When it comes to fish that people either love or hate, sardines are among the top contenders. Iridescent and tiny, these oily fish within the herring family are oh so flavorful when being enjoyed by their fans! But what if you can’t imagine savoring sardines? Well, don’t be so quick to swear off this miniature but mighty nutritional powerhouse. Keep reading, and you may just end up with an entirely new appreciation for this budget-friendly, convenient and superbly heart-healthy food.

Fresh sardines are tough to find and are highly perishable, so canned sardines are the go-to option for most people. Because canned sardines generally include the fishes’ organs, skin and bones, they are a concentrated source of vitamins and minerals (especially calcium). You may already know that these petite fish are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids…are packed with vitamin D…and are rich in protein. But did you realize that one can (3.75 ounces) contains a whopping 1.4 g of heart-healthy omega-3 fat (that’s about the same as a serving of sockeye salmon or tuna!) and 23 g of lean protein? Available just about anywhere (even at some gas stations and convenience stores), a can of sardines will cost you a paltry $3.50 or even less on sale. And if that’s not enough, consider this: Sardines are very low in heavy metal contaminants such as mercury—they feed on plankton, ranking them very low on the aquatic food chain.

The only bad news is that sardines from certain areas have been overfished and, as a result, appear on the “Avoid” list at SeafoodWatch.org, created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a nonprofit educational group that makes science-based recommendations for seafood sustainability. Since 2007, the Pacific sardine population has plunged by 90%—a decline that is believed to have contributed to the deaths of sea lions and brown pelicans across the West Coast. As a result, federal fishery managers have banned nearly all sardine fishing off the West Coast for the second straight year. The good news is that you can still purchase sardines that were canned before the ban—the FDA says sardines from an undamaged, properly stored can are safe to eat for up to five years after packing. You can also find sources of approved sardines from areas not affected by overfishing—they are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), MSC.org, an international nonprofit organization established to address the problem of unsustainable fishing and safeguard seafood supplies for the future. 

When choosing canned sardines, check the package label. Buy the kind packed in water or extra-virgin olive oil (stay away from those packed in other oils or sugary tomato sauce) and look for the MSC certification. On the convenience scale, sardines rate high because they can be served straight out of the can (or mashed with mustard and onions for a quick and delicious spread on crackers). You can also try my favorite serving suggestions… 

  • Broiled. Place your drained can of sardines on a baking tin lined with aluminum foil. Season with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and one-half teaspoon of a fresh herb (such as rosemary), a few capers, a fresh garlic clove (minced) and a spritz of fresh lemon juice. Broil for a few minutes and serve.
  • Sardine-lemon-garlic pasta. Fry one can of sardines (chopped) with two cloves of fresh garlic, juice from half a lemon and one-half cup of bread crumbs in extra-virgin olive oil. Add your own tomato sauce to the pasta bowl along with the sardine mixture, parsley and fresh Parmesan. Delizioso!