Canned foods often get a bad rap for being high in sodium and filled with questionable ingredients. But in reality, they are one of the most underrated sources of protein.
In fact, you'll find many of the leanest sources of protein, such as fish and beans, in a can.
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"Canned proteins can be a low-cost and shelf-stable source of protein and should not be avoided. I love canned chickpeas, salmon, tuna and black beans," Lauren Manaker, RD, CLEC, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
But while you've likely already added tuna and black beans to your cart at some point, we're highlighting some of the lesser-known canned proteins out there that are definitely worth the buy.
How to Shop for Healthy Canned Proteins
When shopping for canned proteins, it's best to avoid those high in sodium and ones with artificial preservatives, says Alana Kessler, RDN, founder of Be Well.
- Go low-sodium: You'll want to shop for low-sodium varieties, but if none are available, you can cut the sodium in the can yourself. "To reduce the sodium, you can drain the can and rinse the contents a few times," she says. For example, you can rinse chickpeas under water to help remove some of the salt.
- Pick BPA-free: "Make sure the packaging is BPA (bisphenol A)-free, which is a chemical often used in packaged food," Kessler says.
- Packed in water or oil: In terms of whether to buy canned fish in water or oil, Manaker says it's less about which is a healthier choice and more about what you prefer. "The water vs. oil choice really depends on an individual's health goals. Some people are trying to add more healthy fats in their diet, therefore, tuna packed in olive oil is a good choice," Manaker explains. "Others do not want the added fat and calories, or simply do not like the taste of the added fat."
That said, there are a variety of delicious ways to enjoy canned proteins and turn them into a quick and nutritious meal.
From a mouthwatering tuna melt to a hearty black bean burger, here are some of the best canned protein choices and creative recipes to enjoy them.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fatty fish at least twice a week to help reduce your risk of stroke.
That's because fatty fish, such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines, are excellent sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
There are three different types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
While ALA is mostly found in plant-based foods, like flax and chia seeds, walnuts and beans, fish are the main sources of DHA and EPA.
Just like tuna, salmon is a rockstar source of omega-3 fatty acids, but salmon is also packed with vitamins B12 and B6, vitamin D, selenium, niacin and phosphorous.
While farmed and wild salmon are both great ways to get more fatty fish in your diet, wild salmon has lower levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which have been linked to type 2 diabetes and obesity, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
You'll generally find canned salmon sold as wild sockeye and wild pink Alaskan salad.
To help you get your creative cooking juices flowing, here are some ideas for using canned salmon:
- Make salmon croquettes or salmon burgers
- Create a salmon salad with low-fat yogurt or mayo, or avocado and some chopped celery and your choice of herbs and spices
- Toss into big green salads and pasta dishes
- Make an open-faced sandwich by mashing up avocado and salmon, fresh lemon juice and crushed red peppers
2. Cannellini Beans
You've tried black beans, but have you ever picked up a can of cannellinis at the store?
Marisa Moore, RDN, LD, culinary and integrative dietitian likes making bean breakfact tacos or quesadillas with greens and cheese. Cannellini beans (aka white kidney beans) not only supply plant-based protein, but they also offer fiber, potassium and iron,
So if you're trying to cut back on meat, cannellini beans make a delicious alternative. You can create bean burger patties with other veggies and your choice of spices, blend them into a flavorful veggie and chip dip and use them to sneak in more fiber into your desserts, like brownies.
Make sure to rinse canned cannellini beans under water to help reduce the sodium content. Try these mouthwatering dish ideas to make use of your canned beans:
- Prepare a flavorful cannellini bean chili with ground turkey, corn and red bell peppers
- Blend a cannellini-bean hummus with garlic, lemon juice, your choice of spices and extra-virgin olive oil
- Add cannellini beans to salads, tacos and nachos
- Roast cannellini beans in the oven with extra-virgin olive oil, spices and herbs for a crunchy snack
Cannellini Bean Recipes
Sardines are often the unsung hero of the canned food world, but these tiny and mighty fish offer big benefits.
Did you know that a 3.75-ounce can of sardines has 22.6 grams of protein, 36 percent of your daily value (DV) of phosphorus and 27 percent DV calcium? In addition to omega-3 fats, sardines are also high in vitamin D.
If you're curious about the savory, delicious fish, check out these healthy and taste-tempting ideas for incorporating more sardines into your diet:
- Saute sardines with chopped sourdough bread and extra-virgin olive oil to flavor homemade croutons
- Blend them into a tomato-based pasta sauce or a homemade Caesar salad dressing
- Top them over pizza and tacos
4. Chicken Breast
If you want to save time in the kitchen, look no further than canned chicken breast.
This versatile food already comes cooked, so you can easily pile it onto salads, soups, tacos and everything in between. Just like regular chicken breaksts, canned chicken breast is high in protein and low in fat. It also provides B vitamins and some magnesium and zinc.
Here are some creative dish ideas:
- Prepare chicken salad tartines with celery, sliced radishes and capers
- Add chicken breasts to a veggie soup or stew for some protein
- Layer them on sandwiches
- Stuff them into burritos and tacos
Much like sardines, canned mackerel are small fish that provide ample amounts omega-3 fatty acids.
What also makes mackerel a good choice is that it's one of the most sustainable catches, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
The most important thing when preparing canned mackerel is to remove the large bones and tough parts of the fish, but you can also find canned varieties that are boneless.
Just beware that king mackerel is high in mercury, so be sure to limit your intake.
Mackerel is pretty versatile, so you can add them to almost any kind of dish.
Tasty Ways to Use Mackerel
- Add them to veggie stir-fries with chopped carrots, green beans, mushrooms, soy sauce and sesame oil
- Toss them into salads and pasta dishes
- Top them over crostini for elegant hors d'oeuvres or an appetizer
In many cases, anchovies are the secret ingredient to the most delicious Caesar salad dressing and pasta sauce, so don't shy away from using these small tinned fish.
"I like keeping canned anchovies in my pantry for a protein source that also gives a boost of brain-boosting DHA omega-3 fatty acids," Manaker says.
Manaker suggests getting canned anchovies that don't have the bones removed to help meet your daily calcium needs. "The anchovy bones are soft, so they are completely edible. Anchovies are a great addition to pastas, salads, and even eggs!," she says.
Check out these other scrumptious ideas:
- Blend them into a pasta sauce, salad dressing or dip
- Top them over pizza and tacos
- Toss them in with your greens, grain bowls and pasta dishes
- American Heart Association: "Eating Fish Twice a Week Reduces Heart Stroke Risk"
- National Institutes of Health: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- Environmental Working Group: "PCBS in Farmed Salmon: Wild Versus Farmed"
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines: "Vitamin D: Food Sources Ranked by Amounts of Vitamin D and Energy per Standard Food Portions and per 100 Grams of Food"
- Environmental Defense Fund: "Mackerel"
- USDA: "Sardines"