What Are Sardines Good For?

Splendid Sardines
Scientific name: Clupeidae


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 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,2 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, Indian and Atlantic Oceans.3

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 pointed backwards. These are called scutes.4 It also has one short dorsal fin.5

Despite usually being classified as a single species, there are actually 21 different types of fish that fall under the sardine category. Sardinops, Sardina, Dussumieria and Sardinella are some of the most well-known species today.6

Sardines are generally smaller than other fish, ranging from 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) in length, and are soft-boned. They thrive in dense schools and migrate along the coast.7 Their primary diet is plankton, which filter from seawater through their gills. Sardines have very little to no teeth.8

Due to their abundance and how easy it is to catch them, sardines have long been a dependable food source. 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 to his soldiers, with sardines being one of the first staples. Canned sardines fueled Bonaparte's troops during their long months on campaign.9

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 China, Japan and Oman are the primary exporters of this fish.10 However, Morocco is the leading supplier and exporter of sardines.11

Are Sardines Safe to Eat?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of 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 such as tuna.12

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.13 According to the U.S. FDA, pregnant women can eat sardines and other low-mercury fish, provided they limit their consumption to 8 to 12 ounces a week.14

Health Benefits of Sardines

You may ask if sardines are really good for you, and the answer is a resounding yes. Aside from their low mercury levels, sardines are chock full of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, namely:15

  • Fatty acids
  • 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:

  • May help reduce your risk of heart disease — According to studies,16 the omega-3s in sardines may help break down bad LDL cholesterol, which can then maintain optimal heart health.
  • Helps minimize the risk of blood clots — Omega-3s may have positive effects on inflammation, lipid metabolism and thrombosis.17 They may also help break down arterial plaque and help control blood pressure levels.18
  • Maintains 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 the elderly.19
  • Helps boost the immune system and fight free radicals — Studies found that fish oil made from sardines helped improve immune system health by increasing the number of immune cells.20 The selenium in sardines may help neutralize free radicals and protect organs from damage.21

For more information about the nutritional value of sardines, check out the table below:22

Sardines Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: 100 grams
  Amt. Per
Calories 185  
Total Fat 10.45 g  
Saturated Fat 2.684 g  
Trans Fat    
Cholesterol 61 mg  
Sodium 414 mg  
Total Carbohydrates 0.54 g  
Dietary Fiber 0.1 g  
Sugar 0.43 g  
Protein 20.86 g  
Vitamin A 34 µg Vitamin C 1 mg
Calcium 240 mg Iron 2.3 mg

How to Cook and Eat Sardines

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 them into salads, sauces or dips. Alternatively, you can sauté, grill, pan-fry or broil fresh sardines. This rich and flavorful fish goes well with vegetables, cheese and salsa.23

If you opt to use fresh sardines, then you need to learn how to properly clean and prep them first before putting them in the pan or the grill. Here are some tips from WikiHow on how to select and prepare fresh sardines:24

  1. 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", which is when the innards are starting to come out of the fish.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 guts and discard.
  4. 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.
  5. Using sharp scissors, snip the backbone, just where it's connected to the head and where it meets the tail.
  6. 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 bit of lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Sardines vs. Anchovies: Which One Should You Use?

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

First, anchovies are smaller than sardines, usually measuring less than 6 inches long. They both have a fishy flavor, but anchovies are noticeably more pungent and taste more intense due to the curing process. Lastly, sardines go well in dishes that have a mild taste, while the salty punch of anchovies make it ideal for dishes that need stronger flavor, like pizza.25

Delicious and Nutritious Sardine Recipes

Owing to their flexibility and distinct flavor, sardines are a culinary favorite that are 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


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



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

(Recipe adapted from Food.com26)