All About Sardines: Small Fish, Big Benefits

Splendid Sardines
Scientific name: Clupeidae

Sardines

Did you know that sardines were named after the Italian island Sardinia, one of the places where they were found in abundance?1 Today, these small fishes, usually packed in containers or cans, are now sold and enjoyed all over the world.

The humble sardine may seem less impressive than other fish varieties, but you’ll be surprised to know that, in terms of nutrition, it actually packs an impressive punch. Here’s everything you need to know about this seafood.

What Are Sardines?

Also known as pilchards in some places, sardines are small oily fish that belong to the herring (Clupeidae) family. Their exact origin is unknown, but it’s believed that they existed in large numbers in the Mediterranean Sea. Sardines are also abundantly found in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.2

The sardine fish has a distinct appearance that sets it apart from other types of fish. Its body is flat and covered with large, reflective silver scales (although these scales are not found on their head). In the center of their belly is a set of specialized scales that are jagged and point backwards. These are called scutes.3 It also has one short dorsal fin.

Despite usually being classified as a single species, there are actually 21 different types of fish that fall under the sardine category. Sardinops, sardine, dussumieria and sardinella are some of the most well-known species today.4

Sardines are generally smaller than other fish, ranging in length from 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters), and are soft-boned. They live in dense schools and migrate along the coast. Their primary diet is plankton, which filter from seawater through their gills. Sardines have either no or very little teeth.5

Due to their abundance and since they’re one of the easiest fish to obtain, sardines have been a much depended upon food source for a long time. However, they rose to popularity in the 18th century, when French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, with the help of inventor Nicolas Appert, introduced the concept of canned foods for his soldiers – with sardines being one of the first staples. Canned sardines fueled Bonaparte’s troops during their long months on campaign.6

Today, sardines in a can – packed in brine, oil and different sauces – are a well-loved kitchen staple. There was even a time that sardines became the single largest component of fish harvesting worldwide. Currently, countries such as France, Spain, Norway and Portugal are the primary producers of this fish. However, Morocco is the leading supplier and exporter of sardines.7

Are Sardines Safe to Eat?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about sardines is their low mercury content. These small fish are at the bottom of the aquatic food chain, and since they feast solely on plankton, they do not harbor mercury and other contaminants unlike large fish, like tuna.

They also do not live for long periods of time, which means they do not accumulate mercury in their body. At least 90 percent of their population is under 6 years old, although some can live for as long as 14 years.8

For this reason, eating sardines during pregnancy is generally considered safe, and is generally even advised, as this fish is a good source of healthy omega-3 fats. According to the U.S. FDA, pregnant women can eat sardines and other low-mercury fish, provided they limit their consumption to 12 ounces a week.9

In addition, sardines are one of the most sustainable types of seafood today, because of their high production rate and abundance. Sardines are also wild – they are not ideal for fish farming because of their short life cycle. Thus, eating sardines – as opposed to farmed fish – is good not just for you, but the environment as well.10

Standout Health Benefits of Sardines

You may ask, “are sardines really good for you?” The answer is a resounding yes. Aside from their low mercury levels, sardines are chockfull of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, namely:11

Omega-3 fats

Selenium

Niacin

Vitamins B2, B12 and D

Calcium

Choline

Protein

Copper

Phosphorus

All these nutrients are vital in helping ward off many diseases and maintaining overall health. In fact, adding sardines to your meals can help you reap these benefits and more:12

  • May reduce your risk of heart disease – According to studies,13 the omega-3s in sardines can help break down bad LDL cholesterol, which can then maintain optimal heart health.
  • Helps prevent blood clots - Omega-3s break down arterial plaque and help control blood pressure levels.
  • Maintain eye health - Consuming oily fish like sardines has been found to reduce the risk of age- related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that commonly occurs in people ages 50 and older.14
  • Can give the immune system a boost and fight free radicals - Studies found that fish oil made from sardines helped improve immune system health by increasing the number of immune cells.15 The selenium in sardines can help neutralize free radicals and protect organs from damage.16

Sardines Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: 100 grams
  Amt. Per
Serving
% Daily
Value*
Calories 208 10%
Calories from Fat 103  
Total Fat 11.5 g 18%
Saturated Fat 1.5 g 8%
Trans Fat    
Cholesterol 142 mg 47%
Sodium 505 mg 21%
Total Carbohydrates 0 g 0%
Dietary Fiber 0 g 0%
Sugar 0 g  
Protein 24.6 g 49%
Vitamin A 2% Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 38% Iron 16%

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

How to Cook and Eat Sardines: Tips to Remember

Aside from being good for your health, sardines are versatile in the kitchen. Canned or pre-packaged versions are already cooked, and can be eaten directly from the can or added to recipes. Try mixing it in salads, sauces or dips.

Meanwhile, you can sauté, grill, pan-fry or broil fresh sardines. This rich and flavorful fish goes well with vegetables, cheese and salsa. The Kitchn provides a wonderful list of ideas on how to cook sardines.17

If you opt to use fresh sardines, then you need to know how to properly clean and prep it first before putting it in the pan or the grill. Here are some tips on how to select and prepare fresh sardines:18

  • Make sure the fish you buy smell clean. Look for whole sardines without any bruising. Avoid old fish as well, which usually have “belly burn” – this is when the guts are starting to come out of the fish.
  • Hold each sardine under cold running water and gently remove the scales. Make sure that all the rough skin and the remaining scales have been removed by rubbing your fingers over the sides in a back and forth motion.
  • To gut a sardine, hold it against the chopping board with one hand, belly facing up. Use a sharp fillet knife to cut the entire length of the belly of the fish, remove the innards and discard.
  • Remove the bones. Using the fillet knife, gently slice along each side of the backbone, just behind the sardine’s ribs. Make a cut underneath the ribs and then slice upwards, away from the backbone.
  • Using sharp scissors, snip the backbone, just where it’s connected to the head and where it meets the tail.
  • Use your forefinger and thumb to remove the backbone, starting at the tail and then moving your hand towards the fish’s head. As you move through its spine, gently lift the bone from the fish.

Before cooking, rub the sardines with a lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Sardines Versus Anchovies: Which One Should You Use?

Sardines are usually confused with another type of small fish: anchovies. But despite their similarities in terms of health benefits (namely their omega-3 content), there are several factors that set these two apart, particularly in their culinary uses.

Both sardines and anchovies have a very fishy flavor, which you’ll immediately taste after biting into them. However, the flavor of sardines is milder compared to anchovies – the latter has a more intense and salty taste, one reason why they’re often blended in recipes. Meanwhile, sardines are more commonly used as an appetizer or as part of the main meal.19

Sardine Recipes Are Delicious and Nutritious

Owing to their flexibility and distinct flavor, sardines are a culinary favorite that is often incorporated in many dishes. There’s a wide variety of delicious recipes that use either canned or fresh sardines – take your pick and see which one suits your taste.

Here’s one example: a delicious homemade sandwich spread recipe adapted from Food.com. It can even double as a dip for your next dinner party:

Sardine Healthy Recipes:
Sardine Sandwich Spread

Sardine Healthy Recipes

Ingredients:

2 (3 3/4 ounce) cans of sardines in oil, well drained

2 tablespoons homemade mayonnaise

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon pepper

1 to 2 teaspoons grated onion

1⁄4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

 

Procedure:

  1. Finely mash the sardines and combine with mustard and mayonnaise.
  2. Stir in the grated onions, lemon juice and pepper.
  3. Sprinkle with fresh minced parsley.
  4. Serve with crackers or vegetable sticks.

Sardines are definitely a wonderful addition to your diet, but it’s not the only seafood that’s rich in omega-3s. For variety, make sure you try wild Alaskan salmon too, which can provide you with plenty of wholesome benefits as well.