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Which Canned Tuna Is Better: Oil-Packed or Water-Packed?

By Tami Weiser
August 9, 2021
Design by Zoe Burnett

Few foods are as affordable, nutritious, and reliable as canned tuna. And even fewer are as versatile. Tuna salad sandwiches and tuna melts come to mind, of course, but also creamy casseroles and pastas, crunchy green salads, and hearty fish cakes. Keep a can or two of this lean protein on hand, and you’ll always have lots of options for quick and healthy meals.

But which canned tuna should you buy?

In recent years, the options have exploded. And while we’re totally (ahem) on board with that, having more choices also means more confusion. Read on to find out more about what’s out there and which canned tuna is right for you.

Canned Tuna Basics

The FDA and EPA jointly recommend eating fish like tuna every week. In their Dietary Guidelines for 2020-2025, the FDA recommended that the general population eat about 8 ounces of low-mercury fish or shellfish like canned light tuna weekly for a well-balanced diet.

And with good reason: Canned tuna is a nutrition powerhouse. For starters, a 1/2 cup serving has a whopping 13 grams of protein. It’s also a rich source of essential minerals and nutrients. Of note: long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, needed for good heart health, brain functioning and growth; the antioxidant selenium; and vitamin D, which helps maintain healthy bones and teeth.

Canned tuna may come from several different species, including albacore, skipjack, bluefin, and yellowfin. The species, the size, and even what the fish ate can all affect the taste, texture, and health benefits. For example, albacore and bluefin tuna have the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids, followed by skipjack and yellowfin.

Canned tuna also comes packed in either water or oil, both of which are widely available Marine Stewardship Council certified as well as Non-GMO Project verified. To make sure that you’re buying the most responsibly fished options, look for labels that say “pole and line caught.”

tuna salad sandwich

Photo Credit: Downshiftology

Water-Packed Tuna

Tuna packed in water is what most people expect from canned tuna. Without any additional fats or ingredients, a can contains more protein and fewer calories than oil-packed tuna. It’s ideal for recipes where richer ingredients get mixed in — like classic tuna salad.

  • Taste: Water-packed tuna is firm, light in texture, easy to flake or mash, and quite dry.
  • Nutrition: Fewer calories than oil-packed tuna, but with all the protein. Be sure to check sodium levels or purchase “no salt added” water-packed tuna if you’re concerned about extra sodium.
  • How to use it: The “water” is usually a salty brine or broth that keeps the fish ready to drain and use with ease. The dry quality of the fish makes water-packed a great option for richer recipes — including pan-fried tuna cakes or a tuna salad.
  • Brands we love: 365 by Whole Foods, Wild Planet, Safe Catch, Ocean Naturals
tuna pasta

Photo Credit: Salt & Lavendar

Oil-Packed Tuna

Because it’s packaged in oil, this tuna is the richer, moister 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: The tuna is tender, moist, medium firm, while the oil has a strong tuna flavor.
  • Nutrition: Protein-packed and loaded with healthy fats, especially if it’s in extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil. A few nutritionists have argued that the natural fat in the tuna bonds so thoroughly with the oil it’s stored in that when the oil is eventually drained, many of the nutritional benefits are lost. The easy solution? Use that oil (see below).
  • How to use it: In most cases, you’ll drain the oil from the tuna — no need to rinse after. Use the tuna in large pieces on fresh salads, like salad niçoise, baked in casseroles or tossed with pasta…  But save the oil! It’s terrific in an extra-savory salad dressing or to make mayonnaise or aioli.
  • Brands we love: Ortiz, Tonnino, Genova, Bela

The Bottom Line

From a nutrition standpoint, water-packed tuna provides you with pure protein and a more subtle tuna flavor. Oil-packed tuna, on the other hand, has a softer texture and stronger tuna flavor. Both water-packed and oil-packed are excellent sources of protein and can be found from sustainable, non-GMO brands. In other words, it’s really up to you. Which do you prefer?



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