Praise for Sardines

There’s a consensus among the nutrition community that people should be eating less meat and more fish. For most people, this means salmon or canned tuna. These are indeed very popular and nutritious choices.

However there are several problems with tuna and salmon. Both are very large fish that take several years to mature, during which their bodies absorb mercury and PCBs. These poisons have doctors and nutritionists advising limits on weekly consumption of big fish, especially for children and pregnant women.

They are also starting to disappear from the oceans as world demand has grown so much in the past 50 years.

Enter sardines, an entire section of canned goodness that we often skip while grocery shopping. Too bad. These under-appreciated cousins of herring, are a wonderful nutrition source.

What you need to know:

Sardines are a small type of fish, also known as pilchards. They are usually less than 15 cm in length. They have soft bones and can be eaten whole without fear of choking. While we normally eat them canned, in the Mediterranean they are also served grilled or smoked.

Due to their small size and diet consisting of plankton, sardines do not accumulate heavy metals in their bodies like the big fish do. There is also no fear of stock depletion any time soon.

Nutritionally , sardines are a hit:

- They are rich in omega 3 fatty acids

- Their fat content is mostly unsaturated

- They are high in vitamin D, and elusive vitamin for many people

- They are very high in vitamin B12

- They are protein rich – a can of sardines contains almost half the daily value of protein

- Those soft bones are full of calcium, and you can get a third of the daily value just from one can.

On the downside, canned sardines tend to be high in sodium (20% of the daily value) and high in cholesterol (should only concern people with serious blood cholesterol issues though).

What to do at the supermarket:

You’ll most likely buy canned sardines packed in oil. While the oil is fine and dandy for preserving the fish, you don’t need it. Use paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Squeeze a lemon over the sardines for added flavor.

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  • Sapphire57216

    Barffff. :) Last month, I ate mushrooms and banana peppers for the first time. This week, I ate kale for the first time. Yesterday, I purchased quinoa for the first time and will be trying it today or tomorrow, maybe both. I am on a roll with trying new foods (and loving them, except for the banana peppers–not a fan), but I cannot imagine ever trying one of these creepy little things. I’m trying to eat more fish now, actually, and every time someone mentions sardines as a good, nutritious, environmentally friendly option, a little part of me dies. Maybe someday when I’m feeling really brave…

    • cyanmoon

      I am a huge fan of sardines, but I must buy them headless and also remove the scales and bones before I can stomach them. I know the bones have calcium but I feel it’s better to eat sardines without the bones than not to eat them at all! If you can find them packaged ‘skinless and boneless’, give them a try!! Might be more expensive, but would be worth it initially if you can get a taste for them :)

      • Mumsie

        The canned sardines have no heads. You can mash them up , bones and all, and serve them on hot , buttered toast.

        • FrugalArugula

          With hot sauce and dijon mustard on some crusty bread, yum!

          Also, there are better quality sardines than at your typical grocery store. If you can find a specialty store, it’s worth paying the $4-$5 for the better ones. You’ll get only 4, or less, in some of the cans because they’re much larger (still gutted and headless, thankfully).

          One of the guys at Whole Foods told me they kept them frozen in the back, available by request. They are also whole, but they’re huge, delicious for grilling and bpa free.

      • Lauren Smith

        Aha! Good to know. That makes me a bit more willing!

  • Brooke

    I very much like this idea – but must admit that it doesn’t ever come to mind when I’m at the store or making my grocery list.

    I’m quite keen on hearing suggestions for how to serve them or recipes that others have tried.

    • Mr. Bob

      I was curious about how to serve sardiens too. A Google search leads me to conclude that, besided eaten straight, you just put them on stuff. Particulalry toasted bread. Add some lemon, mustard, pepper.

      Not sure if I have ever had a sardine. I will puirchase some tonight and contemplate more ways to eat them.

    • Mumsie

      The ones that come in a tomato sauce are delicious mashed up and put on hot, buttered toast, then put under the broiler for a minute.

      • lrob

        Yum. I like to eat the fillets out of the can on a cracker with cream cheese…it sounds gross but it is actually delicious!

  • Lauren

    I agree with Brooke, I want to like them but I can’t. I did a blog post and made myself eat them and I couldn’t do it.

    • Joshh

      That’s why they make fish oil :) …. all the benefits of sardines in a teaspoon and typically flavored with lemon.

  • Gcook

    okay, I’m concerned about the cholesterol aspect, is it the actual sardine itself or the oil it’s packed in?

    • Fooducate

      It’s the sardines. There is no cholesterol in plant based foods (that includes oils).

      • Gcook

        so I have been supplementing w/ an OMega-3 cap from anchovy/sardine/mackerel concentrate, and have just received a blood cholesterol test on the High range, there is a connect?

        • WilliamB

          Maybe? Some good studies in the past 5 years or so (none of which I was clever enough to keep a copy of) that call into question the connection between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol. The link with saturated and transfats remains supported by evidence.

          If you want to keep your current supplementation, I recommend considering the following questions and discussing the answers with your doc:

          - What were the components of your cholesterol count? Some types of blood cholesterol are good. Frex, when I ran half marathons my cholesterol was High … because all that running increased my good cholesterol (ie HDL) to over 100. This meant my “high” cholesterol wasn’t a risk for heart disease.

          - Do you have other risk factors for heart disease? High cholesterol without other risk factors, is generally considered a low risk state.

          - What steps could you take, other than skipping your fish concentrate, to reduce the cholesterol (lose weight, exercise, eat more whole foods and less meat and processed foods (a la Mark Bittman) medication).

          - Do the benefits of your supplement outweigh the detriments of the high cholesterol? (I consider this the most important question.)

          If you can, bring a doctor-buddy with you for the conversation. Many of my – myself included – seem lose our ability to think clearly and ask critical questions once we’re in medical gowns.

        • Holly

          It’s better to replace than supplement since it is the proportion of omega-3′s to other fats that is important. In other words, if you supplement with fish oil pills, and still drink sweetened drinks and eat pastries and large servings of meat, then those fish oil pills will do little for you. Replace some of the meat and sweets in your diet with omega-3-full foods like fish to get a better proportion of fats.

    • Carol

      No cholesterol in oil, and a can of sardines has less cholesterol than one egg. Either way, dietary cholesterol is not really a health issue.

  • professorM

    I love sardines but have been watching my canned food intake now that I know that there is BPA in the lining of many cans. Any input on BPA in cans, Fooducate?

    • Fooducate

      BPA is in most cans, unfortunately. Unless specifically noted as BPA free, it’s probably got it. Sigh.

      • professorM

        Would you consider doing a fooducate blog entry on avoiding BPA in food packaging? I have heard that certain canned food lines (like certain items at Trader Joes) don’t use BPA. Just an idea…

  • Ed Walzak

    Last summer I went to a Portuguese barbeque and was taught how to eat grilled fresh sardines. Amazing! I was completely surprised because I can’t stomach the canned ones. (Sorry Fooducate)

    They will definitely be a part of my grilling routine this summer as an alternative to yet another hamburger.

    • Brooke

      Soooo how does one go about grilling fresh ones?? What type of prep is needed for them? What were they served with?

  • Dave

    I like this Sardine Salad recipe.
    Also works well with other seafood.

  • Carol

    Salmon are much smaller than tuna. Fresh sardines are easy to cook — brush with a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, then pan fry or grill.

  • T Gariepy

    I can’t really see myself eating sardines. They smell. They’re greasy. They have eyes.
    However, give me a can of salmon or whatever it is, I will willingly eat the little bones and crunchy spinal column, but not the actual fish parts. Maybe there is something wrong with me.

  • UltimateFatBurner

    I love sardines, but unfortunately, my girlfriend can’t abide them – the sight, smell or even the slightest suggestion of them. This means I can only eat them when she’s not around, or in the summer – outside on the deck. ;-)

  • Shirley Zuanich

    Actually Alaska wild salmon are a short lived fish that eat low on the food chain, therefore they have no to negligible mercury. Alaska salmon are also a very abundant resource of the USA.
    The State of Alaska has an extensive fish monitoring program. Alaska salmon is tested annually. The United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration have set the bar at 1 parts per million for mercury in the flesh of fish as a ‘safe’ level. It should be noted that Canada and Japan have set the bar at half that, .5 parts per million. Alaska salmon have less than .05 parts per million, or 20 times less than the lowest level of concern for the U.S. or 10 times less than the lowest level of concern for the more stringent standards set by Canada or Japan.

    The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program calls Alaska salmon one of ten ‘Supergreen” seafoods because it is sustainably managed, has low to no contaminants of any kind and is rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Alaska salmon has five times the omega 3 fatty acids, for instance, that water packed ‘grocery store’ chunk light tuna, and five to 10 times the vitamin D as albacore tuna.
    Canned Alaska salmon is a very delicious substitute for canned tuna. Pink salmon looks just like tuna as well. Not to knock canned tuna, as it is certainly one of the best low cost foods on the grocery store shelf, despite mercury concerns.
    Most Alaska salmon is canned and caught in Alaska, so the USDA follows the processing every step of the way.

    We commercially fish in Alaska, so though I can claim no particular expertise, I do understand Alaska salmon.

    • Brooke

      “the USDA follows the processing every step of the way”?? I was under the impression that the FDA regulated seafood in the US (with the potential exception of catfish in the future). This sounds fishy . . .

      • Shirley

        An unthinking technical error on my part-the USDA and FDA work together so much on food safety, I didn’t give it a second thought, but the overriding point is that Alaska salmon, indeed all Alaska seafood, enjoys very careful government scrutiny throughout the processing. There is nothing fishy going on.

    • Andrejka Nc

      Awesome information Shirley!

      I have read that it really is Atlantic salmon that is toxic…the century of industrial waste on the east coast may be the problem over there!

  • JO

    Great post. I have a small correction to make, though: according to the latest FDA report (see link below), the mercury levels for Salmon and Sardines are .014 PPM and .016 PPM, respectively. So it is inaccurate to say that this is a good reason to make the switch from Salmon to Sardines.

    Your Sardine recipe recipe looks delicious though. So I’ll be trying it out in lieu of Salmon this weekend.

    • Shirley

      I have no ‘beef’ with sardines-they are great food.
      My reason for responding to this article was this sentence in said article, “However there are several problems with tuna and salmon. Both are very large fish that take several years to mature, during which their bodies absorb mercury and PCBs. These poisons have doctors and nutritionists advising limits on weekly consumption of big fish, especially for children and pregnant women.

      They are also starting to disappear from the oceans as world demand has grown so much in the past 50 years.”

  • Val

    And, you might just LOVE the sardines with some salsa or hot sauce…I buy mostly the Brunswick in Olive oil…drain off the oil and then add good quality salsa with a few shakes of tobasco sauce…mmmm…. they are also quite awesome with cream cheese and capers and red onion on a toasted 1/2 bagel…that is all.