Sardines: The Underappreciated Fish

by in Healthy Tips, October 15, 2009

can of sardines
My dad and hubby occasionally pop open a can of sardines and eat them for breakfast or even a snack. Although they’re not my favorite food, sardines are a popular dish around the world. Whether you love or hate them, there’s no denying how low-cal and nutrient-packed they are.

What, Where & When
Many years back, sardines were harvested off the coast of Sardinia, an Island in the Mediterranean — hence the name “sardines.” The term “sardines” actually refers to a variety of tiny, soft-boned, saltwater fish that are iridescent and silver in color. Common varieties are sprat, pilchard and herring.

Food historians believe canned sardines originated in the 19th century when Napoleon decided to can them in oil or tomato sauce (there were no refrigerators back then). You’ll usually only find fresh sardines in the summer months around coastal areas. Canned sardines are much more convenient. These days, most of the fresh and canned varieties come from Portugal.

Nutrition Facts
Three ounces of fresh sardines contain 134 calories, 8 grams of total fat, 15 grams of protein and zero carbs. When canned in water, the average 3.75-ounce can of sardines has 120 calories, 7 grams fat and 2 grams of saturated fat. The oil-packed variety has 130 calories, 9 grams fat and 2 grams saturated fat. Both have 340 milligrams of sodium. There’s not much of a difference between the two, but if you’re looking to skim a few calories, opt for the water-packed ones.

They’re an excellent source of vitamin B-12 and selenium. They also cover almost 350% of your daily vitamin D; in fact, they’re one of the only food sources for that vitamin (it’s found in egg yolks, too).

More good-for-you news: Sardines are a great source of heart-healthy omega-3 fats, which are important for growth and brain function. And if you’re looking for an alternative calcium source, these little fishes contain as much calcium as a cup of milk thanks to their edible bones.

What To Do With Sardines
You can find salted, smoked or canned sardines in most markets. They canned kinds (whole or fillets) come in oil, water, tomato sauce, hot sauce or even mustard sauce. Some folks prefer the spiced up versions because they have a slightly less fishy flavor.

The simplest serving idea is eating sardines straight out of the can. My hubby has them for breakfast on a slice of bread with a smear of butter or Smart Balance Light. Because they’re pretty soft, he’ll mash the fish lightly with his fork to make it more like a spread.

When I went searching through our sister sites, Foodnetwork.com and Recipezaar.com, I had a tough time finding Healthy Eats-approved recipes because so many had way too much oil. If you’d like to add some fat to your sardine treat, use the ones packed oil or add one or two tablespoons to water-packed varieties — but don’t overdo it by drowing them.

    Here are some easy ideas I came across for preparing these fish:

  • Toss them in a salad.
  • Make a sardine melt: Top a slice of bread with sardine and cheese and bake in the oven.
  • Sardines over pasta: Heat sardines canned in tomato sauce in a skillet with oil, garlic and onions. Toss with whole-wheat pasta.
  • Grill fresh sardines with a squeeze of lemon juice

Shopping Tip: Buy fresh sardines when they’re available at your local market. The fish should have clear eyes and the flesh should spring back to the touch. Rinse them well, place them in a single-layer covered with a damp paper towel and store for one to two days in the refrigerator. For canned varieties, always check the use-by date.

TELL US: How do you like your sardines?

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Comments (15)

  1. Laura says:

    My dad and I always enjoy sardines on crackers when we go hiking, great boast of energy and easy to carry in a backpack.

  2. Krikri says:

    Toby: I mash them with a spoon so they look like a spread. They are too soft so I can hardly eat it so I use to combine something else. About the nutritional facts, sardines are full of vitamins and make a great substitute for calcium. Most of the sardines around are canned and there have been a worry about that. The question is – drain it out before cooking or it is wholesome and can be used for teh cooking? I think this post answers that.

  3. Jo H. says:

    I buy the oil-packed kind and I like to eat them for lunch on whole grain crackers or snack toast with a little bit of mustard and some thinly sliced onion. Yum

  4. Nicole says:

    Just had sardines for lunch – toasted bread – sardines (in water) on top – even it out and top with thinly sliced red onion – yummy…..

  5. Marie Buss says:

    My Dad and I always ate sardines drained, slightly smashed on Italian bread. They are great. Marie

  6. Marcy Youker says:

    I Love sardines for lunch, packed in water, with tomato,onion,and lettuce,on toasted weath bread, a lilltle mustard, love it ,love it, love it. Thanks Marcy

  7. lori crocker says:

    I love sardines for lunch, packed in water or olive oil, with thinly sliced onions,garlic, cilantro, and fresh lemon juice, placed on crackers. LORI

  8. Linda says:

    Our family used to take sardines and crackers to munch on while we fished, until we could get back to land and cook out what we had caught that day, along with the sides we had brought with us.

  9. Enid says:

    Sardines are ALSO great COOKED…..with shallots…..geen bean vermicelli and bittermelon. All cooked together in a 'soup-like' dish. SOOO YUMMY!!!

  10. Gloria says:

    I love pasta with roasted garlic and sardines, delicious!
    My granma used to buy fresh sardines, clean then up and layer with onions and tomatoes, cover in olive oil and bake. I had many times in fresh French bread, beautiful!

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