Sardines: Fishing for the Facts

By 2LT Beatriz GeorgeJanuary 31, 2013

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

As a student of nutrition and future registered dietitian (RD) in training, people are always asking, "What should they eat?" and "What do you eat?" I'm going to take the next couple of moments to answer both of those questions.

Since becoming a nutrition student, I am more aware of the food choices I make. I know "the Dietary Guidelines" and "My Pyramid" (now known as MyPlate) recommendations very well. Most of the time, I make an honest effort to eat the recommended number of servings of fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, meats, etc. However, because I am a graduate student and dietetic intern, this is easier said than done. Therefore, I am always looking for foods that give me "the biggest bang for my nutrition buck." As a result, I discovered a widely available, yet under-utilized food-the sardine. Now, I am going to tell you why I love sardines so much and why you should too.

First things first, what are the Dietary Guidelines? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are a set of nutrition recommendations for people ages 2 years and older. They are based on the most current science on diet and health. They provide guidance on dietary habits that promote good health and reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases (such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes). They are updated every 5 years.

The latest version, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, was released in 2011. They have new recommendations that help answer our questions about sardines.

•"Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, nuts, and seeds." These foods contain essential B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium.

•"Increase the amount and variety of seafood consumed by choosing seafood in place of some meat and poultry." Seafood contributes important nutrients. The most important of these are omega-3 fatty acids. Increasing evidence shows health benefits with eating seafood. Adults should eat 8 or more ounces of seafood a week.

•"Choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern in American diets."

•"For women capable of becoming pregnant, choose foods that supply heme iron, which is more readily absorbed by the body." Sources of heme iron include lean meat and poultry.

•"For women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, consume 8-12 ounces of seafood per week." There is some evidence that intake of omega-3 fatty acids from at least 8 ounces of seafood per week is associated with improved infant health outcomes.

•For individuals age 50 years or older, consume foods fortified with vitamin B12.

So, what's the big deal with sardines? To answer this question, we visit the Food-A-Pedia. This is the food search engine of the new SuperTracker from the US Department of Agriculture. This search engine allows you to access nutrition information for over 8,000 foods. It is available at: If we type "sardines," the closest match is "sardines, canned in oil." One 3.75-ounce can drained provides:

•191 total calories

•23 grams protein

•903 milligrams (mg) of omega-3 fatty acids (recommended amount: 250 mg/day). Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly those found in fish, are essential because they are not made in the body and must come from the diet. They are thought to play a role in preventing heart disease.

•351 mg of calcium (recommended amount: 1000 mg per day). Adequate calcium is important for bone health, as well as nerve, blood vessel, and muscle function.

•365 mg of potassium (recommended amount: 4700 mg per day). Dietary potassium can help lower blood pressure.

•3 mg of iron (recommended amount: 6-8 mg per day). Iron, is an essential part of proteins that carry oxygen in the body to cells. It allows the body to do work.

•4 micrograms of vitamin D (recommended amount: 15 micrograms per day). Vitamin D is needed for health and to maintain bone strength. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium from food and supplements.

•8.2 micrograms of vitamin B12 (recommended amount: 2.4 micrograms per day). Vitamin B12 is needed to keep the body's nerve and blood cells healthy. Vitamin B12 also helps prevent anemia.

•2 micrograms of mercury per four ounce serving. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting mercury to 0.1 micrograms of mercury per kilogram of body weight per day. This would be 6.8 micrograms per day for a person who weighs 150 pounds (68 kilograms x 0.1 micrograms mercury per day).

•On average, one-3.75 ounce can of sardines costs: $0.99-$2.49 (and as low as $0.56 per can at your local Commissary.)

So what does this mean to you? Sardines, with their low levels of mercury, and high levels of important nutrients, are a simple, nutritious, and cost-effective way to "get the biggest bang for your nutrition buck!" Not only will sardines agree with your wallet, they will also help you meet many of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In addition, if time is a factor, most sardines come ready-to-eat in a can. They also come in a variety of sauces, including: olive oil, mustard, tomato sauce, and my personal favorite, Louisiana hot sauce. So, the next time you want to eat something friendly to your body and pocketbook, try:

•Sardine tacos with salsa

•Sardines mixed into your favorite pasta or curry sauce

•Sardines with crackers or toast

•Sardines added to your favorite salad or soup

For more healthy and delicious sardine recipe ideas, place a search on or search your favorite recipe database.

2LT George is a Dietetic Intern here at WRNMMC in her second phase of the Army Graduate Program in Nutrition.