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.