Are Salmon Salmon? An inquiry into color and aquaculture

December 6, 2012

by Maria Gould
illustration by Jessica Niello
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.


Salmon legs were everywhere this year. Bright colors dominated clothing retailers’ new lines, and pink-hued pants were especially popular among shoppers. The sartorial trend led this writer to wonder: Do other fish colors end up in fashion? What is so special about salmon?

It is not difficult to verify that other fish have yet to make it into the color mainstream, let alone color trends. Sardine-colored jeans or ballet flats, for instance, are unlikely to end up on the shelves of J.Crew or the Gap. Unlike the whims of fashion, salmon has a long history as a popular color. One dictionary of color places the first use of “salmon” in 1776. At a later point in time, Crayola unveiled a salmon crayon, in 1949. Salmon is used in academic regalia to accent gowns worn by graduates of public health or health science programs. Economics newspapers are sometimes called the “salmon press,” likely for the unique color of the Financial Times pages. This newspaper began printing on salmon-colored paper in 1893, supposedly to distinguish itself from the rival publication Financial News.

But are these salmon-colored things actually the same color as salmon the fish?

Wild salmon are pink from eating krill and other carotenoid-rich marine organisms; farmed salmon are fed a diet pumped with carotenoid additives in order to achieve the same color. Without the special food, the fish would be an unappetizing grey. Made of synthetic petrochemicals such as canthaxanthin and astaxanthin, the feed imbues the fish with its customer-friendly color. The hue of pink can be adjusted according to shades on a color chip, much like that obtained from a paint store. DSM Nutritional Products, whose “SalmoFan” offers a visual guide for fish color engineering, explains in its promotional materials that “With the developments in diet formulations, increased biological performance of fish and variations in market requirements for flesh colour, there remains a strong focus on the economic use of astaxanthin.” (The economic value of these artificial dyes is not limited to fish: canthaxanthin is a well-known ingredient in “tanning pills,” although its use has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.)

We present you here with our own version of the salmon spectrum. Perhaps it will come in handy the next time you pick out a fish, or shop for a new pair of pants.

MARIA GOULD is an editor at Meatpaper and has worked for the magazine in various capacities since Issue Zero.

JESSICA NIELLO is an Oakland-based painter, photographer, and ceramic artist.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

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