Most Valuable Ingredient: Canned Tuna

A tuna sandwich may be as American as apple pie, but its versatile main ingredient can take you around the world.
TunaMost valuable ingredient

Factor in the low cost and tremendous health benefits, and it's clear that canned tuna is a Most Valuable Ingredient.

Before we start, let's talk about mercury. This toxic substance is found in nearly all fish, but levels become dangerously high in large species like tuna. Albacore "white" tuna is higher in mercury than canned light tuna. Currently, the FDA recommends limiting canned tuna consumption, especially for children and women of childbearing age. Specific recommendations can be found on the FDA's web site.

The Score
Let's shop. In most supermarkets, you'll see a dizzying array of options for canned and jarred tuna. Here's the scoop on the most commonly found varieties:

Solid white: In the United States, only albacore, a single variety of tuna, may be called "white." When you open a can, you'll see large pieces of firm, white flesh. Expect a mild, almost bland flavor — this is the one to buy if you hate fishy flavor. White tuna contains more heart-healthy omega-3s than chunk light, but it also has more mercury, so it should be eaten less frequently.

Chunk light: Usually skipjack or yellowfin tuna, chunk light has a darker, flakier appearance and a more pronounced fish flavor. Because it's lower in mercury but still offers some omega-3s, choose this if you want to eat tuna more often.

Packed in water: The lowest-calorie option, but be aware that there's more than just water in the can. Vegetable broth is often included to add flavor, and it also adds sodium. Read labels carefully if you're watching your intake.

Packed in oil: Oil adds fat and calories, but many say it's worth it for the richer texture — drained tuna packed in water can be quite dry. Look for tuna in olive oil to get the best flavor.

Packed in its own juices: A newer, pricier option, this may be hard to find. Unlike other varieties, which are cooked, then packed, then cooked again, this tuna is cooked just once, in the can. The result is a clean, true tuna flavor. Don't drain it; there's a lot to savor in that liquid. Many brands use albacore, but because they only use smaller fish, the mercury levels remain low.

Pouch: Another newer choice, tuna in a pouch promises a fresher taste and firmer texture, but taste-test results are mixed. Like canned, pouches come packed with water or oil.

Jarred: Usually imported and priced at a premium, this is the most deeply flavorful tuna — you'll enjoy this straight from the jar. Most varieties are packed in olive oil.

In Play
  • The beauty of canned tuna is that, theoretically at least, it stays good forever. For best flavor, use within 3 to 5 years — but toss any cans that are dented, leaking, bulging or rusted. Once a can is opened, transfer leftovers to a covered container and refrigerate; use within 3 to 4 days.
  • As for uses, tuna works hot or cold, in good old American dishes like tuna-noodle casserole and international favorites like Niçoise salad or vitello tonnato (that's veal in tuna sauce, an Italian classic). And let's not forget the ever-popular tuna salad sandwich; we happen to have the quintessential recipe in case you're in the market.
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