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Sardines: Why To Love, Where To Find This Super Food

Sardines: Why To Love, Where To Find This Super Food Follow Me on Pinterest Sardines are associated with Mediterranean cuisine and are, in fact, named for the Italian island Sardinia where large schools of sardines were found. In the U.S. there are schools of herring as well, often labeled “sardines” or “herring” and filling that same need we all have for a fatty fish. Whether in the Mediterranean or off the coast of Oregon, locals enjoy sardines fresh. We enjoy them canned. In their very tiny states, these are a fragile fish.

As you can see below, I believe the health benefits of this small fish to be substantial but I know well how many of us think “Ewwwww” when we think “sardine.” For many years I have known I should eat them. I have even purchased them many times and they simply accumulated in my pantry because I could not bring myself to eat them. I retell the story in the video below. What I learned in the past year is that there are sardines out there that are pretty darned good. In fact, there are sardines that are exquisite and it has taken me over forty year (cough) to discover that fact.

Health Benefits of Sardines

Sardines are a tiny fish that pack a giant health punch. They are loaded with heart- and brain-supporting Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin B-12. They are a good food source of vitamin D and calcium.

Heart Health

Two key nutritional indices are associated with heart health: a low homocysteine level and a strong Omega 3 level are associated with good cardiovascular health. Sardines help keep homocysteine levels low with their strong B-vitamin profile, particularly their B-12 content. They are also packed with Omega 3 fatty acids: a 100-gram portion contains about 2 grams of Omega 3 and very little of the Omega 3 competitor Omega 6. This is a good ratio to support a healthy heart.

Brain Health

Sardines support brain health in much the same way as heart health. In the book Rebuild From Depression: A Nutrient Guide I identified Omega 3 and B-12 as important nutrients for a healthy brain and sardine as a high, depression-busting food.

Healthy Bones

Of course, if you have eaten whole-body sardines with their bones in and skin on, you know well how they support bone health: the high calcium content in the small bones. Small-sized sardines are often canned with their bones in and many sardine-lovers appreciate them just this way. You may find them too “crunchy.” I have gotten a tin or two with a memorable amount of crunchiness. I place them on my “eat only in times of famine” list.

Sardine Risks? Toxins in Seafood

A big draw to sardines is that this small fish is at the bottom of the food chain. It feeds on marine algae and other vegetarian food sources in the ocean. Toxins such as dioxin and heavy metals such as mercury tend to accumulate in the larger fish that are eating other fish. In the world of seafood, they are a clean fish.

However, sardines will have some level of arsenic and other heavy metals. It is the unfortunate state of our world.

Choosing Sardines: Oils, Water, Sustainability, and BPA

Sardine-tasting is great fun and we often buy one tin of anything that catches our interest just to taste, but as we look to stocking our pantry, we do consider some of these quality issues.

Sardines in Oil, Tomato Sauce, or Water?

In our household, the only sardines that exist are those packed in olive oil.

We have tried the tomato-based sardines and they are OK. We used some in a sardine salad that also had tomatoes. (In fact that salad recipe was inspired by our need to use up some bargain-basement tomato sauce sardines my husband found. He brought them home excitedly only to learn that the cooks in the house don’t like them.)

There are some sardines in soy oil which I think is simply strange and I’ll leave it at that. Some are packed in water for fat-avoiders. Like I said, we love them in olive oil.

Sardines in BPA-Free Cans

It is becoming increasingly recognized (even by the government) that Bisphenol A (BPA), a substance found in the lining of many cans and plastic containers, can have serious health consequences. Read more about BPA and your health at the website of the Environmental Working Group. Unfortunately, BPA is everywhere — in products from toys and baby bottles to rivers and streams. Companies are increasingly offering BPA-free cans for their food. The cans are more expensive and tend to be offered by companies that make a gourmet product. In our buying guide below, you will find two we recommend that we have confirmed with the companies come in cans that are free of this toxic substance.

Sustainability

The go-to guide for sustainable seafood is the Seafood Watch List by Monterey Bay Aquarium. Pacific sardines are a “best choice” according to their index. They ask us to avoid sardines from the Mediterranean due to poor management of the fish populations among the many countries that fish the Mediterranean. This is a very sad recommendation for sardine-lovers.

Expiration Dates

We have found sardines at discount food stores that were close to expiration. Did we leave them behind afraid of reduced quality? No way. Here’s a secret: Sardine connoisseurs actually age their sardines before eating them, much like wine lovers do wine. How long should you keep them? I really don’t know where the limit is, but I see sardines at discount stores as great opportunities.

Storage

Fresh sardines are extremely perishable and should be cooked up and enjoyed immediately. Canned sardines are best stored in a cool pantry until you open the tin. After the tin is opened, you need to refrigerate any unused sardine, should there after be any left. In our house, we either gobble them. Occasionally, we say “ewwww” and do not feel obligated to finish the tin. Either way, sardines take no refrigerator space here.

Canned Sardine Recipe Ideas

As your experiment with recipes, your first step is to find sardines you like. You have probably experienced the different grades of tuna. Some are light and tender. Others are dark and dry. Some has a delicate flavor, others are very fishy. The same is true of sardines. There is a broad spectrum. Shop around until you find the ones that taste good to you and fits your recipe idea.

Some have the skin and bones both of which provide nutrition. In the canning process the bones become soft and edible, providing calcium. If the skin and bones is unappealing, you can find sardines that are skinless and boneless. Just read the can to know what you are buying.

Sardine Recipes on this Site

Sardines As Travel Food

Do explore a variety of ways to enjoy sardines. Sardine hardliners have just eaten them out of the can for a few generations now. This is wonderfully convenient if you find a brand you really enjoy. Toting a few cans as you travel or even spend a day in town is an easy answer to food on the run. Pop a can of sardines in you lunch bag and you don’t even have to worry about bringing the container home at the end of the day.

Eat them on crackers with cream cheese. Simply eat them on crackers. Simply eat them out of the can with a fork. (Some brands are THAT good.)

Sardines on Sandwiches

Canned sardines are great toppers for open-faced sandwiches either on bread or crackers. Combine them with creamed cheese or Swiss cheese. Add a sharp green like watercress or arugula. Smear on a Dijon mustard. Layer with thinly sliced sweet onion. Sprinkle with a few capers.

A sardine sandwich is like an artist’s canvas just waiting for paint. You’re the artist. Have a great time creating. You will never run out of possibilities. You can have fun and build health at the same time.

Sardines in Entrees

Since canned sardines are already cleaned and cooked, they make for a quick dinner. Cook some pasta, make a sauce, or warm one up. Add the sardines and you have dinner. Experiment with different sauces and add-ons to the sauces. Find the combinations that make your heart sing. While your heart is singing, you can be confident that your heart is being well nourished.

Sashimi-Style Sardines

sardines sashimiIn the category of quick and simple and yet, somehow, extravagant, I offer the idea of sardine sashimi. Sardine is used in sushi and yet it has only occurred to me recently to make sashimi at home. (Sashimi is simply the fish over sushi rice for those of us too lazy to make actual sushi.) This concept simply requires:

  • A good sardine, not smoked (and really, go for the olive oil)
  • Sushi rice.
  • Quality soy sauce.
  • Wasabi (optional).
  • Pickled ginger (optional).

The only trick in this simple meal is making the sushi rice and the only real trick there is to make sure you keep the appropriate short-grain Japanese rice on hand (check it out here) and then rinse it several times before cooking it. You add a vinegar and sugar solution to the rice after it is cooked to give it the distinct taste you may be accustomed to in sushi. Here is a good recipe for sushi rice from About.com.

This is such a simple meal. It may now be my favorite.

Where to Buy Sardines

European-oriented groceries are absolutely the best place locally to buy sardines. They will typically have an assortment. I look for those in olive oil because I LOVE the flavor. Being a bit of a snob, I tend to overlook the really cheap tins, a strategy that has served me well so far.

My biggest problem is that I live in the Sequoia National Forest, about as far from any European market as I could possibly be and so I am left with buying sardines at a regular grocery store or online. I am not loving the sardines in regular grocery stores and so I am left with buying them online.

Let me first give a hat tip to our favorite sardine. Check out our taste test in the video at right. This sardine holds together well but is tender and lacks that negative “fishy” taste that is so easy to come by with sardines. In the taste test, we offer this one as a good “starter sardine” because of its mild but rich flavor and exquisite texture. It is even in a BPA-free can. But alas, it does not always stay in stock and “diversity” is the word of choice in the sardine world. Do try this sardine because it is incredible, but do not stop there — sardine-tasting is a great hobby. If you are shopping online, this Wild Planet 12-pack option is also BPA-free and sustainably harvested.

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Sardine Nutrients

sardinesThis would not be a food profile here on the Traditional Foods website without the nutritional information on sardines. As I mentioned above, this is a healthy fish and worthy of filling your pantry. Sardines are one of the best food sources of vitamin D, a nutrient many of us are lacking in darker winter months. In spring and summer when the sun hits our skin, we make vitamin D ourselves. Sardines are also a good source of iodine, a nutrient not covered in the typical data we present on this site, but certainly important nonetheless. It is also packed with beneficial Omega 3 fats.

As with many great seafood items, sardines are loaded with other vitamins and minerals as well.
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Macronutrients

Component
Amount
% Daily Value*
Calories
208
Protein
24.62 g
49%
Fat
11.45 g
18%
Carbohydrate
0 g
0%
Fiber
0 g
0%
Potassium
397 mg
11%
Sodium
505 mg
21%
Sugar
0 g
Water
59.61 g
Ash
3.38

*The daily value is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.

Vitamins

Vitamin
Amount
% Daily Value*
Vitamin C
0 mg
0%
Thiamin – B1
.08 mg
5%
Riboflavin – B2
.23 mg
13%
Niacin – B3
5.24 mg
26%
Pantothenic Acid – B5
.64 mg
6%
Vitamin B6
.17 mg
8%
Folic Acid
0 mcg
Food Folate
10 mcg
Choline
75 mg
Vitamin B12
8.94 mcg
149%
Vitamin A – IU
108 IU
2%
Vitamin A – RAE
32 RAE
Retinol
32 RE
Alpha Carotene
0 RE
Beta Carotene
0 mcg
Beta Cryptoxanthin
0 mg
Vitamin E
2.04 mg
7%
Vitamin D – IU
193 IU
48%
Vitamin D – mcg
4.8 mg
Vitamin K
2.6 mcg
3%
Lycopene
0 mcg
Lutein and Zeaxanthin
0 mcg

*The daily value is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.

Minerals

Mineral
Amount
% Daily Value*
Calcium
382 mg
38%
Iron
2.92 mg
16%
Magnesium
39 mg
10%
Phosphorus
490 mg
49%
Zinc
1.31 mg
9%
Copper
.19 mg
9%
Manganese
.11 mg
5%
Selenium
52.7 mg
75%

*The daily value is based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.