can of sardines

Photo courtesy of University of Florida.

The Health Benefits of Sardines
| published August 31, 2014 |

By Maggie Nichols
Thursday Review contributor

Hey Fredo, bring out the peppers and sardines, will ya. —Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) to Freddie Corleone, The Godfather Part II.

The much-maligned sardine has been getting a bad rap for decades. Often regarded askance by those who consider it “the poor man’s tuna,” and generally relegated to the trash heap of food history, sardines can be all-too-easily lumped into the same category as other pointless foods—fried pork rinds and potted meat, to name but two on the list. Sardines were the snack that your annoying kid-sitting uncle would offer you on a lazy Sunday afternoon when there wasn’t any popcorn in the house, a four-year-old can of cashew pieces in his cabinet turned out to contain steel washers, and he was too tired to go out for a big bag of Cheetos or Bugles. (Any resemblance between this fictitious example and my Uncle Pete, rest his soul, who lived in Baltimore in the 1980s and where I sometimes spent a few days each summer, well, it’s purely coincidental. Also coincidental is the fact that he watched The Godfather Part II about 200 times before he died in 2005, rest his soul).

But here’s the shocker: sardines are good for you. Very good for you, as it turns out. And the fact that they come in a strange, anachronistic little can, in which those tiny fish are packed-in like…well…packed like clichés…bears no impact on their health benefits.

To start with, Vitamin D is packed in those little silver fish that same way sardines are packed into little cans. One serving of sardines can deliver more than 100% of your recommended allowance of Vitamin D. And a word or two about Vitamin D: it’s not a single vitamin, but rather a family of vitamins which are closely related—including Vitamin’s D2 and D3. D3 is the form of D produced naturally by the human skin during routine exposure to sunlight. D2 is the variety produced by plants and in some seafood. Vitamin D is important—especially for women—for its powerful ability to help the body efficiently absorb calcium. And since Vitamin D is also directly instrumental in protecting against osteoporosis, this makes it doubly valuable for bone health. Multiple major studies have shown a direct correlation between those with a high intake of Vitamin D and reduced risk for bone fractures and osteoporosis.

Better still, Vitamin D, accoriding to the Mayo Clinic, has been shown to mitigate problems related to blood pressure and certain types of cancer.

Sardines also have the same “good” fish oil found in tuna and salmon. Sardines are packed with Omega-3 fats and fatty oils, the kind of stuff so powerfully linked to cancer-reduction and a reduction in inflammation. The unsaturated fat content in the sardines’ oils is also a good way to reduce blood pressure and reduce one’s risk of heart attack and stroke. Perhaps most importantly, the omega fats found in sardines help to strengthen brain tissue and prolong the natural breakdown of brain tissue. In other words, sardines really are “brain food.”

A note: make sure you choose sardines which are labelled as packed in sardine oil, or, for a slightly less salty taste, in olive oil. Other types of oils will negate the benefits of the “good” oils.

Sardines have other benefits as well, among them particularly high levels of potassium and iron. Potassium is important for muscle and tissue health; iron for overall energy levels and for bolstering the immune system, which increases resistance even to opportunistic conditions like colds and flus. Sardines contain lots of B12, which is a great way to naturally improve your blood by encouraging the production of red blood cells.

And aside from all that Vitamin D, which helps the body to naturally absorb calcium—sardines, perhaps surprisingly to many of our readers, are packed with calcium also. A typical single can of sardines (generally regarded as one serving) contains more than 351 milligrams of calcium. Add to all of that the fact that sardines contain lots of phosphorus, another element useful in bone health, and sardines start to seem like a tiny miracle in a can.

Sardines are most commonly eaten right out of the can, but for the more decorous and finicky among us (those who didn’t grow up with an Uncle Pete in Baltimore or a Frank Pentangeli in the Bronx) can certainly find alternatives to eating these tiny fish raw. One suggestion: add them to a salad made from leafy green lettuce, red lettuce, shredded carrots, diced tomato and other veggies. And yes, it’s true: sardines can also be used as a pizza topping alongside sliced peppers, chopped onion, sliced olives and tomato sauce, and they make a great pizza topping alternative to sausage or pepperoni. And as an hors d’oeuvre, sardines are an instant winner: sardine canapés can be made in minutes using a little mustard, mayonnaise, lemon oil, sliced hardboiled eggs, and a few drops of hot sauce.

A few caveats: sardines are loaded—over-the-top loaded—with sodium. Anyone with a diet which requires low sodium intake should be careful about eating sardines in large quantities. Also, there is a complicated and contentious debate about the mercury content in sardines (the same debate once raged about tuna not too many years ago). As a result, women who are pregnant or who might become pregnant should be cautious about eating them, and you might want to check with your doctor first. Researching online for this article led me to a wide range of disagreement about the mercury levels found in sardines.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Health Benefits of Beans; Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; June 10, 2014.

The Brussels Sprouts Controversy; Michael Sigler; Thursday Review; February 10, 2014.