Not All Tuna is the Same

Written By: Owennie Lee, RD

Title: Registered Dietitian

Alumni: University of British Columbia

Last Updated on:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that pregnant or nursing women and young children eat up to 12 ounces of fish and seafood a week, while limiting some higher-mercury fish, such as albacore tuna, to 6 ounces a week. It is so confusing trying to figure out which kinds of tuna are safe that many people simply avoid tuna altogether. Light, white, and albacore; fresh, frozen, and canned – how do we know which ones are safe to eat?

Tuna Vocab 101 – Canned Tuna Varieties

Albacore (Also known as “White”)

Commonly found in cans and pouches, albacore is a premium variety and is the only tuna species that can be called ?white? due to its white flesh. Because of the fish?s larger size, it tends to contain more mercury. Enjoy up to 6 oz. (one meal) of albacore tuna per week.

Skipjack (Also known as “Light”)

70% of the canned and pouched tuna is actually skipjack (with some small amount of yellowfin). Because the flesh is light in color (but not white), skipjack is also known as ?light? tuna. Skipjack is a relatively small tuna, and therefore has a lower level of mercury. Skipjack tuna is the most sustainable type of tuna.

Yellowfin (Also known as “Light”)

Yellowfin is also known as ?light? canned or pouched tuna, named for its pale pink flesh. Less commonly canned than skipjack and albacore, yellowfin has a slightly more pronounced flavor than albacore.

Tuna Steaks

Because tuna steaks generally contain higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna, you may eat up to 6 ounces of tuna steak per week.


Also known as ahi in Hawaii (and as ?ahi tuna? on restaurant menus). Usually eaten as a steak or as sashimi, bigeye tuna is not typically canned.


Bluefin tuna is highly prized for its dark and fatty flesh. It is a delicacy in Japan, where the price of a single giant tuna can exceed $100,000. It is mostly made into sashimi, and not found in cans or pouches. However, because bluefin tuna is slow to reproduce and grossly over-fished, it has become the focus of vigorous conservation efforts by governments and regulatory agencies.

FDA’s Recommendation on Mercury, Fish and Tuna

In March 2004, FDA and EPA revised its advisories on mercury in fish for pregnant women and young children. Generally they are advised to eat no more than 2 meals of low-mercury fish per week – one can of light tuna or half a tuna steak is considered one meal. FDA recommends to limit albacore white tuna to one meal per week as it is higher in mercury. So check the labels when purchasing canned tuna.

Target Women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury
Avoid Fish with High levels of Mercury Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish
12 oz. (~2 meals) of Low-Mercury Fish per week shrimp, crab, cod, clams, scallops, canned light tuna, canned salmon, pollock, and catfish etc.Note: Albacore “White” tuna contains more mercury. Limit 6 oz (~1 meal) of albacore tuna per week.

For a complete list of fish and recommended portion, go to National Resources Defense Council

What are the nutrition values in Fish and Tuna?

A well-balanced diet consisting of various fish and shellfish can contribute to better heart health and proper growth and development in children. Not only does fish and shellfish contain high-quality protein, but they also contain many essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat and contain high amounts of omega 3 fatty acids.

Key Message: Tuna and fish is heart friendly. In fact, the American Heart Association definitely recommends fish and fish products for prevention of heart disease. Choose wisely and do not give up fish. Try to eat fish for an average of 2 meals a week. For more detailed information, check out FDA’s Seafood Information website

The Bottom Line

Tuna is rich in protein, low in saturated fat and calories, and is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Choose tuna often but pay attention to the following recommendations:

  • Higher in Mercury: Tuna steaks and canned albacore (or “white”) tuna – enjoy up to 6 ounces of tuna steak per week.
  • Low in Mercury: Canned light tuna (skipjack or yellowfin) – enjoy up to 12 ounces per week.


albacore, bigeye, bluefin, food safety, mercury, pregnancy, skipjack, tuna, yellowfin


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