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In Praise of Canned Fish (Some Kinds)

Changing gears for a moment, I want to recommend a food source.

This cheap product sells for $1.60 at Walmart

Before I talk about that, I want to refer you to my long essay about breakfast.

When I embarked on a plan to lose weight in 2008, I rethought my approach to food. I’ve since adopted the philosophy of eating breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.

Breakfast posed an unusual challenge. I don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking or preparing anything, either because I’m headed off to work or doing some early writing. I’ve tried to avoid processed meats, but I need protein in the morning.

Therefore, I settled upon canned fish for breakfast. It’s cheap, nutritious and convenient. I don’t eat it every day, but usually every other day. Originally I used to eat Crown Prince kippers. Really, I have probably bought over a thousand cans of this product over the last decade. By some bad luck, my supermarket (HEB) stopped carrying this product, and so I had to do some searching to find another place to buy it from. Eventually I found it at certain Walmarts, so everything was fine. Then I learned about the Seasonproducts of sardines which is even better than the Crown Prince kippers in every sense.

Introduction to Canned Fish

Most people have eaten canned fish at some point in their lives. Canned tuna was popular when I grew up (and frankly I didn’t care for it). Sardines have always been always available, but had a bad (and stinky) reputation. In the 1990s I read a book about fish nutrition. It covered absolutely everything you needed to know about fish (fresh and canned).

Here are some things I learned from this great book.

  1. The amount of Omega 3s in fish varied wildly across fish. Whitefish like flounder had practically none. Salmon had lots, but so did sardines, kippers (herring) and mackerel.
  2. Whether you eat fish fresh, frozen or out of a can, the nutritional content is basically the same (except noted below).
  3. Canned fish packed in water offered more nutrients than fish packed in oil. The oil absorbs the omega 3s, and when you drain the oil, you are also losing the nutrients. (Also, oil adds calories).
  4. Some types of canned fish add sodium/salt for flavor. (This is often true for water-packed products). Also, smoked fish (which involves curing or pickling) keep the omega 3s and other nutrients, but also have high sodium levels.
  5. For both fresh and canned fish, mercury contamination is a concern — for woman of child-bearing age, but if you are not in that demographic, it’s not really something to worry about. According to the National Defense Resource Council, you should avoid a few key species: King mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, ahi tuna, and bigeye tuna all contain high levels of mercury. Women who are pregnant or nursing or who plan to become pregnant within a year should avoid eating these fish. So should children younger than six. (Read more).

Since that time, I have learned about sustainable fishing and carbon impact of various fishing methods:

  • Generally the smaller the fish, the less of a carbon impact it has when eaten. (Smaller fish can have more Omega 3s — horray! and be less in demand — and therefore cheaper).
  • Terminology: A Herring, also known as an older and bigger Sardine, is eaten either pickled and fermented or raw. A Kipper, is whole herring that is lightly smoked and split into a butterfly cut. Finally, a Sprat is a Sardine that is smoked for about 3 hours.
  • There are varying certifying bodies for seafood. Many types of fish are subject to overfishing. Aquaculture or aquafarming are seen as viable/sustainable alternatives, but standards vary (even though US aquafarming is supposed to be good).

Sardines: A Primer

It’s possible to buy sardines fresh (and actually it’s delicious), but people mostly eat it canned. Here’s a great article I found about sardines (here’s a two part article, the wikipedia page and the Monterey Bay Aquarium watch page for it. Let me summarize.

First, there are different kinds. Their name and taste characteristics may differ slightly according to where they are from. Brisling sardines are from the Norway region, do not have any mercury contamination. Generally they are at the bottom of the aquatic food chain, so they generally don’t accumulate mercury anyway. In Europe, sardines are called pilchards. Two other types are Brazilian Sardinella and Pacific sardines.

The bones are small enough that you can eat them easily. You should also eat the skin! (According to this NY chef — see video!)

Overfishing and sustainability. Generally, the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommends eating only Pacific sardines and urges consumers to avoid Atlantic sardines and Pilchard species because they are overfished:

European pilchard (aka Atlantic sardines) caught in the Mediterranean region are on the “Avoid” list. The status of many populations is unknown, and others are depleted with overfishing still occurring. Also, there are serious concerns about other species that are caught with sardines, and management is highly ineffective. Sardines are an important forage fish (prey for larger predators), and there are concerns about how these fisheries are impacting the food web and ecosystem.

At the same time, Monterey Bay Aquarium might have a kind of bias towards North American fisheries which have applied for its certification. The Season brand has received a Friend of the Sea designation, which is a certification of the World Sustainability Organization (and seems more geared towards Europe and other continents). (Here’s more detail). The FAQ on Season brand says, “With their seal of approval, target stock cannot be overexploited, fishing method cannot impact the seabed and waste management must be in place. All-in-all, it should give you peace of mind in our role as we try to make a difference in the world we live in.”

Generally I have seen very cheap Pilchard sardine cans from Morocco and Mediterranean, and the fish quality is variable — even bad sometimes. Season brand has pretty consistent quality levels. The Pacific sardines are about 50% more expensive, have a firmer consistency and have a so-so flavor. According to Tiana Matson (who loves the Wild Planet Pacific sardines over Crown Prince, King Oscar, Brunswick and Season),

The (Wild Planet brand of sardines) is sourced in California coast which is famous for being a house of sea creatures. The other thing that makes the sardines adorable is that since they are whole, they hold together in the can. This feature is best for those who love seeing what they are eating.

I should note that Wild Planet sardines is also sold at Walmart (hurray Walmart!)

Other Considerations

Here are some other things to think about when consuming canned fish.

  1. The Smell. Some kinds smell worse than others and are hard to dispose of inconspicuously. I have gotten used to that fishy smell, so it doesn’t bother me, but a lot of people react negatively, especially at work or in a shared kitchen. When possible, I have even tried to go outside and drain the can over some bushes or the grass so as to minimize the smell in the garbage or sink.
  2. Packaging. The old-fashioned tins used to be hard to open by hand. Sometimes they would even break. That was my biggest complaint about the Crown Prince kippers. About 10-20% of the cans would have defective lids, making it a chore to open. I’d use a can opener or a knife, and inevitably it would cause a mess and sometimes even cut my fingers.
  3. Taste. Some brands try to add flavoring (usually curry, mustard or tomato flavoring). I used to avoid flavored fish, but occasionally I will buy one of these products, just to try it out. (They’re really not bad — though the cheaper products are not as good). The main problem with these flavored brands is that they often increase the odor for others to complain about. Also, one gets the sense that these flavors are intended to mask the overall fishiness of the product.
  4. Price. On my budget I wanted something cheap, cheap, cheap while also being reasonably nutritious and convenient. The Crown Price kipper product costs $1.30 at most stores, but the price can vary wildly. If I were to throw out numbers, the high-end products (tuna, sardines, salmon) cost 2-3$ (although salmon and tuna can get even more expensive). Sardine products can go under $1 — although the quality is not good. Often these products will have oil or flavoring to compensate. Be careful!
  5. The basic nutrients. Probably the two things you care most about are the Omega-3s and the amount of protein. The Crown Prince kippers was 92g, 160 calories, 16g of protein, 350mg of sodium and 1.9g of Omega-3s. That’s a really good amount of protein and Omega-3s.

Walmart Alternative: Seasonproducts Sardines

I don’t normally shop at Walmart, but I have started going there specify to buy my Crown Prince kippers. Then I saw a variety of canned fish, some I had never seen before. Then I spotted the generically named Seasonproducts. One can is 85g, 22g of fat, 1.7 g of Omega-3s, No added salt or oil, 170mg of Sodium. Wait, there’s more! The product has a lid which is very easy to peel off and dispose of. It costs $1.55, and had good understandable nutritional information. It even mentions the species and country of origin (Morocco).

I went to its website and found an abundance of products and nutritional information. They had about a dozen products with oil and some packed in water (which is what I wanted).

Look at the stats for this product!

Now for the review!

(Here is the product I reviewed). I have now eaten about 50 cans of this product — and I’ve even tried the oil-based version for comparison.

Generally the can is easy to open and contains about 8 small sardines which have been evenly cut. So you get smaller pieces of fish, but almost all of them are from the entire (miniature-sized) fish. The consistency of the pieces are high, and they are relatively easy to scoop out of the pan. (You can even shake them out if you wish).

There is a higher than average amount of liquid to drain off, but it is easy to do so. The fish has a bland but distinctively fish flavor, and doesn’t smell particularly bad. Although I’m happy eating the product alone, it would be relatively easy to combine this into a recipe without it overwhelming the recipe.

Sometimes the fish has been been a little too moist and soft for my liking, but there will always be variation from can to can. At 22g of protein, it provides just enough protein to make me feel full.

Compare to a MacDonalds Quarter Pounder with cheese which has 30g of protein, 26 g of (saturated)fat, 1080mg sodium and 520 calories and 199g serving size. I know, I know, we’re not comparing apples to apples here, but the point remains you get comparable amount of protein for 1/3 of the calories and 1/4 of the sodium. Even if you look at a plain McDonalds hamburger, you’re talking about 12g of protein, 8g of fat, 240 calories and 510mg of sodium.

I’m not trying to rag on a MacDonalds hamburger here — I love the Big Mac on occasion. I’m merely suggesting that you can get a good protein source from canned sardines –without the risks associated with a “fast food diet.”

Difficulty of no-effort meals

One problem with US life is that often we are preparing food for ourselves under time constraints. As much as we would like to eat healthy, it takes time to prepare meals and sometimes a lot of time.

Probably the best invention against that is the microwave. Suddenly, you can bake a potato or reheat vegetables (or frozen vegetables) with little effort. Frozen dinners have come into being. Perhaps they are not that filling, but they serve a need.

The problem with these kinds of meals is that they involved processed meats or extra sodium.

Extra — How Chefs use Sardines

A Michelin chef offers some ideas to use canned sardines with peppers and paprika for a nice salad. Mark Bittman has a recipe for using canned sardines with pasta.

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