Whether you're at a sushi restaurant, steakhouse or grocery store buffet, you'd be hard-pressed to find a menu in the U.S. that doesn't offer some kind of salmon dish. After all, we spend about $688 million each year on the delectable pink fish, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
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But despite the country's high salmon demand, there's a different fish in your grocery store that dietitians want you to stock up on: sardines.
This tiny fish packs some great health perks, rivaling its more popular, pink peer. Read on for the health benefits of sardines, and then stock up on a few cans.
Why Sardines Are So Good for You
1. They're a Great Source of Omega-3s
Alongside its delicious taste, people love salmon for the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA — aka unsaturated fats that are linked to lower inflammation, lower triglyceride levels and keeping your heart healthy, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
But sardines are another excellent and underrated source of omega-3s, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table.
One can packs 64 percent of your adequate intake of omega-3s for the day, per the USDA, and, specifically, 0.74 grams of DHA and 0.45 grams of EPA, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
A March 2021 study in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that eating sardines twice a week is linked to protection against developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease in people with pre-diabetes.
The researchers think these benefits are due to the specific nutrients in sardines, namely EPA and DHA omega-3s, vitamin D and the amino acid taurine.
3. Sardines Are Very High in Vitamin B12
Sardines are also extremely high in vitamin B12, Taub-Dix says. One can alone provides about 555 percent of your Daily Value (DV), according to the USDA.
Although it may not be as commonly recognized as, say, vitamin C, vitamin B12 plays a big role in maintaining your body's nerve function and red blood cell formation, according to the NIH. It also helps your body break down and absorb protein and fat in the body.
4. Their Bones Pack Calcium
There's a lot of calcium in sardine bones (as the saying goes, "calcium builds healthy bones"). Believe it or not, the bones in sardines are completely edible, which is why this fish is such a calcium powerhouse, Taub-Dix says.
A can of sardines will pack about 44 percent of your DV of calcium, whereas the same size serving of salmon provides only 1 percent of the DV, as you can't eat salmon bones, according to the USDA.
5. They're Low in Mercury
You've probably heard of mercury but may not know exactly what it is — or what it means for your health. Long story short, mercury is a poisonous compound that's embedded in the fish food chain and builds up in concentration the higher you go up the chain.
Sardines are generally lower in mercury than salmon, which is a great reason to swap some of your salmon with this alternative. Compared to all seafood, sardines actually contain some of the lowest mercury levels with about 0.013 parts per million (ppm) of mercury, according to the FDA. For comparison, salmon has about 0.022 ppm.
"The FDA recommends taking in no more than 0.46 ppm of mercury per week," Jim White, RD and ACSM health fitness specialist, says. "Therefore, that makes it safe to eat about 32 cans of sardines before accumulating mercury toxicity in your body." That's a lot of sardines.
6. Sardines Are Budget-Friendly and Shelf-Stable
One of the best things about sardines is that they're way cheaper than salmon. You can buy a pack of 12 cans for $22.98 on Amazon — that's less than $2 per can serving. On the other hand, two salmon filets tend to cost anywhere upwards of $10.
Plus, canned sardines are shelf-stable, which means you can stock up without having to eat them all immediately. When you buy sardines, though, be mindful of the sodium content, Taub-Dix advises.
"Some sardines are packed in water while others include sauces that could provide more sodium than you may think," she says. "In any case, you should read food labels carefully to check sodium contents."
7. They're Loaded With Protein
Fish is packed with protein and sardines are no exception. One can has nearly 23 grams, so you can count on this little fish to help fill your daily protein needs and keep you full until your next meal.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: "American Seafood Industry Steadily Increases its Footprint"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Does Your Diet Deliver?"
- National Institutes of Health: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- USDA: "Canned Sardines"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin B12"
- USDA: "Wild Atlantic Salmon (Cooked)"
- FDA: "Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish (1990-2012)"
- Clinical Nutrition: "Type 2 diabetes preventive effects with a 12-months sardine-enriched diet in elderly population with prediabetes: An interventional, randomized and controlled trial"