Sardines just might be the all-around healthiest food from the ocean. They are low on the food chain so you don’t have to worry about mercury or PCB contamination, which unfortunately is something you can’t say for most other popular fish.
While there are many species (about 20) that are broadly called “sardines,” the term refers to small, silvery and oily fish that live in great numbers throughout the world’s oceans. They serve as a food source for many types of larger, predatory fish such as tuna, mackerel and sail fish, and even whales. Portugal, Spain and Norway are the world’s biggest producers. They are also caught in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in the United States (Monterey, California, scene of the famous novel Cannery Row by John Steinbeck used to be a major producer of sardines for the entire U.S.).
Sardines are an excellent source of protein, omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, calcium, and phosphorus and are one of the few food sources that contain an appreciable amount of Vitamin D. Omega-3 oils help counter inflammation and are good for your brain and nerves while calcium, phosphorus and Vitamin D are essential for strong bones.
Sardines are also an excellent source of Vitamin B-12, choline and the trace minerals selenium, iodine, copper, manganese and iron.
Heck, with all these nutrients packed in one little fish, what more do you need?
Most of the sardines available are either canned or jarred because they spoil rather quickly if they are not immediately frozen. The canned versions are usually packed in olive oil, soybean oil or water. Some brands pack them in tomato sauce and mustard. If you go for the canned version, be mindful that they are higher in sodium and fat (for the oil-packed ones).
If you live in a place where you can regularly purchase fresh, whole sardines (almost exclusively coastal cities), consider yourself lucky because sardines are one “super food” that will give you a lot of bang for your buck. Besides being cheap compared to other fish, whole sardines taste fabulous. They go great with a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc, too.
When it comes to getting your daily vitamins and minerals, I always recommend that you do your best to get them from whole, naturally occurring food sources when you can (as opposed to a pills, gel caps, and bottled liquids). They are likely to assimilate into your tissues in greater concentration, enabling your body to derive maximum benefit.
Here is how to cook fresh sardines. Make sure to eat as much of the bones as you can (try to eat the entire fish, head included) as they contain most of the calcium and phosphorus content. It will feel like you are chewing on thin fishing line, but keep grinding them with your molars and they will become soft enough to swallow.