Canned Tuna Or Pouched Tuna: Which Is Better?

I know canned tuna isn’t something everyone likes, but I still enjoy tuna fish sandwiches, just like my mom used to make. For me it’s solid albacore and nothing else, the mercury content does not scare me enough to eat that cat food they call chunk light tuna.

When I want dark meat tuna, I prefer Italian or Spanish style tuna in olive oil, which is usually bigeye or yellowfin tuna, but even when using skipjack (aka light tuna) it seems higher quality. I like to put this kind of tuna on pizza or even make a tuna sauce for pasta. The Ventresca de Bonito I reviewed earlier this year was superb and delicious right out of the can. But when I want a classic tuna fish (tuna salad if it’s got more than just mayo in it) sandwich it’s got to be albacore – white tuna.

I eat about 1-2 cans of tuna a month, which isn’t all that much, but it is enough over the course of a lifetime (plus my days working in kitchens) that I’ve noticed the quality has gone down over time. When I say this what I really mean is some canned tuna has become a near luxury item, while the stuff I can afford (under $4 a can) usually from the big three tuna companies (aka big tuna) has shrunk in size and is not quite “solid” albacore anymore.

Canned Tuna

Meanwhile the canned seafood section of our supermarkets have given much more real estate to pouched tuna, which does not need draining. In theory this would mean you are getting more net weight for your buck. I read many online reviews of the various types of tuna in a pouch and the consensus on the Interwebs is that it was better than canned tuna in taste, quality and was potentially safer than canned tuna.

To be honest, most of what I read was from people who were most concerned with the “chemicals” associated with canning, some were more knowledgeable than others. I can only speak for myself on this front, but I think a lot of this is overblown. When it comes to additives and preservatives in seafood I’m equally concerned with how these “chemicals” cheat the consumer as I am with health.

Canned vs. Pouch Tuna: A Comparison

I bought pouched and canned tuna to compare. For consistency I chose two similar sized products (both 5 oz net weight) of Bumble Bee Brand albacore tuna since that is the brand I usually buy. I made two identical tuna sandwiches out of them with just a little salt, pepper and a dollop of mayo. Here is my comparison between canned and pouched tuna.

Canned Tuna

When it comes to the “Big 3” tuna companies, I have found over time that Bumble Bee seems the most consistent in quality of solid albacore tuna. When I open a can I expect a product that still looks like a firm and compact tuna loin. I was very pleased with the quality Bumble Bee’s “heritage pack” which is now discontinued, so I chose their Prime Fillet for this review.

Canned tuna ingredients

A look at the ingredients shows the can contains: white tuna (albacore), water and salt….oh and pyrophosphate. This is a family of additives in many foods that act as stabilizers and used in seafood for water retention (similar to STPP). According to rival StarKist brands FAQ page, Big Tuna uses this additive mainly to keep mineral crystals from forming in albacore and it is not used in light tuna. Although this chemical is considered safe in small amounts, consumers should be aware of it just in case of allergies or chemical sensitivity.

solid albacore

Upon opening the can and draining off the water I was left with good, but not great looking, albacore. In the past the Prime Filet cans has one solid chunk from a tuna loin.  This particular can however, was not one solid piece, which was a little disappointing. Out of the can the product looked as I expected, with large chunks of tuna that I broke apart before adding mayo. There was enough to make two small sandwiches or one medium sized sub. And the taste? Like nearly every other tuna fish sandwich I’ve had in recent memory: good, with no off flavors, no fishiness that you can sometimes get with light tuna.

Pouched Tuna

Pouched Tuna

So first off take a look at the ingredients: White tuna, water and the aforementioned pyrophosphate. But why is there soy and vegetable broth in my tuna? I haven’t even opened the package yet and my hackles are rising. Apparently the soy is part of the vegetable broth but has to be labelled because it can be a food allergen. Competitor StarKist also uses vegetable broth in their pouches and their FAQ says it is to enhance the flavor. Which makes me wonder why it’s needed in pouched tuna but not in the can I just sampled.

Pouched tuna ingredients

My thought when I consider the added broth is that the pouches are cheaper to produce and have a higher markup. For the same net weight you have an added ingredient that contains a potential allergen. This is tuna you do not drain so that broth is within the fish, so logically it takes up a percentage of the net weight of the product. In effect, I paid about a dollar more for less tuna compared to the can. I did not weigh the products so I took the package at face value, even though several tuna companies have been accused of shorting consumers in the past.

The front images shows a fork-full of solid tuna. But when I open the package, what do I see? A pile of mush. Unlike a can, which can take some abuse as long as there is no puncture, you have no idea how these tuna pouches are handled. They could be tossed across the warehouse or stepped on by careless handlers through the supply chain. How would you know? I trust an aluminum can over a flimsy pouch, at least with a can you can tell when it had a rough trip to the store.

pouched albacore

The one saving grace for me was the taste. It was a little “fresher” than the can, and I didn’t need to use as much mayonnaise. However you can chalk that up to the added vegetable broth. Without the added broth, there is no way to tell if the pouch or canning process produces a better tasting product.

My Opinion On Canned vs. Pouch Tuna

I will continue to buy canned tuna based upon the price point and the firmness of the product. Although the pouched tuna tasted better, it was due to added broth. When I bought these two products there was a dollar difference in price, and I feel the slightly fresher taste is not worth paying that much more, especially when you consider that the stuff is nearly mush when you open it – no matter what the package shows.

I don’t trust big corporations to look out for my best interests if it’s at odds with their bottom line. My personal opinion on this matter is the pouch process must be cheaper than canning, and allows the use of tuna that went through the “chopper” to be sold at a higher price point. It would not surprise me if the pouching process leaves the tuna with a plastic flavor and so the broth is added to keep it tasting fresh. It also explains why the pouches come in an array of different flavors besides the standard tuna.

So that’s my take on canned vs. pouched tuna. I’ll get back to the good stuff as soon as I can afford it.