Skip to Content

What color should salmon have?

What color should salmon have?

Salmon is one of the most popular and nutritious types of fish. It is loaded with healthy fats, high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals. Salmon can range in color from pink to red to orange. But what color should salmon be when you buy it at the grocery store or restaurant?

The natural color of salmon results from the presence of pigments called carotenoids in their diet. Wild salmon get these carotenoids by eating crustaceans and other small sea creatures. The most common carotenoid is astaxanthin, which gives salmon its distinctive pink hue.

Here are some quick answers about the proper color for salmon:

– Wild-caught salmon ranges from pink to red in color because of natural astaxanthin in their diet.

– Farm-raised salmon is given astaxanthin as a supplement, so it also has pink to red flesh.

– Pale or white salmon flesh indicates farmed salmon that were not fed astaxanthin.

– Orange or yellow salmon is also normal, resulting from other carotenoids in the diet like canthaxanthin.

So in summary, both wild and farm-raised salmon should display some shade of pink to red when raw. Minor natural color variations are normal. But very pale salmon or yellow/orange hues may indicate an issue with nutrition or quality.

What Causes the Color Variation in Salmon?

As mentioned, the pigments that give salmon its color come from compounds called carotenoids found in their natural diet. Here’s a more detailed look at what causes the color differences:


Astaxanthin is by far the most common carotenoid in wild salmon. This potent antioxidant compound creates a pinkish-red pigment when accumulated in the muscles and skin of the fish. It occurs naturally in the krill, shrimp and other small crustaceans or fish that wild salmon feed on.

Farm-raised salmon are unable to get natural astaxanthin from their diet. Instead, salmon farms add a synthetic version of astaxanthin to fish food to replicate the pink color. Research shows that both natural and synthetic forms have antioxidant health benefits.


Another carotenoid called canthaxanthin can create orange or yellow coloring in salmon. Wild salmon ingest some level of canthaxanthin from eating small fish, shrimp and other aquatic life. But salmon farms sometimes deliberately add extra canthaxanthin to produce more orange-fleshed salmon.

Canthaxanthin does not have the same health benefits as astaxanthin and large amounts may be detrimental. The FDA previously set maximum levels allowed in feed to prevent over-accumulation. Excess canthaxanthin can create deposits in the eye and have negative effects.


A carotenoid called lycopene also contributes to red pigments in salmon. Small amounts of lycopene may be found in wild salmon from eating plankton, krill and shellfish. Like astaxanthin, it is a powerful antioxidant. However, levels are much lower compared to astaxanthin.

No Carotenoids

Farmed salmon that are fed diets without astaxanthin or canthaxanthin will lack any pink, orange or red pigment. This leaves them with extremely pale or white flesh. Without pigments from carotenoids, the natural color of salmon flesh is essentially white.

Typical Color Range for Salmon Types

Within the general pink to red color spectrum, the hue can vary somewhat between wild, farmed and salmon species:

Wild Salmon

– Sockeye salmon ranges from deep red to bright cherry red

– King salmon leans more toward the red end of the spectrum

– Coho salmon has bright orange-red to pink coloring

– Pink salmon and chum salmon have lighter pink flesh

Farmed Salmon

– Atlantic salmon, the most common farmed species, is typically lighter pink than wild salmon.

– Chinook salmon raised on farms has color similar to its wild counterpart.

Keta Salmon

– Also known as chum salmon, has light pink to pale orange flesh in the wild.

– Farmed keta salmon sometimes lacks pigments, leaving it white.

How Diet Affects Color

As shown, the carotenoid content of salmon feed largely determines the eventual color of the flesh. Here’s some more detail on how wild and farmed salmon diets impact pigmentation:

Wild Salmon

Wild salmon accumulate astaxanthin and other carotenoids by consuming the natural diet they are adapted to in the wild, which includes:

– Krill

– Shrimp

– Small fish like herring and smelt

– Crab

– Other crustaceans

– Plankton

The more carotenoid-rich crustaceans the salmon eat, the more intense the flesh color. Access to food sources can vary somewhat depending on location and season, impacting final hue.

Farmed Salmon

Since farmed salmon are given feed pellets formulated for fast growth, producers can control color more precisely:

– Synthetic astaxanthin is added to give the desired pink color.

– Levels of canthaxanthin supplements determine orange/red hues.

– No carotenoid supplements result in pale flesh.

– Organic feeds derived from crustaceans, krill and algae provide natural pigments.

So the nutrients provided in artificial or natural feeds directly affect the pigmentation.

Does Color Indicate Healthier Salmon?

Many consumers associate a rich red/pink salmon color with better quality and nutrition. But does the intensity of pigments actually indicate it’s healthier? Here’s what the science says:

– Natural astaxanthin from wild salmon feed has excellent antioxidant activity. But synthetic astaxanthin has similar benefits.

– Light colored farmed salmon fed without astaxanthin likely contains lower antioxidants.

– However, pale salmon still retains the same protein, vitamins and omega-3 content as pigmented salmon. Color alone does not affect overall nutrition.

– Excessive canthaxanthin from artificial coloring may have negatives effects. But typical farmed salmon has amounts within safe guidelines.

So while dark red salmon may signal higher antioxidant levels from astaxanthin, the lack of pigments does not make farmed salmon less nutritious overall.

Is Color a Reliable Indicator of Freshness?

Many people also look to salmon color as an indicator of freshness – but this is not a fully reliable method.

Here are some key points on salmon color and quality:

– Fresh wild and farmed salmon have bright, vivid color that looks recently applied.

– Older salmon lose their sheen, and colors start to look faded or muted.

– However, color fades naturally as salmon ages after being caught or harvested, regardless of freshness.

– Proper handling and icing preserves the color better, keeping salmon looking fresher for longer.

– Pale farmed salmon may be mistaken as old or low quality, when color simply indicates no pigment in feed.

– Oxidation and freezer burn can also dull surface coloring while the interior flesh retains freshness.

So some color fading is normal even in fresh salmon. You cannot rely on color alone to determine if salmon has gone bad. Keys signs of spoiled salmon are unpleasant odors, sticky texture and dull or gray flesh.

Tips for Purchasing Salmon Based on Color

Here are some tips for buying quality salmon using color as a general guideline, while keeping the above factors in mind:

– Seek out salmon with intact, shiny skin with bright pink-orange hues. Dull or faded skin may signal mishandling.

– Flesh color should be vivid and uniform for the salmon type. Mottled or faded interior color may indicate age.

– Vacuum-packed salmon can look pale on the surface but be vibrant inside when opened.

– For farmed salmon, consistent lighter color is normal and not a concern. Avoid melanin black spots along the belly ribs and tail area.

– Check the sell-by date and look for reliable sources to get fresher salmon that retains better color.

– If in doubt, ask your fishmonger or store clerk when and where the salmon was harvested or brought in.

How Does Cooking Affect Salmon Color?

Heat from cooking can alter salmon’s appearance:

– Gentle cooking like poaching or baking retains much of the raw color.

– Higher heat exposure from grilling, broiling, pan frying or smoking leads to color changes:

– Flesh turns from translucent to opaque, losing sheen.

– Whites become cooked white.

– Reds transition to deeper orange and then brown hues.

– Curing salt also draws out moisture, intensifying the shifts to more orange and brown tones.

– Finally, charring or blackening from very high heat further darkens the exterior.

Despite alterations from cooking, these color transitions are normal and do not indicate overcooking or lower quality salmon. The interior should still flake and look moist.

Typical Color Changes When Cooking Different Salmon Types

The various salmon species have some differences in cooked color:


– Raw color: Bright, rich red

– Cooked color: Deep orange to copper


– Raw color: Vibrant orange-red

– Cooked color: Golden orange


– Raw color: Deep red

– Cooked color: Rusty reddish-brown


– Raw color: Pale pink

– Cooked color: Light golden pink


– Raw color: Light pink to orange

– Cooked color: Peach to yellowish-orange

Tips to Prevent Excess Color Change When Cooking

You can minimize changes in appearance when cooking salmon:

– Cook gently using lower temperature techniques like steaming, poaching or baking en papillotte.

– Avoid overcooking. Check for doneness early and stop once opaque and flaky.

– Brine briefly in a saltwater solution for moisture retention.

– Add antioxidant ingredients like olive oil, citrus juice or wine to the marinade.

– Sear skin-on fillets briefly skin-side down first. The skin protects the flesh.

– Layer fillets when grilling or broiling so they shield each other.

Nutritional Content and Health Benefits

Beyond color, salmon provides excellent nutritional value:

Protein and Healthy Fats

– High quality complete proteins for tissue repair and muscle growth.

– Rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, even when color is pale.

– Provides vitamin D, unlike other fish.

Vitamins and Minerals

– Excellent source of B vitamins niacin, B12 and B6.

– Good amounts of potassium, selenium and phosphorus.

– Astaxanthin boosts vitamin E and other antioxidants when present.

Summary of Benefits

Here are some of the researched health benefits of salmon:

– Promotes heart health by lowering blood pressure and triglycerides.

– Reduces inflammation to lower arthritis symptoms and risk of diseases.

– Boosts brain function and may help prevent dementia.

– Supports vision and eye health.

– Protects skin from sun damage.

– May lower risk of several cancers.

– Encourages healthy insulin response and regulates blood sugar.

Selecting Salmon Based on Use

Consider how you plan to eat the salmon when shopping. Here are tips based on preparation method:

Raw Consumption

For sushi, sashimi, ceviche, tartare or other raw uses, choose wild-caught salmon, which is commonly flash frozen to kill parasites. Farm-raised Atlantic salmon is not safe to eat raw.

Curing and Smoking

Leaner wild Pacific salmon like sockeye or coho are better for cured salmon recipes. The moderate fat content becomes sufficiently soft when cured without being overly oily.

Fattier salmon like farmed Atlantic and wild king salmon work better for smoking, as the fat keeps the flesh moist.


Any salmon works well for basic cooking methods like baking, poaching, pan frying or grilling. Fattier varieties hold up a little better to higher heat and drier techniques.

For pan or stir frying, cut your salmon into smaller pieces so it cooks quickly without drying out.


Wild pink, sockeye and coho salmon have appropriate fat levels and texture for canning. Chum salmon may become too soft. Chinook and Atlantic are too fatty for safe canning.

Average Cost of Salmon Types

Pricing varies greatly based on factors like source, season, demand and preparation. But in general:

Salmon Type Average Cost (USD per pound)
Wild King (Chinook) $25-$35
Wild Sockeye $15-$25
Wild Coho $10-$20
Wild Pink $8-$15
Wild Chum (Keta) $5-$10
Farmed Atlantic $8-$15

As shown, fatty king salmon commands the highest price due to its rich flavor and texture. Abundant wild sockeye and coho cost moderately less. Farmed Atlantic salmon is on par with wild pink and chum salmon.

Higher priced wild king and sockeye are best used in small portions where their premium qualities stand out. Cheaper wild pink and chum or farmed salmon work well for everyday cooking.

Should I Choose Wild-Caught or Farm-Raised Salmon?

Wild and farmed salmon each have pros and cons:

Wild Salmon


– More natural diet typically leads to excellent color and flavor

– Lower fat and calories on average than farmed

– Contains more heart-healthy omega-3s in most cases

– No GMO feed, antibiotics or contaminants from crowded conditions


– Limited supply and seasonal availability

– Potential for exposure to heavy metals, pollutants and parasites

– Higher cost

– Inconsistent sizing

Farm-Raised Salmon


– Available fresh year-round at stable prices

– Uniform sizing for portion control

– Strict regulations on use of additives like colorings

– Lower risk of contaminants due to controlled environments


– Requires more feed inputs like fishmeal to produce

– Fed soy and other plant sources low in healthy omega-3s

– Treatments like antibiotics may be used

– Could have excessive artificial colorings

Overall, both have a place based on your needs. Choose wild to maximize nutrition and minimize additives when you can. Farm-raised works well for cheaper, convenient salmon on a budget.


When purchasing salmon, color provides some useful indicators about diet, freshness, and quality – but has limits in determining nutrition and taste.

Focus more on choosing salmon sourced and handled properly versus judging on color alone. Wild salmon offers exceptional flavor and fat quality, but costs more. Farm-raised salmon supplies an affordable option for everyday meals.

Ultimately, salmon remains one of the healthiest protein choices. Both wild-caught and farmed salmon deliver great benefits from protein, healthy fats and micronutrients that far outweigh color considerations.