Yes and no. Tuna is tuna, of course, but all of those terms mean specific things. It really boils down to three choices: White or light, chunk or solid, and water- or oil-packed. Whether you’re making keto tuna salad or just started a pescatarian diet, it’s good to know the differences between types of tuna.
White vs light: Taste, texture, and nutrition
Believe it or not, this part of the label actually tells you what species of fish you’re eating. “White” tuna is 100% albacore (Thunnus alalunga). “Light” tuna is either yellowfin (Thunnus albacares), skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis), or a combination of the two. These species have slightly different flavors, textures, and nutritional value, so it helps to know which is which.
You can see the difference between white and light tuna by cracking open a couple cans. Albacore tuna is noticeably white compared to yellowfin and skipjack, which are somewhere between tan and pink. But the colors aren’t the only difference—they have distinct flavors, too. Albacore is firm and meaty, with a light, mild flavor. Yellowfin and skipjack are a bit softer and have a richer, more intense taste. The choice comes down to personal preference: If you like a less “fishy” tuna experience, go for white tuna; if you want stronger flavor, light tuna is a better choice.
Nutritionally, all three of these fish are pretty similar. Canned tuna is healthy: all types of tuna are high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, yet low in saturated fat and calories. However, albacore does have slightly more fat and calories than skipjack or yellowfin—which means it has more omega-3 fatty acids. It’s not a huge difference (chunk white tuna has about half a gram more fat per serving than chunk light tuna), but if you’re serious about your omega-3s, you may benefit from choosing white tuna over light. If you’re serious about counting calories, you can read this post about a can of tuna calories.
Chunk vs solid: Size of the pieces
Once you’ve figured out if you want white or light tuna, you get to decide between chunk and solid. This refers to the size of the pieces of fish inside the can: Chunk tuna is broken up into small flakes before canning, while solid tuna is packed in large, intact filets. Simple enough. But it doesn’t explain why there’s no such thing as “solid light” tuna—what’s going on there?
It mostly has to do with the size of the fish itself. Yellowfin tuna are massive—they can be up to 7 feet long and weigh more than 400 pounds. Albacore tuna are smaller (but still large), growing to about 4 1/2 feet in length and weighing 125 pounds. Skipjack tuna are on the smaller side of the family, coming in at about 3 feet long and 70 pounds or so.
All of these fish are precooked before canning, which makes the meat fragile. If you’re working with one large species of fish, it’s easy to find whole filets big enough to fill a can. But if you’re working with a mixture of huge yellowfin and tiny skipjack, which is most light tuna, the bigger fish has to get cut down to match the smaller one so the mixture stays consistent. This is why “solid light” tuna isn’t a thing.
Water vs oil-packed: Richness and flavor
The final choice you get to make in your tuna shopping adventure is between oil- and water-packed. This one does just what it says on the tin: Oil-packed tuna contains either vegetable or olive oil, while water-packed tuna contains water. Do you prefer a lighter texture with fewer calories and less fat? Then water-packed is for you. If you’re looking for the richest, most luxurious tuna salad of your life, then you’ll probably want oil-packed.
The cool thing about canned tuna is its versatility: White or light, chunk or solid, oil- or water-packed, any variety will work just fine in any recipe that calls for canned tuna. But by narrowing down your options based on your own preferences, you get to control the specific flavor and texture of a finished dish.