ultimately, increases in two salmon food-specific compounds and two metabolites were associated with improvements in cardiometabolic health indicators, such as lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, blood triglycerides, and ApoB, an indicator of heart disease.

“We are the first to identify salmon-specific bioactive compounds that increase in plasma after consuming [a Mediterranean diet] with ~4-8 oz of salmon per week. Further, several of these food-specific compounds were associated with short-term improvement in cardiometabolic health indicators,” wrote the study authors.

What are the benefits of eating salmon?

Studying salmon under the lens of metabolomics is more like chemistry or biology than nutrition. While it provides insight into the mechanisms that make salmon healthy, you don’t need to be a scientist to understand why salmon is good for you.

“Salmon is a wonderful animal-based protein rich in marine-based omega-3 fatty acids,” said Kirkpatrick.

In addition to protein and healthy fats, salmon is also high in B vitamins, potassium, and selenium — vitamins and minerals that are essential for your body.

The American Heart Association recommends two servings of fish, especially fatty varieties like salmon, twice per week: “Regularly eating fish and seafood is consistently associated with lower risk for cardiovascular disease.”

If you don’t regularly eat salmon or fish, there are still ways to try and incorporate more into your diet.

“Baby steps is always a good way to start – indeed the best diet you can be on is one that is high in nutrient density that you can stick to long term,” said Kirkpatrick.

“If fish is something you struggle to consume, either because you are not sure how to cook fish, or which kind to buy, then stick with the basics to start,” she added.

Kirkpatrick recommends starting with simple ideas like using canned fish or salmon on salads or mashing them up to make burgers. You can also use omega-3 supplements which are an accessible supplement that can be found at your local pharmacy.

No matter your preference, there are plenty of delicious and exciting ways to incorporate heart-healthy salmon and omega-3-rich foods into your diet.

Takeaway Note

Salmon is a superfood packed with protein, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Through studying specific metabolites in salmon, scientists now have a better understanding of the specific compounds that are associated with health benefits.

The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of salmon or other varieties of fatty fish per week.


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