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):
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
With nutrition, several dietary components have been identified as having positive effects on cognitive abilities and protecting the brain from ageing. These include omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D, B12, choline, iron, vitamin E and selenium (8).
Some nutrient deficiencies can affect our mental wellbeing, especially Vitamin D and B Vitamins (B12 and folic acid specifically), which have been associated with a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression. If you look back at the nutritional profile of sardines, it’s easy to see that they are a fantastic food to your brain and mental wellbeing. No wonder, it’s a go-to food for the Mediterranean centenarians.
How to eat sardines
Sardines can have a fairly strong fish or sea flavour but it’s not unpleasant, especially in fresh sardines. For those of you who really don’t like that in a fish, the trick to enjoying sardines is to mix them with other strong-flavoured ingredients or foods (like in a fishcake) that will disguise the ‘fishiness’ so to speak.
You can grill fresh sardines as you would any other fish over the barbecue, pan-fry them on the stove or bake or broil in the oven. Cooking fresh sardines will give you a taste of the true flavour of sardines that hasn’t been altered by canning, smoking, curing or oils.
Use lemon, spiced and fresh herbs to bring out the most of that subtle sea flavour. Salt and pepper are often all you need for seasoning but you can also try chilli, paprika, and cumin to spice things up.
I remember having the most gorgeous grilled sardines in a fishing village near Biarritz in France. They were seasoned with parsley, paprika, salt and a touch of garlic, flattened and grilled. I loved them so much, I included the recipe (pic below) in my first cookbook. This is the way I recommend eating them if you ever get a chance to buy fresh sardines. Ask your fishmonger to clean and fillet the sardines for you.
How to use canned sardines? What to eat canned sardines with?
You can simply eat canned sardines as are. You may want to drain the liquid they come in. You can easily add some oil, mayonnaise, hot sauce, mustard, or other seasonings; put them into a salad, or grill with some onions and garlic to seal in additional flavour.
Smoked sardines. Before I tried any kind, I only know sardines in as tinned, smoked variety.
Smoking before preserving this fish in oil adds the most incredible flavour to them and transforms sardines from ‘meh’ to something much more gourmet and delicious. If you’re not sure about sardines, try to seek out the smoked ones and give them a go.
Salad with CANNED sardines
If you have a favourite salad recipe, swap out the protein for sardines next time. Add a few capers and sun-dried tomatoes and a dollop of mayonnaise as these will go well with fishy fish. Try my citrusy zucchini salad with sardines and roast red peppers.
A popular sardine salad I grew up with is called Mimosa, where sardines are layered with grated boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, cooked carrots, marinated onions and mayonnaise dressing. Don’t knock it till you try it!
SARDINES ON TOAST
Breakfast sardines are the new egg! Avocado toast with sardines and fresh dill and spring onion, a sprinkle of sea salt and chilli flakes…sounds pretty tasty, doesn’t it?
Sardines on dark rye toast with cream cheese and onions is a funkier version of smoked salmon bagel. Topping sardines with pickled or marinated onions is particularly nice. You can also add roasted tomatoes, boiled eggs, gherkins, olives and so on.
Dip or pate with sardines
Blend up the sardines with some olive oil and your favourite spices to dip veggies or crackers in. You can add cream cheese or mayonnaise to give them a more creamy consistency. I love adding mustard or horseradish, too. Try my sardine forshmak recipe here, which is somewhere between a salad and a dip.
As with salmon and tuna, canned sardines work well in fishcakes. Mash sardines with a fork and add them to pre-cooked potatoes or sweet potatoes, season, add a little flour or egg and shape. Pan-fry till crispy and serve with garlic aioli or chutney and a fresh salad. You can try my potato sardine fishcake recipe here.
Grilling canned sardines is the perfect way to bring them to life, add some flavour, and give them a little more dignity if the whole ‘canned’ thing turns you off. Yes, they’re already cooked so you just reheating them and giving them a little charred edge.
Add TO OTHER DISHES
Think pasta, rice, quinoa…adding some salty canned sardines will bring depth and umami any dish. You can add sardines to tomato-based sauces or stir through with garlic, parsley and olive oil for a typical Italian twist.
How to eat sardines for the first time?
One of the best ways to eat sardines is fried. Better yet, make a fritter out of them. Fish cakes are a delicious way to use sardines with minimal ingredients. Another is a good dip or pate, where sardines are disguised by other ingredients. You can customise the taste with different spices too. Here are some recipes to begin with:
- Sardine fish cakes with garlic aioli
- Forshmak deconstructed sardine salad dip
- Spanish sardine fritters from Culinary Collective
More Recipes with sardines
Herb & garlic crusted roast sardines from Olive Tomato
Sardine pasta with lemon, capers & chili flakes from Tori Avey (you can use gluten-free pasta)
Broiled sardines with lemon & thyme from The New York Times
Paleo sardine dip from Cheap Recipe Blog
Indian sardine stir-fry from My Heart Beets
Slow cooker Spanish sardines from The Skinny Pot
More sardines FAQ
But wait, there’s more. You thought I was done with you on my sardine indoctrination quest. Not yet. Let’s continue with a few more questions you might have about sardines.
Sardines and mercury levels
Much of the mercury content in fish is determined by the diet of the fish. Sardines feed on plankton thereby containing very little mercury – especially compared to other seafood like tuna. As a rule of thumb, the bigger – and subsequently, more predatory – a fish is, the more mercury it will contain. Sardines are very low in mercury compared to other fish.
Are sardines sustainable?
It can be tough to find sustainable fish these days. Sardines have notoriously been one of the most sustainable seafood out there, but things are indeed changing. Like with mercury, the lower the fish is on the food chain, the more sustainable it is likely to be.
Sustainability in canned fish truly depends on the brand. If you are buying tinned seafood, you must screen for certain standards. One good sign is a partnership with the Marine Stewardship Council. This essentially guarantees they came from a sustainable fishery. While some fish may be generally considered sustainable, it loses that credit when it comes from an unsustainable fishery.
Due to environmental factors and climate change, fish populations are dwindling and this does also include sardines in certain areas. Best to do some research before choosing your go-to brand of canned sardines and to speak to your fishmonger about the fish they sell and where it comes from.
Canned vs fresh sardines?
Perhaps the most notable difference is the taste. Fresh sardines are still rather fishy and soft, but far less so than the canned variety. Most canned foods are higher in sodium due to the salt used to preserve the food. This is a consideration with sardines, though they can easily fit into a diet with balanced sodium intake otherwise.
The most notable benefits of sardines including calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and protein will be around equal between the fresh and canned varieties.
Where to buy fresh sardines?
Tinned sardines are overall easier to find no matter where you reside. Fresh sardines are not easily available in North America due to their drastic population decrease. There is one market in New York should you live there or be making the trip.
They should be available in other countries and regions where they are fished though. Spain and other Mediterranean countries, for example, should have sardines in abundance. This is likely where many sardines are imported from elsewhere. You should check out your local fishmonger for the freshest products and widest variety in case you don’t see it at your local grocer’s. You might also be able to find fresh frozen sardines online.
How long do canned sardines last?
I’ve got good news if you’ve stocked up on sardines. You can keep the cans for up to five years. Store in a cool, dry place.
So, what do you think? Have you got a few cans of sardines handy? I hope this inspires you to begin eating this superfood from the sea if you don’t already, or to try some new recipes if it’s simply been some time.
Sardines are especially healthy food because they contain such high amounts of nutrients and vitamins we are most at risk of deficiency for. Plus, they are inexpensive and never spoil!
Let me know if you’ve got a favourite way to enjoy these fish in the comments below, and make sure to share if you learned something new.
1. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life.
2. Importance of maintaining a low omega–6/omega–3 ratio for reducing inflammation.
3. Calcium Intake & Health.
4. Iron Deficiency Anemia: A Common and Curable Disease.
5. Pernicious Anemia and Vitamin B-12 Deficiency.
6. Vitamin B12 in Health and Disease.
7. Vitamin B12 deficiency can be sneaky, harmful.
8. Brain Foods: The Effects Of Nutrients On Brain Function