Are Sardines Good for You?
April 21, 2021
"Sardines bring back memories of my dad, my hero Pharmacist role model and his healthy appetite for good food. In this case Sardines on Uneeda Biscuit crackers. Find out why he made such a great food choice here!” – Susan Merenstein, Pharmacist/Owner
Sardines are oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. They are a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, and they may have less mercury contamination than larger fish.
Sardines are small, soft-boned fish that belong to the herring family. The name sardine may come from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, where these fish were once abundant.
Sardines are available fresh, canned, smoked, or pickled.
In this article, we look at how to include sardines in the diet and the possible health benefits. We also explain what to consider when buying sardines and how many a person should eat.
Sardines are oily fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are fats often present in plants and marine organisms. The fish are also a good source of protein, vitamins, selenium, and calcium.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential components of cell membranes. A person must get these fatty acids from food because the human body cannot make them.
There are three main omega-3 fatty acids, two of which occur naturally in fish — including sardines — and other seafood. These are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which fish get from the algae they eat, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is in many parts of the human body, including the eyes, brain, and heart.
According to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, consuming 8 ounces (oz) per week of a variety of seafood provides, on average, 250 milligrams (mg) per day of EPA and DHA.
The guidelines point out that consuming this amount during pregnancy and breastfeeding is associated with improved infant health outcomes. However, pregnant and breastfeeding people should choose seafood with lower mercury levels.
This intake of seafood also has a link with reduced cardiac deaths in people with and without preexisting heart disease.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), omega-3s provide other possible benefits, although further research is necessary to establish the exact forms and dosages. The omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial for preventing cancer and alleviating the effects of other conditions, including:
• Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognitive function
• age-related macular degeneration
• rheumatoid arthritis
The authors of a 2014 meta-analysis of studies in which participants took EPA and DHA supplements concluded that omega-3 fatty acids are effective in reducing symptoms of depression.
Protein and vitamins
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein for adults is 46–56 grams (g) per day, depending on age and sex. Sardines are a good source of protein, with one cup of canned sardines in oil containing 36.7 g of this macronutrient.
Selenium is an important antioxidant that affects reproduction, thyroid function, and DNA production. An adult’s RDA is 55 micrograms (mcg) per day, and a 100-g portion of canned sardines in oil contains 52.7 mcg of this mineral.
Sardines are also an excellent source of vitamin B12. A 100-g serving of canned sardines in oil contains 8.94 mcg of vitamin B12, which is almost four times an adult’s RDA of 2.4 mcg per day. Vitamin B12 helps keep the blood and nervous system healthy.
People need calcium for healthy bones, and a drained cup of canned sardines in oil contains 569 mg of calcium, which is more than half the 1,000 mg that experts recommend for adults aged 19–50 years.
Sardines also contain other nutrients that are essential for healthy bones, such as vitamin D, magnesium, and phosphorus.
According to a 2018 review, omega-3 fatty acids may aid weight loss by altering metabolic processes. Some of these processes include appetite suppression, inflammation, and gene expression.
The same review suggests that omega-3 may regulate leptin, a hormone that tells a person that they are full.
The researchers conclude that while studies have not yet shown omega-3 to have consistent benefits for weight loss, they have demonstrated improvements in metabolic profile among people with obesity.
How much to eat
Regularly eating sardines can help people meet guidelines for the consumption of oily fish. For example, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend eating two servings of fish (particularly fatty fish) per week, with one serving consisting of 3.5 oz of cooked fish.
However, some fish may have high levels of contaminants, such as mercury, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) consider sardines to be one of the “best choices” due to their lower mercury levels.
In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advise that fish that is lower in mercury is important for developmental and health benefits in the following groups of people:
- females aged 16–49 years old, which they consider childbearing age
- pregnant and breastfeeding people
- young children
The FDA recommend consuming no more than 3 g per day of EPA and DHA combined. Omega-3 can also interact with anticoagulant medications, such as warfarin.
How to choose sardines
People can choose to eat fresh or canned sardines as part of a healthful diet.
According to a not-for-profit organization, fresh sardines should smell fresh, be firm to the touch, and have bright eyes and shiny skin.
Sardines canned in oil have similar amounts of omega-3 to canned sardines in tomato sauce. Choosing a product with tomato sauce provides the additional heart health benefits of lycopene, a carotenoid present in tomatoes.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommend that people avoid eating the European pilchard, which people often refer to as a sardine, as it may not be ecologically sustainable.
Including sardines in a meal
Sardines make a healthful quick lunch when people add them to a salad, serve them on toast, or put them in a pasta dish.
However, sardines require preparation before they are ready to eat.
People should gut fresh sardines and rinse them under cold running water.
If the sardines are in a can, a person can remove the excess oil by rinsing the fish under running water.
People can eat sardines canned in tomato sauce straight from the can or warm them on the stovetop.
It is also possible to incorporate sardines into a meal. The following recipes provide some examples of how to do this:
- Sardines with sun-dried tomato and capers
- Island-style sardines and rice
- Mediterranean casserole
Sardines are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and may have anti-inflammatory properties. They are also a good source of protein, as well as some vitamins and minerals.
People can safely eat sardines regularly as part of a healthful diet, although a person taking anticoagulant medications may need to control their intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
Sardines can provide a quick and healthful meal, and people can eat them fresh or canned.