By Tami Weiser
Few pantry items are as affordable, nutritious, and reliable as canned tuna. So, we’re not surprised that the options have exploded in the past few years. You might even say we’re (ahem) on board with it. But more options also means more confusion about what to buy for your dietary needs and taste buds.
Read on to find out more about what’s out there and which canned tuna is right for you.
Canned & Jarred Tuna: The Basics
The world of canned tuna has always included many options. There are many species, like albacore tuna, skipjack, Bluefin tuna and Yellowfin tuna (a sushi lover’s fav). The species, the size, and even what the fish ate can affect the taste and texture. Then there’s canned or jarred tuna. Often jarred tuna uses pre-cooked tuna loins either in a broth or brine or in oil. Before we demystify what the similarities and differences are between water-packed and oil-packed tuna, here’s a few things that are the same about oil and water packed tuna.
- Tuna is a protein and omega-3 powerhouse: Tuna is a rich source for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, needed for good heart health, brain functioning and growth (making it excellent for children, bodybuilders and their grandparents). Albacore and bluefin tuna have the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids followed by skipjack and yellowfin.
- Tuna is also high in selenium and Vitamin D: At a whopping 13 grams of protein per ½ cup serving, there is no doubt that tuna is a terrific choice to help build lean muscle and curb hunger.
- Tuna and sustainability: Both water-packed and oil-packed tuna are widely available Marine Stewardship Council certified as well as Non-GMO Project verified. Both are also widely available line-caught, dolphin-safe and using other conscious fishing and storage methods.
- Jarred tuna: Tuna is fished, cooked and used throughout the world, including in Europe where most tuna is jarred, not canned. The tuna itself can be seen through the packaging, so if you are looking for specific sizes, whether large or small pieces, you can see what you will get. Jarred tuna is available as water-packed or oil-packed options.
Tuna In Water
Tuna packed in water is what most people expect from canned tuna. Without any additional fats or ingredients, a can contains fewer calories than oil-packed tuna and is ideal for recipes where richer ingredients get mixed in — like classic tuna salad made with mayo. If you’re looking for more protein without the addition of fat, water-packed tuna is a great option.
- Taste: Water-packed tuna is firm, light in texture, easy to flake or mash, and quite dry.
- Health value: Far less calories than oil-packed tuna, but with all the protein, the “water” is a (usually) salty brine or broth that keeps the fish super-low cal, and ready to use with ease.
- How to use it: The dry quality of the fish makes water-packed a great option for richer recipes — including pan-fried tuna cakes or a tuna salad.
Recipes to try with water-packed tuna:
- Clean eating tuna salad recipe from The Gracious Pantry uses water-packed tuna and Greek yogurt along with lemon and mustard to give this salad a real kick.
- This classic, but upgraded tuna recipe from The Kitchn uses celery, shallots, lemon and even some pickle relish.
Tuna In Olive Oil
Oil-packed tuna is for people who love the richer side of this fish. Because it’s packaged in oil, this tuna is the richer, moist version of the canned tuna most people know. It’s delicious out of the can or on top of salads or pasta. Oil-packed tuna is great for those who are looking for a meatier version of tuna, or a protein source that also comes with a decent amount of fat.
- Taste: Tuna is tender, moist, medium firm, and the oil (especially if it’s olive oil) can be used in cooking for a richer, stronger tuna flavor.
- Heath value: Protein packed and loaded and healthy fats. Be sure to check what kind of oil it’s stored in — olive oil or avocado is preferable. Oil-packed tuna often has less sodium than water packed tuna. A few nutritionists have argued that the natural fat in the tuna bonds so thoroughly with the oil it is stored in that when the oil is eventually drained, much of the nutritional benefits of tuna’s fats are lost. The easy solution is to use that oil.
- How to use it: For most uses, you’ll drain the oil from the tuna — no need to rinse after. Use the tuna in large pieces on fresh salads, like salad nicoise, baked in casseroles and baked patties but save the oil! It’s terrific in an extra-savory salad dressing or to make mayonnaise or aioli.
Recipes to try with oil-packed tuna:
- For a fast and easy take on aglio e olio, an olive oil and garlic pantry sauce, tuna packed in oil is a must.
- This olive-oil packed tuna salad with even more protein and nutrients, showcases the delicious pairing of white beans, avocado, and arugula.
The Bottom Line
From a nutrition standpoint, water-packed tuna provides you with pure protein and the most subtle tuna flavor. Be sure to check sodium levels or purchase “no salt added” water-packed tuna if you’re concerned about extra sodium. Oil-packed tuna on the other hand has a softer texture and stronger tuna flavor due to the oil-preservation method. Look for options in olive oil for the richest taste and best health benefits. Both water-packed and oil-packed are excellent sources of protein and can be found from sustainable, non-gmo brands.