Typically found oversalted and steeped in oil, sardines may not at first glance seem good for you — but in fact they are nutrient-dense, inexpensive and definitely a worthy pantry staple. Sardines are high in protein, rich in omega-3 fatty acids (associated with heart health benefits), and filled with certain important vitamins (especially D and B12) and minerals (such as calcium). However, sardines packed in oil are high in sodium and cholesterol, so daily consumption of them is not advisable. Keep reading to learn more about the nutritional value of sardines, plus three easy sardine recipes to try on your next lazy kitchen day.
Health Benefits of Sardines
Don’t let the physical appearance of canned sardines fool you. They pack quite the punch when it comes to nutritional value.
Vitamins and Minerals
While multivitamin pills may help supply the body with certain essential vitamins and minerals for normal body functioning, taking supplements comes second to sourcing nutrients via a well-balanced diet. See Vitamins and Minerals: Can You Take Too Many? to learn more about which essential nutrients can be obtained easily through smart dietary selections; or see this handy list of nutrient-rich foods, compiled by Harvard Medical School.
Sardines are rich in the following essential vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamin D
- B vitamins – especially B12
Canned sardines, which fall under the “fatty fish” category, are a great source of vitamin D, containing 4.4 micrograms (mcg) per can, 22% of the daily recommended value for this vitamin. (Aside from sun exposure and dietary supplements, most of the vitamin D found in American diets comes from fortified foods such as cereal and fortified orange juice. Sardines, however, represent one of the only food sources that naturally contain vitamin D in such a large amount per serving.) Vitamin D helps promote bone growth, calcium absorption, and helps to reduce inflammation.
Sardines are also a great source of calcium, which plays an important role in bone health. One can of sardines provides 352 milligrams (mg) of calcium, which is 27% of the daily recommended value. Consumed along with high amounts of vitamin D — which helps your body to better absorb calcium, this combination can help keep your bones healthy and strong.
Iron aids in the production of hemoglobin and myoglobin, proteins found in red blood cells associated with circulating and supplying oxygen throughout the body. One can of sardines contains 2.7 mg of iron, or 15% of the daily recommended intake for iron.
Sardines also contain B vitamins, which research has recognized for supporting “optimal physiological and neurological functioning.” B12, particularly high in sardines, supports red blood cell formation, DNA production, nerve maintenance, and helps to elevate and maintain energy levels. Just one sardine contains almost 50% percent of the average daily recommended amount of B12 for adults, which is 2.4 mcg. (To learn the daily recommended amounts of B12 for those younger than adulthood or for pregnant or breastfeeding women, refer to this chart, provided by the National Institutes of Health.)
The rich selenium content of sardines supports immune system functioning and the promotion of antioxidants throughout the body for improved blood flow and lowered risk for heart disease.
Like calcium and vitamin D, phosphorus — which is plentiful in sardines — supports bone health and bone formation. Additionally, phosphorus plays an important role in metabolism and how energy is stored and released by every cell in the body.
Healthy Fatty Acids
Sardines have a high ratio of healthy (unsaturated) fats to unhealthy (saturated) fats. According to USDA data, one can of sardines contains 9.0 grams of unsaturated fatty acids and only 1.5 grams of saturated fatty acids, the latter representing less than 10% of the daily recommended budget for saturated fats. (These figures are for sardines packed in a common type of oil; cans consisting of olive oil, tomato juice or water would likely contain lower levels of saturated fat; and fresh sardines, particularly if grilled, have even lower fat levels.)
Diving deeper, a can of sardines provides 64% of the daily recommended value of omega-3 fatty acids, which are strongly associated with these health benefits:
- Lowered risk of heart failure
- Lowered risk of coronary disease
- Lowered risk of cardiovascular death
- Amelioration of inflammatory processes associated with metabolic syndrome, which in turn is associated with diabetes mellitus, CVD, and joint diseases/pain
- Reduced risk of cognitive decline
- Potential reduction of triglyceride levels
- Potential lowering of blood sugar levels
A clinical review of 20 studies involving hundreds of thousands of participants indicates that eating approximately one to two 3-ounce servings of fatty fish a week — salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, or sardines — reduces the risk of dying from heart disease by 36%. Accordingly, the American Heart Association recommends the consumption of two such servings of fatty fish per week.
Furthermore, consumption of a similar quantity of fatty fish per week, like sardines, is recommended for pregnant women (as long as the fish is well-cooked) because the omega-3s are important for optimal development of a baby’s brain and nervous system. In a major study, it was concluded that the children of women who consume lower amounts of fish or omega-3s during pregnancy and breast-feeding have evidence of delayed brain development.
For a more comprehensive list of the many health benefits associated with consuming omega-3 fatty acids, see our report, Dietary Fats: Which Are Healthy, Which Are Not?
Sardines are a cheap and easy protein source that can help you meet your daily protein needs, as well as your daily calorie needs. A can of sardines packs 23 grams of protein, accounting for almost half of the calories in a can of sardines. (Furthermore, in comparison to all other protein sources, sardines score quite low on the environmental impact chart when considering the associated costs of producing this protein source.)
The most important functions of protein in the diet include:
- Supporting the growth and maintenance of body tissues
- Regulating the pH of your bodily fluids
- Maintaining the fluid balance between your blood and tissues
- Providing antibody protection against harmful and foreign substances in the body
Because your body needs protein for every metabolic process, and because our bodies do not store the amino acids that comprise protein, consumption of this macronutrient throughout the day is beneficial. And since protein tends to keep you full longer than carbs or fats, adequate consumption of protein might assist individuals looking to achieve balanced caloric restriction.
The daily recommended value for protein varies from person to person. However, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that your daily protein consumption represent 10-35% of your total caloric intake, which most Americans do achieve. But not all protein sources are high-quality ones, because they may contain other ingredients that are far less beneficial, like saturated fats or added sugars. Sardines are a high-quality protein source in part because they contain no added sugars; in fact, sardines do not contain any carbohydrates at all.
For those individuals at risk for type 2 diabetes (T2D), the protein in sardines could prove particularly beneficial. A 2021 study concluded that the amino acid (protein) taurine, plentiful in sardines, is associated with reduced risks of T2D in individuals diagnosed with prediabetes, although the mechanism of action is still unclear.
See our essential guide, What Is Protein?, to understand more about this essential macronutrient that our bodies need.
Low mercury content
Compared to other types of seafood that are high in mercury (such as swordfish), sardines have a relatively low mercury content. Very high levels of mercury can damage nerves in adults and disrupt development of the brain and nervous system in a fetus or young child. See this JAMA study for a list of the mercury content of most types of fish.
The trade-offs: Concerns about eating sardines daily
Despite the positive health benefits associated with the high nutritional density of sardines, there are concerns about eating them daily or in excessive portions. A few of the most pressing issues with canned sardines are their high cholesterol and high sodium content. Also, individuals with kidney problems or gout should avoid sardines because of the high purine content.
According to data collected by the CDC, 28 million adults have cholesterol levels over 240 mg/dL, the level considered “high” by organizations including the Mayo Clinic. Another 94 million adults have blood cholesterol levels above 200 mg/dL, the borderline unhealthy level. While your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells, high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.
One can of sardines (3.75 oz) contains 131 mg of dietary cholesterol, representing 44% of the daily recommended cholesterol intake. While this may be of concern to those with diabetes or cardiovascular conditions, there are significant mitigating factors that point to moderate consumption of sardines as healthy despite the total cholesterol level.
Firstly, we must state that there is an ongoing debate amongst researchers and nutritionists about the relative risks associated with dietary cholesterol. Research suggests that two-thirds of the population are insensitive to dietary cholesterol, meaning blood cholesterol levels do not even rise significantly with the consumption of dietary cholesterol. A recent clinical paper quantified that increases in serum (blood) cholesterol levels from high-cholesterol foods are only moderate, hypothesizing that many factors other than dietary cholesterol influence your blood cholesterol levels.
While research on the relationship between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol is still ongoing, what we do know is that dietary cholesterol deriving from low-quality fats (saturated fats and trans fat) contributes to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) while regular consumption of high-quality fats (unsaturated fats, and especially omega-3 fatty acids) reduces the risk of dying from heart disease, among other potential health benefits.
Earlier, we mentioned that sardines contain a significant amount of unsaturated fatty acids, the healthier kind of fat, and a lower level of saturated fatty acids, the unhealthy kind. Furthermore, sardines are high in very healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Thus, most researchers conclude that two servings of sardines per week is healthy, despite the overall high total cholesterol level of this food source, although this assumes that users are not consuming other high cholesterol food sources concurrently.
A can of sardines packs 282 mg of sodium, which is quite high for one food product alone. The sodium content in a can of sardines represents 19% of the daily recommended sodium intake, which is 1500 mg per day, according to the American Heart Association.
Excessive consumption of sodium can have adverse effects on your health, putting you at risk of developing health problems including:
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
- Heart disease (CVD)
However, eating sardines in moderation, and only for one or two meals per week, is unlikely to cause your overall sodium intake to skyrocket. In a 2021 randomized controlled clinical trial of sardines, it was shown that blood pressure actually fell in the group (older individuals with prediabetes) fed sardines several times per week, possibly due to the combined effects of the taurine (an amino acid/protein) and omega-3s in the fish — although overall weekly caloric restriction in the group may have been a significant factor in that health benefit.
Even if you don’t have prediabetes or diabetes, it’s helpful to learn all you can about sodium and ways to lower your daily salt intake: see Salt and Diabetes: What You Need to Know.
Purines in Sardines
Sardines contain a large amount of a particular chemical compound known as purines. Purines break down into uric acid when metabolized by the body and are then excreted by the kidney.
Regularly consuming foods high in purines can overwhelm the body and the kidneys when excreting this compound. Under the right conditions, uric acid can form crystallized stones in the kidney, which affect your kidney’s ability to regularly and properly excrete waste. Another concern of purines and large amounts of uric acid in the body is the formation of uric acid crystals in joints, tissues and fluids. This crystallization process can be especially painful for those with gout or other forms of arthritis.
Bottom line: Individuals with or at risk of developing kidney problems or having gout should avoid eating sardines. Healthy individuals can eat sardines in moderation as a part of a healthy diet.
Easy Sardine Recipes to Try
As fun as cooking can be, it is also a lot of work: planning the meal, prepping the meal, cooking the meal, and then cleaning up. Some days, you just don’t feel like hauling out all your pots and pans to put together something to eat. If you have a can of sardines lying around in your pantry closet, you can whip up something to eat quite quickly. Check out the following sardine recipes for a quick snack or a light meal to get you through the day.
Lemon Garlic Herb Sardines
When adding lemon and garlic to a can of sardines, the flavors compliment each other and help to balance out the fish flavor of sardines. Up those flavors by trying out this sardines with sun-dried tomatoes and capers recipe; (but if you are watching your sodium intake, be advised that the latter two ingredients are sodium-rich, so use them sparingly and be generous with the herbs, instead.) Feel free to spice up this recipe further with any other of your favorite ingredients, such as kalamata olives or red onions.
Salsa Sardine Avocado Toast
Perhaps the last thing you would think to put on your avocado toast are sardines. But this salsa sardine avocado toast works because the flavors are balanced and the soft yet semi-crunch of the edible bones in sardines sets you up for the crunchiness of the toast. All you need is some mashed avocado, greens and veggies of your choice, olive oil, lemon juice, diced tomatoes or salsa — and, of course, sardines.
Tomato Sardines with Rice
Just like the last recipe, this easy island-style sardines recipe balances out the flavor of fish with tomato sauce. Pair these tomato sardines with some brown or white rice and you’ve got yourself a quick meal.
You can find a can of sardines in almost every grocery store. They’re inexpensive and nutritionally dense, containing important vitamins and minerals, an abundance of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and a solid amount of protein to help meet your daily protein needs. But do be wary of the high sodium content and high total cholesterol (albeit much of the latter being the “good kind” of cholesterol) of sardines. Moderation and portion control are advised.