Dennis remembers sardines from his childhood. “We would get home from school and Mum would serve a pile of sandwiches on a plate with hot chocolate. There were always two sardine sandwiches in the pile, the way Mum always made them mashed with chopped up raw onion and butter on the bread. My brother and I always left them for last in the vain hope that Mum would relent and let us get away with not eating them.”
Dennis did not like sardines when he was a boy, but he cannot get enough of them as a man. We have known Dennis for years and when he found out that we write about food he had to tell us all about his favourite fish, so we sat down with him over a coffee and sardines on toast to talk about why everyone should tuck into these small oily fish at least once per fortnight.
There is something about a can of sardines that many people find slightly distasteful. Maybe it is the way they are packed in there with glistening scales and misshapen bodies squished into triangular prisms. Sometimes the heads are left on, so you get to feel a bit guilty as you feel their glassy stares. Often, they are not gutted so you get to eat the bones, skin, organs, brain and fins.
Some people find the taste overpoweringly distinct so it is difficult to add them to anything other than bland familiarity like bread, pasta and rice. “But here’s the thing”, says Dennis, “Gram for gram they are probably the most nutritious foods on the planet!”.
Napoleon canned them first
The name “Sardine” is actually misleading because there is no single species of fish officially called by that name. Any small, oily fish in the herring family (there are over 200 species of fish in the herring family) are called sardines and marketed as such. When these same fish get a bit bigger they are called “Pilchards” and marketed as such. To make matters more confusing, pilchards are known as sardines in some countries, and vice-versa in others!
Whatever you call them, people have been eating them for as long as they have caught fish from the sea. They are eaten fresh but historically most people ate them salted, smoked, or pickled because they preserve well due to their small size. And then along came Napoleon whose government offered a prize to anyone who could find a way to preserve large amounts of food for his army to march with.
A Frenchman named Nicolas Appert rose to the challenge and canned sardines became a thing and the rest is history.
Dense nutrition in every bite
Sardines have come to prominence recently because they are the darling of the Paleo Diet community. It is difficult to think of any other food available from your local supermarket which contains almost the whole animal, tail-to-snout. Opened and upturned on a board, the contents of the can would be something a cave-man would lick his fingers for. “This is what I didn’t know as a child crunching down Mum’s onion and sardine sangers: they pack a lot of hard-to-get nutrients and a little bit of everything else into a small package”, says Dennis. “Let’s run down the list:”
- Protein: sardines are a potent source of easily absorbed protein. Protein is an essential macro-nutrient and in sardines it comes with lashings of healthy fats. The combination works to slow down the absorption of sugar into the blood, so reducing blood sugar spikes and troughs.
- Fatty acids: the oiliness of sardines is a clue to possibly their best nutritional attribute. They are incredibly good sources of the omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA which work in the body to reduce inflammation everywhere. These oils break down bad cholesterol and arterial plaque, so helping to control blood pressure and prevent heart disease. It does not stop there because omega-3 fats also help by slowing down the age-related degeneration of brain and eye tissue. But wait there’s more! Fish oil from sardines has also been found to promote a growth in the numbers of B cells, which are a type of white blood cell.
- Essential vitamins: the list of micro-nutrients found in sardines goes on and on, but the stand-out stars are B12 and D. Several studies show that Australians are often deficient in both of these important vitamins, even though vitamin D is made by our own bodies through exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D is needed for a variety of body functions including the maintenance and growth of bones and teeth. B12 is essential for proper nerve and brain function. A regular can of sardines contains enough B12 to meet three times the daily requirement for adults.
- Essential minerals: Sardines are usually eaten whole, bones and all, so you get a wealth of different minerals, including calcium, phosphorous, iron, magnesium, copper, zinc and selenium along with the protein and oil. A can of sardines contains about 35% of the calcium adults need on a daily basis, making them a go-to food resource for anyone concerned about avoiding osteoporosis.
Safe and sustainable
Many people have concerns about eating sea fish, because they tend to accumulate pollutants such as lead, mercury, and other heavy metals found in the oceans. Others shy away from them because of environmental concerns because some species are being over-fished to the detriment of global ecosystems.
The good news is that sardines, being near the top of food chains, do not accumulate significant amounts of heavy metals in their bodies. “You are much more likely to find mercury in large predator fish like tuna, because they eat lots of small fish and live for much longer…” says Dennis. Sardines, with a natural maximum lifespan estimated at just 4 years live fast and die young.
From a fisheries sustainability perspective, sardines are generally classed as being one of the least threatened species due to their rapid reproduction cycles and vast global spread.
Dennis’s Mum’s Sardine Sangers
So Dennis gave us his mum’s simple recipe (299 calories per serve):
One small can of Whole Sardines in oil (105g)
2 slices of Whole-wheat Bread
1 tablespoon chopped red onion
Thin spread of spreadable butter
Lemon juice to taste
Spread butter on bread. In a small bowl, mash sardines with onions and lemon juice. Scoop sardine mash onto one slice of buttered bread, cover with other slice. Serve with a smile.