A few years back, people were left reeling after ABC revealed in a piece on farmed salmon a widespread use of chemical coloring in the industry. Following the report, much of the public voiced concerns, outrage in some cases, over the chemicals used and a general feeling of deception about the practice’s existence, even though this is hardly a trade secret. Even so, the notion of farmed salmon having the color of their flesh altered in any way was disconcerting to many and there are countless websites and journals calling into question the products stemming from salmon farming specifically and aquaculture in general.
But while many consumers and consumer groups, were and are shouting for more transparency in the industry around the labelling of synthetically colored salmon, the question remains: is colored salmon actually bad for us to eat? And should we be encouraging the industry to abandon the practice in place of a chemical-free farmed salmon—one with a decidedly less appealing grey flesh? There are a couple of overarching themes that need to be explored when thinking the problem through.
Biology. So what is it that makes wild salmon pink? The chemical in question can be found in nature. Astaxanthin is a naturally occurring antioxidant, meaning that it helps to protect cells from damage and happily turns wild salmon pink. Functionally, synthetic astaxanthin used by aquaculturists is the same. The synthetic compound will have exactly the same effect in the body of the farmed fish as it does in the wild. In the wild, it is a natural process which occurs when fish consume a diet of algae and krill. The same process is mimicked with farm salmon, meaning they are receiving the same nutrients they would in nature, and their bodies metabolize astaxanthin as they would in nature.
The process, as it turns out, is about more than visual appeal. Astaxanthin is essential to the salmon natural reproductive cycle and functions as a provitamin, being converted to vitamin A. Salmon are unable to make astaxanthin themselves, needing a dietary supply for these vital functions. It just happens to have a pink pigmentation to it, which in turn impacts the salmon flesh. So the notion of “dying” is something of a myth. Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of difference between wild-caught and farmed salmon, at least for the more reputable farms, simply because farmed salmon are fed a diet that seeks to maximize the fish’s natural nutrition and mimic what they would eat in a wild scenario. Major farmers will give their fish a diet that keeps their fatty acids as similar to that of wild salmon as possible – it’s a matter of flavor and, in turn, profits.
To be sure, there are ample arguments why NOT to eat farmed salmon, all of which are open to debate. Contaminants in the water, the types of feed used, and a host of other issues are all relevant, and I’m certainly not advocating one position or another. But color is hardly one of them.
The Ick Factor. Beyond biology, there’s also the matter of how we respond to foods that don’t fit out psychological frame.And grey salmon falls into that category. A study by DSM showed that shoppers are more attracted to darker shades of salmon. And that added color can be priced higher in part because of its resemblance to wild salmon. Not dying farmed salmon would make it more affordable, but only if people would actually purchase salmon that’s not pink, which doesn’t seem likely. We have a cultural understanding of how ingredients and dishes are “supposed” to be. These reflect notions of cleanliness, nature, purity, and an array of other norms. Consequently, eating grey salmon would be reminiscent of eating blue bread – beyond the potential novelty, it simply doesn’t fit our understanding of what’s “right”. Furthermore, grey is a color often associated with decay or blandness in our society. So in addition to grey salmon falling outside our idea of what salmon “should be”, it also signals associations with unhealthiness and death. Pretty heavy, yes, but relevant if you’re farming or selling salmon for a living.
We learn from those around us what’s worth eating and what should be avoided, and those categories vary between regions. But somehow, the reminder that taste is so very relative, and so very learned, never fails to shock. The same holds true when we think about how food should look. Ultimately, visual appeal is just as important as the tasting experience of the food. Before we even take that first bite, we’ve already judged the meal in front of you. How that food looks makes an impression, even a promise, with the viewer. Pink salmon promises delight. Grey salmon promises disappointment.
Putting Pink Into Practice. So if your goal is to sell more farmed salmon, you have to convey that its pink hue isn’t detrimental and that it keeps the buyer from freaking out. Great. Those are fairly straightforward tasks, assuming you can get people to stop long enough to listen to what your brand has to say. This holds true of nearly any product – features, benefits, and fact are all necessary to make your brand’s case. But they hardly win hearts and minds. And that requires digging a bit deeper and connecting bigger cultural truths to what you make or do.
In the case of farmed salmon, one path may be to speak to the higher moral truth of climate change and consumption. Wild-caught salmon is commonly available but under current rates of spawn and catch, it is not sustainable. The ability to make an identical version of this nutrient increases the ability of the industry to sustainably grow without depleting naturally occurring, but limited, resources. Therefore your brand stands for something bigger than fish production, it stands for a healthy, sustainable future. Adding astaxanthin using the current methods, while not perfect, helps maintain and preserve the planet and wild fish stocks. Of course, there is a simple reality that in a polarized, digital age you will always be a target. Taking a position means taking on risk. But responding to criticism strengthens a brand’s relationship with its customer base. Some negative commentary is short-lived, some is continuous and reflects a specific world view. In either case, it requires having a plan in place to diffuse the situation.
And the clearer your brand’s cause, the easier it is for that plan to come together. The point is simple — dig deeper, whether you’re selling salmon or flea medicine. Uncovering cultural patterns of meaning leads to better branding, better campaigns, and better marketing.