Tuna Fish – A Prepper’s Guide to the Chicken of the Sea

Much more than the “chicken of the sea”, tuna fish is a staple that’s earned its place in many prepper pantries. You could just go buy a bunch at the store and be done. But as with most things, we can improve our readiness by digging a bit deeper. With some additional understanding we’ll stretch the value of every dollar to the breaking point and maximize the value of our preps. In this article we’ll delve into those details and answer such profound questions as: White or light? Solid or chunk? Pouch or can? Water or oil? With so many options on the grocery store shelf, which one is best for you? It’s tuna time.

Tuna – A Primer

Tuna is a saltwater finfish. It’s a fantastic prepper resource because it’s loaded with lean protein yet requires no refrigeration or cooking. It also contains heart healthy omega 3 fatty acids as well as vitamins and minerals like niacin, B12, selenium and others. While canned tuna has been around for over a century, and pouched tuna is a fairly recent creation.

In the United States tuna is heavily regulated by the FDA. If you’re interested (and I’m not quite sure why anyone would be), click here to link to Part 161 the Code of Federal Regulations to see just how regulated it is. The FDA regards fourteen species of fish as “tuna”.

White or Light?

In the United States, by law, Albacore is the only species that can be labeled as “white”. Tuna labeled as “light” may contain one or more any of the other thirteen species (typically yellowfin or skipjack). White is has a milder flavor and firmer texture but is more expensive than light. In my local chain grocery a can of white tuna is $0.36-$0.40 an ounce while light tuna is $0.26 an ounce. Buy both next time you’re at the store and see which you prefer!

Nutritionally they’re quite similar, though there are some differences. White tuna has significantly more omega 3 fatty acids and slightly more calories, sodium and fat than light. Light tuna, on the other hand, contains less mercury and is slightly higher in protein and several types of vitamins.

The Winner – Light due to white tuna’s much higher cost. If cost weren’t a factor I’d say white wins because its higher fatty acid, calorie and fat are assets in a survival situation. (This is why I believe white is a better choice for a BOB or BOV, where you’ll be on the move with limited pack space.) But dollar for dollar, your money goes much further buying light…so long as you don’t mind the stronger flavor.

Solid or Chunk?

The names pretty much describe the difference. Solid tuna is cut from the loin of the fish and large pieces are placed in the can/pouch without shredding. It’s more expensive. Chunk tuna is cut from various other parts of the fish and is smaller pieces, including shredded meat, are placed in the can/pouch. Solid is more versatile food-wise as the firm meat can take center stage in a meal, while chuck is less appetizing to look at and is better suited as a filler/component to a meal.

The Winner – Chunk due to lower cost.

Pouch or Can?

Although taste preferences differ, most taste tests show a majority of people find tuna in pouches fresher, more flavorful and better textured than canned tuna. There are two reasons for this.

  1. The pouches are made from a heat-stable plastic polymer film laminated with a layer of aluminum foil inside. These are the same materials used by the military for MREs (meals-ready-to-eat). Just as with cans, heat is applied to kill harmful bacteria during packaging. But because heat penetrates the pouches quicker than the metal cans, pouched tuna doesn’t need to be cooked nearly as long. Less heat results in better flavor and texture.
  2. Pouches are vacuum sealed rather than filled with water or oil, which can change the tuna’s flavor. The small amount of water in the pouches comes from the meat itself.

That said, pouched tuna is considerably more expensive than canned. In my local chain grocery a can of chunk light tuna with water is $0.26 per ounce. That same brand’s chunk light in a pouch is $0.52 per ounce. This difference in price is lessened somewhat given the can contains more water and less meat, but even counting that pouched is substantially more expensive.

On the shelf the price of a can versus a pouch may seem comparable, but take a close look. Small cans of tuna are 5 ounces, 4 ounces once they are drained of liquid. Small pouches of tuna are 2.6 ounces.

The Winner – Pouch…in my opinion. And there are valid reasons to go the other way (cans are stronger, more resilient to damage, etc.). But despite the higher cost, in my opinion tuna tastes better out of a pouch. Pouches also pack better because they’re flat, you don’t need a can opener and there’s no need to drain any liquid. But then again, it’s hard to make a cool survival stove out of a pouch.

Water or Oil?

I typically only buy pouched tuna because 1) the liquid kind of grosses me out 2) I really dislike the taste of tuna that’s been sitting in oil. But everyone has different tastes. As previously stated, cans must be packed with liquid immediately before sealing. Manufacturers use water or various types of oil (typically olive or vegetable). Tuna in water will taste cleaner than oil as it just dilutes the flavor rather than alters it. Some also think oil gives the fish a slimy consistency. Aside from taste, the main difference between the two comes from the oil itself. Manufacturer depending, the oil will almost double the calories and have nine times as much fat content as tuna in water.

The Winner – Oil without a doubt. When buying for preparedness purposes, we don’t really care about low calorie, low fat anymore. The “diet” fad ended when the emergency began. As preppers we care about survival. And we need calories and fat to accomplish that.

Other Benefits of Tuna With Oil

  • Should you have to bug out in sub-freezing weather, the oil will prevent freezing long after your tuna cans with water have become hockey pucks.
  • You can also take a page from the playbook of the Israeli military and use the oil to cook the tuna!
  • With a hammer, nail and some string you can create an oil lamp that will burn for a couple hours.
  • No room in your BOB for a hammer? Here’s another way to make an oil lamp with anything pointy and some paper towel.

Storing For Maximum Shelf Life

Unopened tuna cans and pouches generally have a shelf life of approximately three years. You might be able to increase this to five years if conditions are perfect. Make sure you buy the ones with the furthest out “best by” date. When purchasing, also make sure the cans/pouches are free of dents, rust spots or tears. Keeps cans/pouches in a cool place with little temperature variations, including keeping them away from appliances that produce heat. Storing them off the floor and away from high humidity will prevent cans from rusting. Do not eat from a container that is bulging or that smells bad when opened.

A Note About Mercury

Tuna can live for decades and are high on the food chain. As a result, tuna have more methylmercury in their bodies than many other fish. We have to be aware of this given mercury’s negative health effects on our bodies (especially for infants, younger children and pregnant women). Mercury levels are especially high in Albacore (white) and Bluefin, but since we don’t know what fish species light tuna is made of, best to be completely safe with both kinds. Click here to view the FDA’s consumption guidelines.