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Sardines: The Stinky Little Fish You Should Be Eating

Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the underloved sardine has increasingly joined other canned fish, such as tuna, salmon and mackeral, on pantry shelves, enjoying a resurgence in popularity as people have rediscovered the versatility, shelf-life and sheer deliciousness of the diminutive silver fish. And now that restaurants have largely reopened, sardines are making an appearance on more and more menus and catching the attention of chefs worldwide.

Sardines are small, nutrient-dense fish that can be purchased fresh or from the canned section of the grocery store. Although salmon and tuna take the limelight when it comes to canned fish, sardines are worth considering for their flavor and health benefits. Plus, you don’t have to be concerned about high levels of mercury because sardines eat plankton, not other fish, so mercury isn’t a concern.

There are a lot of ways to prepare and eat sardines, making them easy to incorporate into your diet. “Sardines are often enjoyed as an appetizer or snack or as a salad topper or dip, but they can just as easily be served as part of the main course,” says Emma Laing, Ph.D., registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and Director of dietetics at the University of Georgia. “Presented on toast or crackers or in pasta or fish cakes, sardines can be melted with a variety of tasty ingredients.”

Canned or Fresh?

Sardines are found in shallow coastal temperate and subtropical oceans worldwide. In many countries in Europe, including Portugal and Spain, where they are very popular, sardines are grilled and served up on a plate with just a sprinkle of salt. They can also be baked, broiled or fried. The bones in a sardine are so small that the entire fish can be eaten.

In the United States, this fish isn’t usually sought-after fresh, although many Asian grocery stores or fish markets usually sell fresh sardines. You can easily find canned sardines, alongside tuna and salmon, in the grocery store. “Canned sardines are found packed in olive oil, water, tomato sauce, mustard and a variety of other flavors, are generally affordable, and have a long shelf life (fresh varieties last only a few days whereas canned sardines can last up to several years if stored properly),” explains Laing.

Health Benefits of Sardines

This silvery skinned fish offers up a lot of health benefits for the brain, heart and bones. “Sardines have a balance of protein and healthy fats that can help keep you feeling satiated between meals and feeling fuller for longer,” says Laing. “Sardines are not only distinctly flavorful, but they provide an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, phosphorus and selenium, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.”

“Omega-3 fatty acids help prevent heart disease due to their anti-inflammatory properties,” says Danielle Gaffen, RDN, and founder of Eat Well Crohn’s Colitis, a virtual tele-nutrition practice in the United States. “Eating sardines may lower risk of heart attack and stroke because they are high in omega-3s (eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA) and low in saturated fat.”

And the DHA that is found in sardines is also good for the brain. “Regular intake of DHA has been linked to supporting memory and reducing the rate of cognitive decline in older adults,” says Laing. “Sardines boast a considerable amount of vitamin B12, which is also important for brain health.”

Sardines have small bones that offer a bonus as a rich source of calcium. “Three ounces of drained sardines contain 325 milligrams of calcium, which is about a third of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of calcium for women ages 18-50 years and men ages 18-70 years,” says Gaffen.

If you need to increase the intake of calcium in your diet but don’t eat dairy, such as yogurt or cheese, sardines are a good option. “Because sardines are a non-dairy source of calcium, people who are lactose intolerant, allergic to dairy or need more calcium in their diet can benefit from this food source,” says Gaffen.

Who Should Limit or Avoid Eating Sardines?

People with specific health conditions, including chronic kidney disease, kidney stones, gout or high blood pressure may need to be mindful about eating sardines. “People who have a history of these conditions should avoid sardines, as they naturally contain purines, a substance that creates uric acid, which may exacerbate these conditions if consumed in excess,” explains Gaffen. “For people who have chronic kidney disease (CKD), protein foods may need to be limited to reduce how hard the kidneys have to work,” says Gaffen.

Canned sardines can contain high levels of sodium, depending on how they are preserved. Make sure to read the labels and opt for sardines low in sodium or preserved in water. “Individuals who have been diagnosed with hypertension or high blood pressure or those who are monitoring their sodium intake per the advice of their doctor or registered dietitian should check the labels of sardine cans carefully,” explains Laing.

Although these health conditions may require reducing your consumption of these tasty and nutrient-rich fish, Laing explains that you may not have to eliminate sardines from your diet entirely. “Individual nutrition needs are specific and vary based on one’s age, health conditions and medication use,” she says. “A registered dietitian nutritionist can help you interpret product labels and incorporate sardines into an eating pattern that supports your health and reflects personal preferences, cultural traditions and budget.”

What About the Can?

So you want to give canned sardines a try. Excellent! But you should be aware that the can itself may contain a toxic chemical called BPA. “A potential health risk of eating sardines may not come from the fish itself, but the can it’s in,” says Gaffen. “Cans can contain bisphenol A, known as BPA, a toxic chemical that can migrate to the food contained inside of the can. Research studies have shown that BPA exposure may cause reproductive disorders, genetic damage and potentially an increased risk of breast cancer.”

According to the Food and Drug Administration, “people are exposed to low levels of BPA because, like many packaging components, very small amounts of BPA may migrate from the food packaging into foods or beverages. Studies pursued by FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) have shown no effects of BPA from low-dose exposure.”

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