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tuna and macaroni salad with green peas in a white bowl with a fork and red and white checkered napkin

Tuna Macaroni Salad (Gluten Free, Dairy Free)

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Tuna Macaroni Salad is an American classic. In this version, tender elbows, sweet peas, and tuna are cloaked in a sweet and tangy dressing with just the right amount of pizzazz from a few secret ingredients. This Tuna Macaroni Salad recipe also happens to be gluten and dairy free. 

In this post, I'll share the story behind the recipe, the thyroid-healthy recipe highlights, and of course, the recipe itself. I'll also share my top 3 brands of "thyroid-safe" tuna so that you can enjoy this salad (or your favorite recipes featuring tuna) with peace of mind. 

Not down with tuna? No problem. Simply substitute canned wild salmon. It has a similar taste, and loads of beneficial Omega-3s, minus the mercury. 


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Chef's Notes

Like potato salad, tuna salad is one of those dishes with a lot of comfort-food nostalgia. Maybe you remember it being served at potlucks, barbecues, or buffets. For me, it was my favorite part of the Friday Night Fish Fry at Pulaski Hall. 

Pulaski Hall was kind of like a VFW and not exactly a restaurant, but during lent in my hometown, it was the hot place to be on Friday nights. They had a pinball machine and served frog legs and fried perch. It was a very Michigan kind of place. 


On the Menu: Chive Potato Salad


For me, the main event was the salad bar, where I would pile my little plate high with their tuna macaroni salad. It was all I ever wanted for dinner. Theirs was perfect. No frills, nothing fancy, just creamy macaroni noodles with tuna and sweet peas in a sweet and tangy dressing. To 5-year-old me, it was heaven. 

That macaroni salad of my childhood was exactly what I set out to create when I was recently hit with an insatiable hankering for it that would not quit. What can I say? This is retro, no-frills, midwestern food. I guess you can take the girl out of Michigan, but you can't take the Michigan out of the girl.

While it strays a bit from the more bougie recipes I usually post on here, I knew I couldn't be the only one who gets the occasional insatiable hankering for this, minus the gluten and dairy. The original version uses wheat pasta which obviously contains gluten, and many recipes for this include sour cream (as in, dairy).

Between cautionary concerns around consuming tuna, and the sheer amount of mayonnaise, I wasn't sure about posting this recipe. So, I put up an Instagram story poll to see what my audience had to say. Was this one "Too retro" or was it "Need-that-in-my-belly" status?

It wasn't a unanimous vote, per se, but here we are. Macaroni salad all around! 



Choosing Thyroid-Safe Tuna

Before we dig in, let's talk about the star of this dish: canned tuna. 

Tuna is one of those ingredients like rice or seaweed, which requires a bit of knowledge to consume safely and in a thyroid-healthy manner.

Canned tuna can be a great source of Omega 3s, protein, and thyroid-supportive nutrients, like Vitamin D, selenium, and iodine. It also comes with strong warnings regarding mercury-- a known thyroid toxin.  


Further Reading: Is Tuna Thyroid-safe?


Mercury isn't anyone's friend, but it's particularly threatening to the thyroid, especially if we're deficient in selenium. Mercury accumulates in our tissues over time, so minimizing our exposure to and consumption of it is something we must learn to do as Thyroid Thrivers.

Fish that eat other fish, and have a longer life span, like tuna, accumulate mercury in their tissues. This is why tuna can be relatively high in mercury compared to other fish.

Just like mercury accumulates in the tissues of fish, it can accumulate in our environment and in our bodies. Eventually, we can reach a degree of bioaccumulation of mercury that can contribute to serious thyroid problems, including cancer, autoimmune thyroiditis, and hypothyroidism. 

While it's impossible to completely avoid mercury, and most fish contains some mercury, some types and brands of tuna are much safer than others.

Bottom line: For Thyroid Thrivers, choosing low-mercury tuna is best.  



Things to Keep in Mind When Shopping for Canned Tuna

To minimize your consumption of mercury, the FDA recommends opting for canned "light" tuna, as opposed to canned albacore (or white) tuna, citing that the latter contains 3x as much mercury. This simple rule of thumb may be helpful in terms of choosing lower mercury tuna, but it should be noted that it does not factor in sustainability concerns, or fishing practices that can be utilized to catch lower-mercury tuna.

If you're going to buy the big commercial brands, opting for light tuna as opposed to albacore may be the lesser of two evils, but if you truly want the best, safest, most sustainable, and most nutrient-dense tuna money can buy, we have to drill deeper.

NOTE: The criteria below eliminate the vast majority of big-brand, commercially-available canned tuna. 

  • Look for pole or troll-caught brands that are endorsed by reputable third parties
  • Avoid tuna caught using long-line or FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices) 
  • Look for BPA-free cans to reduce your exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals
  • Read labels carefully, as many mainstream brands that advertise tuna packed "in water" are actually packed in a soy-based vegetable broth. (Soy is not ideal for Thyroid Thrivers, according to leading experts.) 
  • To retain those anti-inflammatory Omega 3s, look for tuna that is cooked only once, in the can (including the brands listed below). Most conventional brands are cooked prior to canning, whereby beneficial nutrients, flavor, and Omega 3 fats drain from the fish and are discarded.
  • When preparing high-quality tuna, like the brands listed below, don't drain your tuna. Instead, stir the Omega-3-rich liquid and the tuna together to moisten the fish and maximize its nutrition content. 



My Top 3 Thyroid-friendly Tuna Brands:

  1. Safe Catch Elite Pure Wild Tuna: This canned tuna wears the biggest halo of all brands, and carries a strong endorsement from the American Pregnancy Association. Safe Catch invented technology that tests every single tuna for mercury content. While all their products are good choices compared to mainstream brands, their "Elite" product is the only brand on the market that meets Consumer Reports' low-mercury criteria. In addition, their processing methods retain 100% of the nutrients found in the whole fish, whereas common processing methods cook out up to 80% of those beneficial Omega 3s before the tuna even hits the can! Safe Catch is also committed to sustainable fishing practices.  
  2. Wild Planet Tuna, especially Skipjack: All varieties of Wild Planet tuna are sustainably caught using practices that only reel in smaller fish that are naturally lower in mercury content. Thorough testing has convinced the folks at Wild Planet that testing every single fish for mercury is neither necessary nor beneficial when these fishing practices are adhered to. According to the company, "Our annual [Mercury] testing protocol...verifies that Wild Planet tuna products average 0.067PPM for Skipjack (which is 14 times lower than the FDA “Action Limit” of 1.0PPM), 0.137PPM for Yellowfin (which is 7 times lower than the FDA “Action Limit” of 1.0PPM), and 0.17PPM for Albacore (which is six times lower than the FDA “Action Limit” of 1.0PPM)." Similar to the Safe Catch Brand, Wild Planet's processing methods, whereby the tuna is cooked only once in the can, retain the beneficial Omega 3s and other nutrients. 
  3. American Tuna. While this brand may be a little bit smaller and harder to find (at this time), it deserves a mention. American Tuna was founded in San Diego by a group of 6 pole and line fishing families committed to quality, transparency, and sustainable fishing practices. This company has garnered the praise and attention of several third-party endorsers, including the Marine Stewardship Council. Similar to Wild Planet Brand, they utilize fishing methods that reel in younger tuna, caught near the surface, which are naturally lower in mercury and tested by an independent lab.


Thyroid Healthy Recipe Highlights:

  • Tuna is a convenient source of protein, anti-inflammatory Omega 3s, and key thyroid-supporting nutrients like Vitamin D, iodine, and selenium. A 3-ounce serving of tuna contains approximately 77 mcg or 140% of the recommended daily value of selenium, which both supports and protects the thyroid. NOTE: Due to mercury concerns, it's best to choose low-mercury tuna and consume tuna in moderation. 
  • Green Peas: 1 cup of green peas provides 8 grams of protein, 7% DV for Iron, and 8 grams of dietary fiber (this can help alleviate constipation).
  • Fermented Pickles (or pickle relish): Fermented pickle options like Bubbie’s Dills provide naturally occurring probiotic bacteria. Unlike many commercial pickles, which contain artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, fermented pickles typically contain only water, vegetables, seasonings, and salt, along with naturally occurring probiotic bacteria which support gut health.  


Happy cooking, happy thriving, and enjoy the recipe (below)!

P.S. If you're anything like me, when I started down the path of thyroid-healthy eating I had questions-- lots of them. What I didn't have was a step-by-step system, to get me where I wanted to go. I wasted a lot of time piecing together bits of information about what to eat, what to avoid, and HOW to make thyroid-healthy dietary changes. That’s why I created the Thyroid-healthy Meal Plan Kickstart. Ready to harness the power of thyroid-healthy eating? Let’s get you kickstarted! Learn more HERE.



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