I’ve been toying with the idea of adding sardines to my diet for a few years now. While I was pregnant, I took a fish oil supplement for omega-3s. I decided I wanted to try some kind of fish-based source of omega-3s again. A bit of research showed that you get more benefits from eating actual fish than from taking fish oil supplements – not surprising, as this is true of many nutrients: better from real food than from a pill. So I decided to take the plunge.
Two weeks ago, Matthew picked up a few tins of sardines for me. I rather thought he would come home with one or two cans, but when he pulled out four (different varieties), I figured that would force me to try them enough to make a fair judgment and get over any initial uncertainty.
Sardine Trial (all from Trader Joe’s):
- Wild Caught, Unsalted in Spring Water, 1 serving (2.96 oz.), 1.3g omega-3/serving
- Wild Caught, Skinless, Boneless in Olive Oil, 1.5 servings (~2 oz/serving), 1.2g omega-3/serving
- Lightly Smoked in Olive Oil, 1.5 servings (2 oz/serving)
- Smoked Herring in Canola Oil 2.5 servings (~2 oz/serving)
I started with the Wild Caught, Unsalted. As soon as I opened the tin, I was met with a very strong fishy smell. The fish oil supplements were looking better and better. Despite the claim that a single serving was the entire tin, I started with about 1/3 of the contents, mashed up with some dill potatoes. It was awful. I thought this wouldn’t be a big deal, because I used to eat canned tuna, but blech!
In the interest of giving it a fair shake, and giving myself the chance to get used to a new taste, I turned the rest of the tin into sardine salad by adding some mayo, mustard, plain yogurt, celery, onion and garlic powder, lemon juice, and salt. Still awful, really, but over the next two days I managed to choke it all down on crackers.
At this point, I debated donating the three remaining cans to a food pantry. I knew once I opened another tin, I would feel obligated to finish it, and did I really want that?
Not ready to call it quits, I decided to try an actual recipe, using the Wild Caught in Olive Oil to recreate this sardine pasta recipe (I used just one tin — half the amount of sardines the recipe calls for). As soon as I opened this second tin of sardines, I realized it is true that not all sardines are created equal. While this variety still smelled fishy, the scent was distinctly less strong than the first variety (reminded me of canned tuna) – a good sign.
I actually really enjoyed the pasta dish. Gabriel gobbled it right up, too. Matthew ate it, though he was a bit dubious (both of them missed out on that first awful tin of sardines).
I have yet to try either the smoked sardines or smoked herring, but I’m optimistic that the smoky flavor will make them seem less fishy. I will probably try another round of sardine salad with at least one of these tins.
Environmental and health considerations
Tiny fish lower on the food chain (like sardine and herring) have less chance to accumulate toxins, like mercury, so they are one of the healthiest choices if you want to eat fish.
Both sardines and herring are on the Marine Stewardship Council’s list of best seafood to consume. But, again, not all sardines are created equal when it comes to environmental impact, and I’m afraid most of what we bought from TJs falls into the Mediterranean, “avoid due to overfishing category.” Apparently, I need to be looking for the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue label when I shop.
The packaging is a major down side of sardines. First there is the obligatory tin (recyclable, yes, but still using resources). Then, for two out of the four varieties I tried, the tin alone wasn’t enough. One had a plastic outer wrapping and another was in a cardboard box – excessive packaging to be sure.
Real food vs. supplement
Not sure where I come down on this one. If the omega-3 fats are truly better absorbed from the fish, that is a big plus, assuming you can stomach the fish. On a per serving basis, the fish oil supplements generate much less waste. It would probably take more than 30 tins of sardines to get the same number of servings as in a bottle of supplements. This also makes the real food version more expensive, dollar-wise, than even a high quality supplement.
Practically, I don’t see myself eating sardines every day, while taking a supplement every day is relatively easy. For now, I plan to combine the two, perhaps trying to eat some sardines once or twice a week, and take a low-dose fish oil supplement most days (still need to buy the supplement.
While not a realistic expectation, I’m a little bummed that my first “dose” of sardines didn’t make me feel like superwoman. Ultimately, to maintain the added cost of either sardines or supplements, I would like to see some kind of results. While not necessarily linked, there is some chance that the additional omega-3s will help my psoriasis (since the condition involves inflammation and omega-3 fats are supposed to reduce inflammation in the body) and they may also help my mental health.
If I keep this up, I guess I will technically be a “pescatarian” though I’ll probably continue to identify as a vegetarian.
I am not a huge sardine fan, but neither am I a huge opponent. I like them best on pizza, but unless you make your own, it’s hard to determine where the little fishies came from. 🙂
I am technically a pescatarian although most people also call me a vegetarian. A few ideas, dried smoked fish would have less waste. My 3 year old son and I like sardines in mustard or tomato sauce on crackers. Any of the smoked ones would be great with cream cheese as a cracker spread. /how about anchovies cooked in extra virgin olive oil or the oil from the can, lots pf garlic, red pepper flakes and right before serving squeeze a lemon over it and you could even add a smidge of tumeric for more anti-inflammatory kick. Also, remember the real food version also gives you another diverse source of calcium.
Thanks for the suggestions, Tracy. I wonder how the dried version stacks up in terms of omega-3s. The calcium is certainly a benefit of the real food version.
Very interesting. I have to say that while I’ve always eaten fish, I’ve never actually tried sardines. It’s just the idea of munching down on the entire fish – bones and all – that sorta gives me the willies.
That being said, I am a HUGE fan of smoked fish – just about any kind of smoked fish. Smoked salmon and lox being my absolute favorites (though not exactly on the economical side of the scale.) I sometimes buy canned “kippered snacks” which, I believe is smoked herring – but there’s no bones or anything so I can handle that. I actually LOVE to make sashimi with any kind of smoked fish. Rice, cucumber, red pepper, avocado, smoked fish and (if I’m feeling decadent) some cream cheese all wrapped in nori and dipped in Braggs aminos… oh the yum!
When I lived in Norway we ate tinned mackerel all the time – not sure how it stacks up either nutritionally or environmentally, but it was delicious – they had both a smoked variety and one in tomato sauce.
I wonder how fish eggs compare in terms of nutrition. Here in the US we tend to think of caviar as a really expensive delicacy, but in Norway, they ate it as an every day food. In fact, it came in tubes like toothpaste, and they’d put it on top of open faced sandwiches… and it wasn’t generally black like we think of caviar being, there were orange, yellow and pink varieties. Hmmm… makes me wonder if you could even find stuff like that here.
Anyhow, I’ll be curious to see how your experiments pan out. Have you tried making “sardine cakes?” I make salmon patties with canned salmon all the time, and I’ve heard you can do the same thing with sardines. You just mash it up with an egg and a bit of flour and/or cornmeal and fry in olive oil. Good luck with your fishy experiments!
The bones really are not noticeable at all — I guess they are so soft and/or small they are negligible. I never “crunched” into anything. My issue was just the “fishiness,” especially with the first kind I tried. The salmon / sardine patty sounds like a good idea, thanks!
We love salmon patties specially with herbed mayo. If you mash up the skin and one from the salmon no one knows and you add nutrition. I also found out we love them also when I sub out half the total fish for tuna.
Please try to avoid the boneless sardines. The tiny bones are very good for us, because they’re full of calcium. The boneless ones take more processing, too. I worry a little about the amount of salt and “smoke” from eating salted or smoked fish frequently. Maybe the unsalted variety would be better, if we add our own ingredients. Also, I find the smallest sardines to be most palatable and a delicacy, so I sometimes look for the double layer. Thanks for the info about avoiding Mediterranean catches. If you have more tips on anchovies, please share them. I just read that they contain Omega 7’s, which are great. I also read that eating caviar frequently deprives the world of new baby fish, especially if they’re overfished and endangered. We are so blessed to have access to all these wonderful foods and supplements. Good health to all!
I suppose what I just posted about eating caviar being bad for the environment doesn’t really make sense. If the mother fish is already dead and will be eaten, those eggs wouldn’t have a chance of surviving. So I suppose it’s better to eat them than to throw them away. (I know very little about the fishing industry.)