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In today’s ingredient guide, I want to share a bit of info about the super nutritious sardines. These little fishies are not to everyone’s liking BUT they’re sustainable and so damn good for you! Plus, there are many clever ways for how to eat sardines to make them rather tasty and enjoyable.
Sardines and I go a long way back. I grew up in Ukraine where most kids are exposed to things like herring, canned sardines and fish pate from early childhood. I remember we always had smoked sardines – also known as sprats or shproti in Russian – as a festive appetizer on many celebratory occasions. Champagne and smoked sardines on toast are what my parents always served for New Year’s Eve celebrations.
So, as far as I was concerned, sardines were pretty common and everyone ate them. That is until I moved to Australia and realised that most people, let alone kids, never touch them. The same can be said for many other countries, however, the Nordic and Mediterranean cultures also include plenty of sardines in their diets (and have healthy hearts!).
After many years of learning about nutrition and researching sustainable fish and seafood, I now recommend sardines to all my readers, my nutrition coaching clients, friends and family. This is why I wanted to put together this article. I hope I can convince you to try sardines for the first time or to give them another go.
Quickly navigate to the info you’re looking for:
- What are sardines & what do they taste like?
- Sardines nutrition
- Health benefits of sardines
- How to eat sardines
- Recipes with sardines
- More sardine FAQs
What are sardines?
Sardines are a tiny, oily fish that can be cooked from raw but are more often packed into a can. These fish are named after the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, which was once a haven for an abundant sardine population. Sometimes, they are packed with oil and other times they’re packed in water or tomato sauce. They are most enjoyed when eaten freshly cooked, but it is less common to find them raw at the fishmonger’s unless you’re holidaying on the Mediterranean.
What do sardines taste like?
Sardines have an acquired taste and this is the most common obstacle for why people avoid them.
Many won’t even try sardines because they’ve been preconditioned to think that they are either too fishy or just have a too strong taste or smell in general. With tinned sardines, some people have a hard time coming around to the idea of fish in a can. But, once you get past that or you get a chance to try fresh sardines, you’ll find it’s rather tasty food…especially the good-quality stuff!
Sardines are indeed fishy but that’s to be expected. They are meaty, dense, and oily in texture. Tinned sardines are a little salty, though far less salty than anchovies or herring.
All in all, the taste depends a lot on how they’re prepared or what they’re packed in. Good olive oil, water, or tomato sauce are rather nice. Some vegetable oils can take away from the taste in my opinion and those should be avoided anyway.
Freshly grilled sardines simply seasoned with sea salt, parsley, lemon juice and a touch of chilli are beautiful and tasty. They are less fishy than the canned variety, so if you want to give them a go, try the fresh stuff first. Either pan-fry or grill them.
Another comment I’ve heard is that people are afraid of the bones in the sardines. Because sardines are quite small, their bones are also very small and impossible to remove. But, the bones very soft and can be chewed easily without noticing. They also provide a lot of calcium!
Fresh sardines you buy at the fishmonger are likely to be bigger than the sardines used for canning. With these, you can discard the head and the spine (or use them to make some fish stock) and eat the rest, including little bones.
As I mentioned earlier, sardines are extremely nutritious and very sustainable (more on that below). Let’s have a look at their nutritional profile in more detail. I am going to use canned sardines as an example because that’s the most easily available type for you guys. These numbers are based on drained solids with bones (which are soft enough to eat and provide a lot of those minerals).
Per 1 can of sardines (3.75 oz / 105 grams):
Calories: 190 Fat: 11 grams Saturated fat: 1.4 grams Polyunsaturated fat: 4.7 grams Monounsaturated fat: 3.6 grams Sodium: 465 mg Potassium: 365 mg Carbohydrates: 0 grams Protein: 23 grams Calcium: 350mg / 35% Vitamin D: 250 IU / 50% Vitamin B12: 8.2 mcg / 136% Iron: 2.7mg / 15% Niacin: 4.8% / 24% Magnesium: 35.8 mg / 9% Phosphorus: 451 mg / 45% Selenium: 48.5mcg / 69%
Plus, they are a good source of choline, other B vitamins and minerals. That’s a lot of nutrients in one small can of fish!
Health Benefits of sardines
Given that sardines are rich in many nutrients they must be good for our health, right? Let’s see some standout facts.
Omega-3 fatty acids in Sardines
Oily fish contains essential fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). First of all, these are fatty acids our body needs but doesn’t produce itself so we need to get it from food or supplements.
Research has linked omega-3s intake with good weight management, reduced inflammation, cardiovascular health, and even cognitive function for people with mild Alzheimer’s disease (1).
A critical component of managing low-grade inflammation – which is a symptom and/or causes of many diseases and health issues – is maintaining a healthy omega-3 to omega-6 ratio (2). Omega-6 fatty acids are not inherently bad but can cause a pro-inflammatory reaction. Therefore, taking in omega-3 fatty acids in conjunction with them can manage inflammation and create homeostasis in the body. Sardine fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids (along with salmon, fish roe and other oily fish).
Calcium for healthy bones
Most people know calcium is a major contributing factor to strong, healthy bones. Proper calcium intake may also lower blood pressure, thereby contributing to good cardiovascular health later (3).
Most of the time, people think they need milk and cheese to meet those requirements. However, that’s not the case which is good for those of us who eat fully or mostly dairy-free. Sardines and specifically those tiny bones are a fantastic source of calcium. You can find more non-dairy calcium foods here.
Iron for energy production and oxygen circulation
The most common deficiency is iron deficiency, and not just in vegetarians and vegans. It is especially pervasive amongst pregnant women and in underdeveloped countries and is fairly low in men. In some regions, 50-100% of children are deficient. In the United States, approximately 10 million people do not get enough iron (4).
Prevention is fairly simple and effective by increasing iron-rich food intake and should be taken seriously. If you struggle to meet your own needs, seeking out iron-enriched foods can be helpful. A tin of sardines provide 15% of the daily recommendation so including them regularly in your diet should give you a substantial boost! Other rich sources are red meat, offal, eggs, leafy greens, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Vitamin B12 for energy and mood
B12 deficiency is not only common but can have some serious side effects. It is used to make healthy red blood cells and deficiency can cause pernicious anaemia with side effects such as fatigue and tingling/numbness in hands (5). It’s assumed that only 50% of the B12 we take in through our diets is absorbed (6). It is especially important to maintain a good B12 status throughout adult life into older age. Deficiency is linked to vision loss, depression, memory loss, incontinence, and more (6,7).
Vegetarians and vegans are especially at risk of B12 deficiency since it is only found in meat, fish, and eggs. These individuals must supplement. For omnivores and pescetarians, sardines are a fabulous source of the good stuff since one serving contains 136% of the daily recommendation. Even at only 50% absorption, this is pretty substantial.
GOOD FOR YOUR BRAIN & MENTAL WELLBEING