What's so great about canned tuna, anyway? Plus, how often to eat it—and how to get creative with it in the kitchen?

Brierley Horton, M.S., R.D.
February 13, 2020
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If you don't have a can or two of tuna in your pantry, we suggest you reconsider and even add it to your grocery list asap.

Here's why: canned tuna is an essential healthy pantry staple. Why, you ask? Well, for one, canned tuna is incredibly convenient—it's shelf stable and can be stored in your pantry for what feels like forever. It's also affordable (a serving ranges from 50 cents to $3-ish). And second, it's versatile: You can dress it up in different ways (more on that later) or keep it simple (salt, pepper, give or take some mayo).

But what makes tuna so worthwhile from a nutrition standpoint, and how often can I actually eat it? Here we break down more about tuna nutrition, different types of tuna and if it's OK to eat every day.

What's in a Serving of Canned Tuna?

On the nutrition facts panel on a can of tuna, a serving size is usually 56 grams, which is 1/4 cup or 2 ounces.

Here's what's in a serving of canned tuna packed in water:

  • Calories: 49
  • Total fat: 0.5g
  • Saturated fat: 0g
  • Sodium: 140mg
  • Total Carb: 0g
  • Fiber: 0g
  • Total sugars: 0g
  • Protein: 11g

Here's what's in a serving of canned tuna packed in oil:

  • Calories: 112
  • Total fat: 5g
  • Saturated fat: 1g
  • Sodium: 236mg
  • Total Carb: 0g
  • Fiber: 0g
  • Total sugars: 0g
  • Protein: 17g

The specific nutrition numbers (like calories and fat) vary with the variety of tuna you pick. Typically albacore tuna will be higher in calories and total fat, while skipjack tuna is ever-so-slightly lower in calories and has less fat. Also, it's a good idea to choose fish that are lower in mercury. The FDA recommends eating 2 to 3 servings a week from their list of Best Choices or 1 serving a week from their Good Choice list. Light canned tuna is considered a Best Choice fish while canned albacore or white tuna is considered a Good Choice.

"Seafood like tuna contains a powerhouse of nutrients including lean protein, antioxidants like selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids, which play a positive role in keeping our hearts, eyes and brains healthy. Fish also contains nutrients that can help with a child's growth and development," says Liz Weiss, MS, RDN of Liz's Healthy Table.

That hefty dose of good-for-you omega-3s are—hands down—the leading health reason to pick up a can of tuna, in our humble opinion. It can be hard to get omega-3s in your diet, since not many foods contain large amounts (here are 8 plant-based foods to help you eat enough omega-s). When you eat canned tuna, you also get a whole lot of niacin, and vitamins B12 and B6.

What You'll Find on the Label

The first three are fairly self-explanatory.

  • Packed in Oil
  • Packed in Water
  • No Salt Added. Tuna can be a sneaky source of sodium, so choosing "no salt added" will help to keep your sodium in check. Another way to verify is to, of course, read the nutrition facts panel, but also the ingredient list to see if salt is even included.
  • Sustainability seals and phrases. Here's where selecting a can of tuna can feel overwhelming: you'll see MSC certified seals, dolphin and turtle safe seals, phrases like "pole- and line-caught," "wild caught," or "sustainably caught." Turns out, dolphin safe labels are slightly ambiguous in how they're checked and enforced. And other label claims are up to the producers' discretion (though many brands now offer tracing back to the original source as a check and balance for consumers). That said, third-party verification, like MSC certified, is still the most legit.

Is It Healthy to Eat Tuna Every Day?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans says we should all be eating at least two seafood meals a week—or a total of 8 ounces. The guidelines also say that we should aim for a variety of seafood, and some folks (think: pregnant and nursing women) should seek out lower mercury fish.

Based on that recommendation: can women of childbearing age and children eat canned tuna every day? "Technically, the answer is yes, but their daily portion size would have to be very small. A pregnant woman could eat 1 or 2 ounces a day of light canned tuna and still stick with the guideline," explains Weiss. "But I prefer the FDA recommendation to eat seafood two to three times weekly versus every day. Then you leave room for other protein-rich foods, including eggs, chicken, beef, beans, and tofu."

It's a good idea to eat a variety of foods and that includes mixing up your protein. Even the most avid tuna lovers probably shouldn't eat tuna every single day of the week to make sure they aren't overdoing it on mercury and they're getting other healthy proteins in their diet.

How to Enjoy Canned Tuna

It's incredibly versatile, which is why it deserves dedicated real estate in your pantry. "Use canned tuna as a topping on a colorful, crunchy salad, or mix canned tuna with mayonnaise and/or plain Greek yogurt and serve over a halved avocado," says Weiss.

You can also riff on fish sticks and make oven-baked tuna fish sticks, or diverge from your usual salmon cake and try out a tuna version (typically called tuna croquettes). See more of our healthy tuna recipes.

Bottom Line

If you eat seafood, you should definitely stock up on canned tuna. It's affordable, versatile and packed with nutrients. There are so many ways to enjoy tuna fish, just be sure you're mixing up your diet and eating a variety of healthy foods. Light tuna is a bit lower in calories and is also lower in mercury, but all types of tuna can fit in your diet.