Sardines: The Underappreciated Fish
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recipes to try: