Tinned fish is having a moment. And no, we don’t mean Chicken of the Sea. Think herring in mustard sauce or lightly-smoked sardines in olive oil and piri-piri pepper, sold in Insta-worthy, retro-chic packaging. The popularity of these tinned products— conservas as they're known in Portugal and Spain, where people have long enjoyed them — has grown Stateside as of late, arguably helped by their shelf life, now that the pandemic has forced us to minimize grocery trips. The small fish that tend to come in tins, like anchovies and herring, are also more sustainable than big fish like tuna.
But while it may win points for shelf life and sustainability, how healthy is tinned fish? Is it a good alternative to fresh fish? According to the dietitians Mic interviewed, it’s pretty damn healthy. In fact, it’s just as healthy as fresh fish, and in some respects, even more so.
The health benefits vary depending on the type of fish, but in general, they’re “pretty comparable between fresh and tinned fish,” says Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian in New York and author of Unapologetic Eating. “Both types of fish are a good source of protein and certain heart-healthy nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids.”
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for survival, but your body can’t make them on its own, which is why you need them from foods like fish, according to Cleveland Clinic. They offer a host of cardiovascular benefits, including a lowered risk of heart disease, blood clots, and inflammation. Some fish contain more omega-3s than others, which doesn’t have to do so much with whether they’re tinned or fresh, but the type of fish, Rumsey tells Mic. Sardines rank among the best fish sources of omega-3s, along with mackerel, herring, and salmon.
Tinned fish also “generally provides more calcium than fresh fish, because the bones are softened by processing and so people are more likely to eat them,” Rumsey says. Sardines, meanwhile, are a good source of vitamin D, adds Vandana Sheth, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes. You get dietary synergy, in other words: Your body needs not only calcium for strong bones as well as nerve, muscle, and heart function, per Mayo Clinic, but vitamin D to absorb it.
Tinned tuna contains less mercury, too, Rumsey says, something pregnant folx in particular need to be mindful of, since the toxic metal can harm fetal brain development. “Larger fish tend to be higher in mercury compared to smaller fish,” Sheth explains. That’s because as larger fish prey on mercury-containing smaller fish, their bodies accumulate more mercury over the long term. As a result, fish further up the food chain contain higher concentrations of mercury than those lower on the food chain, like the small fish often packaged in tins. If you’re pregnant, though, Rumsey recommends exercising caution with fish in general and talking to your doctor.
But as nutritious as it is, tinned fish isn’t perfect. Both experts note that it may pack more sodium than fresh fish. Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease —but “in the context of a varied diet, [tinned fish] likely won't make too much of a difference,” Rumsey says. Basically, if you don’t eat it every day, at every meal, you’re probably good.
Rumsey adds that some people might not like the taste of tinned fish as much as that of fresh fish. Indeed, I’ve noticed that certain types of tinned fish taste a little too fishy. Not all do, though, so it’s a matter of trial and error, and maybe playing with acidity, like citrus and vinegar, to tone down the fishiness.
When buying tinned fish, Rumsey recommends choosing one you actually like and to keep in mind that fish packed in oil will likely retain more omega-3s than those in water. That said, the oil may have more calories, Sheth notes. It all depends on your goals.
“Tinned and canned fish have a much longer shelf life than fresh and can be a great substitute for fresh fish,” Rumsey says. “It's easy to have them on hand for a quick pantry-dinner or when you don't feel like cooking” — which honestly, might be the case for a lot of us right now. I’ve seen tinned fish tossed into salad and pasta, but my personal fav is anchovies on buttered crostini.
If you’re finding it hard to muster the energy to cook a seafood meal, but want to treat yourself to something a little fancier than Chicken of the Sea and mayo, tinned fish is a happy medium: it tastes good, it’s good for you, and it still looks like you tried.