You know the Crayola crayon color “salmon”? That reddish-orange is the color of wild salmon flesh, sure, but it’s most definitely not the color of farmed salmon flesh. Naturally, farmed salmon flesh is gray.

So why does farmed salmon look “salmon-colored” when you buy it at the supermarket? Because salmon farmers spike the fishies’ artificial diets with pink-ifying pellets. Meanwhile, wild salmon get their naturally pink-orange color by eating krill and shrimp (that diet is also what turns flamingos pink, swear to God).

Quartz goes into detail about the coloring pellets:

An essential ingredient in these pellets is astaxanthin. Sometimes it’s made “naturally” through algae or pulverized crustaceans; other manufacturers synthesize the compound in a lab, using petrochemicals. While it provides the salmon with some of the vitamins and antioxidants they’d get in the wild, salmon health isn’t the selling point.

It’s the “pigmenting,” to use feed industry parlance, that really matters, letting salmon farmers determine how red their fillets will be.

There’s even a sort of salmon color wheel called a SalmonFan, developed by pharmaceutical company Hoffman-LaRoche, that lets salmon farmers determine their fishes’ color. Take a look:


 Photo: DSM via Quartz

According to research by DSM, wealthy shoppers go for darker-hued salmon. Quartz writes, “[Darker-hued salmon] fetch up to $1 per pound more than lighter shades—something other industry research suggests as well. One study found farmed salmon colored lower than 23 on SalmoFan (see above) to be ‘difficult to sell at any price.”

Pigmenting supplements—the most costly component of the farmed salmon diet—constitute up to 20% of feed costs. It might be costly, but that hue ensures farmers and retailers can sell the farmed salmon for more. Quartz explains why that’s a big problem.

While creating a product that fetches prices approaching those of wild-caught salmon, farmers can still churn out fillets at an industrial clip. That often makes things harder on the Pacific Northwest fishermen whose catch they’re trying to emulate. An abundance of farmed salmon forces fishermen to lower prices of their wild-caught salmon in order to compete.

What can we learn from Quartz‘s investigation? People want to be eating wild salmon, but not badly enough that they’ll shell out the cash for the real thing.

It should be noted that the spectrum of wild salmon color is beautiful, and naturally varies with the species, from Coho salmon to pink salmon.

[via Quartz]