How did Tuna Become American’s Favorite Fish?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 20 2012 4:37 PM

Why Do Americans Eat So Much Tuna Fish?

Because it’s bland.

Pop star Jessica Simpson stands with a basket of tuna products during a visit to a Chicken of the Sea conference in 2003.
A cannery began marketing tuna as a chicken alternative in 1907. They fooled Jessica Simpson.

Photograph by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images.

Children weighing less than 55 pounds should eat tuna no more than once per month, according to a report released Tuesday, because of concerns over mercury. The controversial recommendation is stricter than that proposed by the FDA, and some experts say we should eat even more tuna, although it’s already a lunchbox staple. Why did Americans fall for tuna?

Because it’s cheap and bland. Most of the tuna consumed in 19th-century America was imported in cans from France and served to European guests at upscale East Coast restaurants. Mainstream Americans considered the fish too gamey, until a cannery in San Pedro Bay, Calif., figured out that the steamed white meat of albacore tuna has very little flavor if you drain the fish’s own oil and can the meat with olive or cottonseed oil instead. The company began marketing the product as a chicken alternative in 1907. It distributed thousands of free recipe booklets, which contained mostly classic chicken or canned salmon recipes with tuna as a substitute. Americans found that tuna’s flavor was hardly noticeable in the right sauce, and sales began to rise. The tuna revolution really took off, however, during World War I. European countries, and eventually the American government, bought the inexpensive canned fish to feed the troops. (Uncle Sam was so desperate for protein during the Great War that the government even tried to push whale as a beef substitute.) Returning soldiers continued eating tuna, which displaced salmon as America’s fish of choice by the 1940s, and fishing boats had to venture further and further from shore to satisfy demand.

Canned tuna also owes its early success to El Niño. The California Fish Company, which popularized canned tuna in America, originally specialized in sardines. A change in the weather in 1903, however, pushed the tiny fish out of San Pedro Bay, forcing the company to experiment with substitutes like halibut and rock cod, eventually settling on albacore.

The novel product faced a serious marketing challenge. The only Americans who had ever heard of albacore were West Coast sport fishermen. The California Fish Company decided to label albacore as tuna, even though scientists of the day considered the two fish taxonomically distinct. While scientifically questionable at the time, the gambit worked, and Americans came to think of albacore, and not the better established bluefin and yellowfin, as the definitive tuna fish. The company was vindicated decades later, when scientists reclassified albacore as a tuna.

That wasn’t the last taxonomic controversy in the commercial tuna industry. When albacore became scarce near U.S. coastlines in the mid-20th century from overfishing, canneries sought to sell the skipjack as a substitute. Skipjack belongs to the same taxonomic tribe (Thunnini) as albacore, but not to the same genus (Thunnus). The government ultimately decided to let the industry market skipjack as “light tuna,” arguing that scientific and commercial names don’t always have to agree.

Americans still eat twice as much tuna as salmon, their second-favorite fish. Tuna’s share of the fish market has declined steadily over the past 25 years, however, and salmon could reclaim the title of America’s favorite fish in the next decade or two. Some industry insiders blame dolphins for tuna’s loss of market share. To earn the “dolphin-safe” label, fishermen have focused on skipjack, which don’t typically associate with dolphin pods. The change may have had commercial costs, though: Many people prefer the taste of albacore to skipjack, and the difference in taste could be driving customers away.

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Explainer thanks Andrew F. Smith, author of American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.