Tuna in brine – you get what you pay for. Almost.

By Dagmar
In Interesting stuff
Nov 16th, 2015

Have you ever fooled yourself by picking a bargain just to find out that it was literally useless for your purpose later on?

That happened to me recently when I did not pay attention and thought how good buy I’ve made. That experience also taught me that it really matters what grade tuna content is in the tin. I have always been lucky to buy and use tuna chunks (or better) so I’ve had no idea about the flakes and how rubbish they can be. Or, if I bought flakes, they were of much higher quality than what I purchased recently. To me it was always only lean tuna either in some oil or in brine.

When I was going to cook our favourite Fisherman’s lasagna, I had one tin of tuna chunks in my cupboard (Princes) and I purchased another tuna in brine (Ocean Wave), but I did not notice what it actually was before I opened the tin at home.

This is what the tins looked like from outside:

tuna flakes and tuna chunks

Looking innocent, right? I thought I would use them both in the dish as I did not suspect any catch.

And this was what I found inside, after my attempt to drain the left one, which seemed impossible.

tuna flakes vs tuna chunks

Now you can see that the difference is HUGE. Although the list of ingredients is the same (tuna, water, salt), the texture was definitely an issue here. No wonder the flakes were three tins for £1. I was not suspicious about the price because I often buy branded products in that shop for just £1.

Actually, when I compare the nutritional values, the flakes are apparently of a lower quality weight per weight. Below you can see a usual ‘nutrition facts’ label for both products. The flakes tin does not include the protein content and the manufacturer selectively informed us about zero sugar. There seems to be a purpose in it.

tuna flakes and tuna chunks 2

When ispecting the label, more information was listed in other place of the label per 100g of the product and it does not look good. See for yourself:

Values per 100 g Ocean Wave flakes Princess chunks & flakes Reference value *
Energy (kcal) 82 .0 89.0 99 .0
Fat (g) 1.9 0.5 0.6
Protein (g) 15.1 21.0 23.5
Carbohydrate (g) 0.9 <0.1 0.0

*The reference values refer to the information published in the McCance and Widdowson’s  The Composition of Foods book. 

The values above suggest that in the Ocean Wave flakes the amount of fat is about four times more than in the chunks and the protein content is -4.9 g, or -29%. On the other hand, the carbohydrate content is 9x more in the flakes (0.1 g vs 0.9 g). It is obvious now that the two products are not the same. Even if the flakes were from other body parts of the fish (there is more fat under the skin), gram per gram of the flesh, that would bring the energy content higher than in the Princes product because the fat has almost twice the amount of energy than protein. That was not the case here.

In comparison, Princes tuna flakes contain similar energy value as the Ocean Wave (83 kcal/100g), but it has a higher content of protein (18g) and lower carbohydrate content, identical with the chunks and flakes version: 0.1g. Fat content was somewhere in between those two: 1.2g/100g. Here you can see that brands sometimes can do it better (not always though).

What are tuna flakes after all?

The tinned tuna flakes in my case were the last usable trimmings of the fish before discarding the remains or using them for some purposes other than for human consumption. Some people may like the tuna flakes as a versatile product in their meal preparation but I was disappointed. In contrast, these tuna flakes are a completely different thing. They are a Japanese product, tuna bonito flakes which is used for dashi – a japanese stock (thanks for the knowledge, Lorraine). It is dehydrated and smoked tuna which is shaved into flakes, hence no cheats with water and bulking agents.

Regarding the tinned tuna flakes in brine which this article is about, they were almost impossible to drain and I prefer the chunky pieces of tuna flesh in my meals, even if they contain some flakes in it as the Princes product did. It was perfectly suitable for me. I can always break the larger bits into smaller ones with a fork but making the product on the left a little like chunks is impossible. It made my lasagna watery and the meat was non-detectable by my palates. Only the chunks helped a little bit.

There is quality on the market

There is a third category on the market called tuna steak which is the most expensive and which actually matches the reference values mentioned earlier, at least the Princes brand does. The reference values in the McCance and Widdowson’s were obtained from 10 products of 9 brands containing skipjack tuna and these were probably of a higher quality. These analysis were done several years ago. Today, some companies are trying to make the profit at all cost and they include different tuna fish in their tins. Adding carbohydrates as a filler/stabilizer/bulking agent seems to be the case here, as the companies often do it in other products nowadays. Check the branded Philadelphia soft cheese with reduced fat content. However, the production of a soft cheese with a lower fat content does not need to include more carbohydrates at the expense of the protein content because some supermarkets provide a genuine soft cheese without fillers/stabilizers. That is another proof that things can be done better.

Nonetheless, the John West tuna flakes, seem to be superior to all of these. Per 100g of drained product they give you 113 kcal, 27g of protein (congratulations!), trace amount of carbohydrates and only 0.5g of fat. That suggests that you have more meat in the tin and that you can also drain the product better because it does not hold water thanks to the low or lacking carbohydrate content (or salt). Indeed, their flakes look much more appetizing than the disgusting mass found in the Ocean Wave product. Even the John West tuna steak has the same energy and protein content, suggesting that they truly are good products. As you can see, the nutrition value does not need to suffer in tuna flakes.

Seemingly good content – customers still not happy

When I was searching further for more products, I came across unhappy customers refering to the tuna flakes in brine of Osprey brand. This product seems to have all the good content (95 kcal, 0.5g fat and 22.5g of protein per 100g drained weight), but the consistency was criticized as mushy and both customers gave negative reviews. They seemed to be more happy with the budget equivalent, the Morrisons Everyday Value range. I have never tried these, so I cannot give you any more information on that.

However, I have made a trip to Lidl, one of my favourite discount supermarkets for general groceries and I have looked at what they can offer from their repertoire. Besides John West tuna in brine they have their own brand called Nixe. I have tried their mackerel in tomato sauce before but I did not like the sauce so I avoid that. However, I was quite pleasantly surprised with their tuna chunks in brine. The nutritional values, for comparison, were as follows (per 100g): energy Nixe tuna101 kcal, fat content 0.6g, carbohydrate exactly zero, and protein 24g. That is excellent since it stands somewhere in between Princes and John West and matches the reference values. Lidl sells the tins individually or in a pack of 4. The price for 4 tins was the same as of John West (£2.99) whereas the individual tin was for 62p for Nixe. The texture, after I opened it, was similar to the one of Princes although the colour was a bit darker. The producer specified that it was a skipjack tuna whereas I have not seen the kind of tuna mentioned in any other products listed so far. One thing is worth to mention though. Although the Nixe 4 pack cost the same as John West 4 pack in Lidl (Tesco, Sainsbury and Ocado want £5 at the moment), John West individual tins in the pack would give you 112g drained weight of tuna whereas the Nixe product will beat it with 130g. Per 4 pack you therefore get extra 54 g of tuna for free from Nixe, which is almost half a tin.

Update 4/12/2015: I have tried the mackerell in tomato sauce of John West produce, hoping for a great product. I was disappointed. Although the tomato sauce was good, the meat was like a rubber. In contrast, the product of this kind sold under Morrisons was so far the best: the sauce is great and the texture of the meat is soft and succulent. And it is also cheaper than of John West produce. So this is another example that brand or price is not always the best lead for getting the quality and satisfaction.

Lesson learned

Next time I will be more careful in what I am going to buy. It is a shame the Ocean Wave did not display the flakes texture on the tin design in contrast to some other producers. That would have saved me a disappointment. I understand that the companies do their best to use the last bits of the catch, which is great, but I prefer to be better informed about what is in the package. Instead having the nutrition information at two places on the paper label on the tin, a picture of the inside content would do a great service. To me, because they would hardly sell anything in that case. I have one tin left. Does anybody have a cat?

About "" Has 48 Posts

Graduated at London Metropolitan University: BSc (Hons) Human Nutrition in 2014. Working as a research assistant at the MRC, The University of Cambridge.

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