Sardines: The Sustainable Superfood of the Sea

When I was a kid, just about the last thing I wanted in my lunchbox was a sardine sandwich. Fast forward a few decades, lose the bread, add some salt, pepper, and lemon, and I’m all in!

So, what’s changed? Well, fortunately my palate’s matured a bit since my lunchbox days, but also my appreciation of sardines has grown into a full-blown passion for this tasty, sea-based superfood. If you’re tired of the same old protein sources or concerned about the safety of the more standard aquatic options (tuna, red snapper swordfish, etc.), it’s time to get in deep with the humble, not to mention safer, nutrient-packed sardine. Here’s why.

You’ll like the nutritional bang for your fish buck.

Sardines — whether packed in water or olive oil or served up fresh — pack a lot more nutrition than their dainty size might suggest. When you add them to your protein repertoire, you’re gifting yourself with an excellent source of inflammation-taming nutrients, minerals, and vitamins at minimal cost. What’s inside these gifts from the sea? Just about everything your body needs to thrive, including:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids — to help support brain function and eye health, as well as a healthier heart, with anti-inflammatory, blood pressure and blood-clot reducing benefits.
  • Protein — and plenty of it, to support strong muscles, connective tissue, bones and immunity.
  • Minerals a healthy dose of the sometimes hard-to-get essentials like potassium, magnesium, niacin, copper, zinc, calcium, selenium, choline, and phosphorous, plus a bit of thiamine, manganese and folate.
  • Vitamins — vitamin B2, vitamin B12, and vitamin D, all of which promote health and vitality in a variety of ways.

 

Sardines eat plankton, not heavy metals.

Yes, in theory, a fish-heavy diet is great for us. Unfortunately, in practice, increasingly polluted oceans and plastic-filled seas ensure that many of the aquatic residents we eat most often — particularly the larger ones like tuna and swordfish — are rich in toxins, contaminants, and heavy metals (since they’ve ingested them throughout their life cycle). When you eat those larger fish, you’re also eating what they ate, and these days, that’s a cause for concern (if not alarm). With small fish like sardines, however, the news is a lot better. They don’t feed on other fish. Instead, they feed on plankton: microscopic plant-like creatures which flourish on a ‘diet’ of sunlight and nutrients that fall to the bottom of the ocean floor.

Sardines are sustainable.

Sardines are a wild fish that fortunately (for them and us) don’t do well in fish farms and are quite plentiful, traveling in large, dense schools. A small relative of the herring family, with most averaging about six inches long, sardines can be found in waters all over the world, including the Mediterranean, the Atlantic coasts of Europe and the U.S., and the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Build a healthy meal — anywhere — in seconds.

What I also love about sardines is that they are perfect for a light, quick supper. Just add a salad, toss in a few sardines and in a minute or two, dinner is served. Adding sardines to your meal rotation — either, cooked, sautéed,  grilled, roasted, smoked, dried or canned — is such a simple, no-brainer, health-supportive habit. Sardines once or twice a week will make a health difference. Another major plus for sardines? They’re super portable. A number of my clients who travel frequently keep a can or two in their suitcase to tide them over when the hotel kitchen has closed for the night.

What to look for when buying canned sardines:

  • Look for wild-caught, which most are, thankfully.
  • Look for sardines in BPA-free cans, packed either in water or extra virgin olive oil.
  • Look for the expiration date. Even though they technically have a shelf life of several years, sardines will degrade over time. And, to help maintain freshness, store canned sardines unopened in a cool place.
  • If you don’t use all the sardines, recycle the can and store the remainder in a covered glass container in the fridge for no more than three to four days, and always do a sniff test when you decide to eat the rest. Your nose will tell you if they’ve passed their prime.

 

What to look for when buying fresh sardines:

  • Look for fresh, bright-eyed sardines that look and smell healthy, with little, if any, odor.
  • Look for sardines with firmness, without sunken-looking bodies, bruises, or dull skin. Full and shiny is the way to go.
  • Keep them on ice, literally, in the fridge for no more than two to three days and, as with canned, give ’em a sniff test before eating the remainder.

 

Enjoy!

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