TikTok has spawned countless food trends. Who can forget baked feta pasta, hot cocoa bombs, or corn ribs? But, quite possibly the healthiest and most affordable trend—actually, ingredient—we’re excited to see step back into the spotlight: tinned fish.
Although tinned fish has been available since the early 1800s, and has been part of the global diet since then, tinned or canned fish (we’re lumping the can-opener and pull-tab styles together) crept up in popularity stateside in 2020, as people stocked up on groceries.
Tinned fish really reached a new high point in popularity when chef, Ali Hooke posted about a “tinned fish date night” with her partner on TikTok. The concept was brilliant in its simplicity; the feast is essentially a tinned fish twist on a cheese board, and social media followers have been eating it up. Since then, #tinnedfish has more than 15 million views on TikTok.
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So what qualifies as tinned fish, and is it a good choice for athletes? In short, dietitians agree it shouldn’t be a passing fad. Read on to find out why this is a trend that should last even longer than tinned fish’s already ample shelf life—which is, according to the USDA, five years.
What is tinned fish?
The name “tinned fish” is very accurate. This category of food is types of seafood that’s preserved, often in oil, then sealed in a small can or tin. Under the pull-tab tinned fish umbrella, you’ll often find brands that offer anchovies, sardines, mussels, oysters, and mackerel. In the canned fish camp, common varieties include tuna, salmon, and crab.
Compared to fresh or frozen fish or seafood, tinned fish is far more budget-friendly. Plus, it is portable and shelf-stable. (For comparison, the USDA says raw fish should be consumed within two days, and uncooked frozen fish and seafood can be kept on ice for three to 12 months, depending on the species.)
What are the health benefits of tinned fish?
One of the biggest health benefits of tinned fish is that it makes it easier to help us get our quota of fish and seafood. Because of the beneficial fatty acids, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest adults aim for two 4-ounce servings of fish or seafood per week, a goal that a mere 20% of adults meet.
“There are three types of omega-3 [fatty acids in fish]: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While ALA are easy to get from plant foods, and most Americans easily get enough ALA, EPA, and DHA are only found in fish, shellfish, seaweed, and algae. EPA and DHA have been linked to heart health and cognitive health,” says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., RD, plant-based sports dietitian with Greenletes in New York City and the author of Planted Performance.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for survival, but unlike some vitamins and minerals, the human body cannot produce omega-3s on its own, the Cleveland Clinic confirms. That means we need to consume all of the omega-3 fats our body requires to promote heart health, reduce inflammation, and support brain health.
Beyond that, “tinned fish are a great source of high-quality protein that contains all essential amino acids making it a high-quality complete protein choice,” says Roxana Ehsani, R.D., C.S.S.D., a Miami-based board certified sports dietitian and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Translation: tinned and canned fish can help you consume enough protein to help build and repair muscle, bolster the immune system, and beyond. A 3-ounce serving of canned salmon, for example, has about 20 grams of protein, and a 2-ounce serving of tinned mussels packs in about 10 grams of protein.
Along with the protein and omega-3 benefits, tinned fish provide several vitamins and minerals, which vary depending on the type.
“If you’re able to consume a variety [of tinned fish] in your diet versus one type, that would be ideal. For example, canned salmon with bones and sardines are a great source of calcium and vitamin D, while canned tuna is high in selenium and vitamin B12,” explains Angie Asche, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., a registered dietitian and owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Don’t be turned off by that mention of bones, by the way. The processing of tinned and canned fish softens the bones so you’ll barely notice that they’re present.)
Other varieties of tinned fish offer iron, other B vitamins, potassium, and zinc, Rizzo adds. A mixture of the vitamins and minerals in tinned fish varieties help to support bones and tissues, ease inflammation, support the immune system, heart health, and cognition, help you maintain energy, and keep your muscles and general health beaming, too.
What should you look for when buying tinned fish?
Many supermarkets and online retailers now offer a wide selection of canned and tinned fish and seafood.
When choosing which type of tinned fish to go for, know that larger fish and seafood tends to be higher in mercury (a metal that can be toxic in humans when consumed in large amounts), compared to smaller varieties, according to Harvard Health. However, tinned and canned fish usually contain less mercury than your standard fish filet. Data from the FDA echoes this, showing that many preserved fish species, such as salmon, sardines, mussels, and anchovies, are fairly low in mercury.
Also, fish packed in water will be lower in calories than if it is packed in oil, of course, “so keep that in mind if you’re watching your caloric intake,” Rizzo says. Water-packed fish and seafood does appear to maintain the majority of its EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids,
Asche says, “however, fish packed in oil seem to have higher levels of minerals like vitamin D compared to fish packed in water.”
As you fill your cart, keep in mind that preserved fish often has more sodium than fresh or frozen fish, so be sure to peek at the label and keep that in mind as you build out your menu for the rest of the day, particularly if you’re keeping a close eye on your salt intake or blood pressure.
Also worth noting: Bisphenol A (BPA) used to be included in many plastic formulations and integrated into the lining of cans and jar lids. But because some research has linked it to hormone disruptions and certain metabolic disorders, it has been phased out of nearly every product. If you’re still worried about potential BPA exposure, use the Environmental Working Group’s Food Score tool and look for the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue stamp of approval on the package before stocking up.
Some safe and sustainable brands to consider:
8 ways to add tinned fish to your diet
Beyond a date night tinned fish board, try these dietitian-approved ideas:
- Toss with pasta or salad, or pasta sauce (like sardines in puttanesca) and salad dressing (like anchovies in Caesar dressing recipes)
- Layer on a crostini
- Stir into a soup or stew
- Tuck inside a quesadilla
- Fold into an omelet
- Mix with avocado and spread on crackers or as an open-faced sandwich
- Recreate a tuna salad with plain Greek yogurt instead of mayo
- Make a Nordic-style lunch of smørrebrød with rye toast, butter or plain Greek yogurt, sardines, sliced olives, sliced onion, and fresh dill
The bottom line on tinned fish
Tinned or canned fish are an accessible, affordable way to help meet your recommended fish and seafood consumption levels of at least two 4-ounce servings per week.
These budget-friendly pantry staples deliver a solid dose of protein, omega-3 fats, and several important micronutrients for runners. Plus, they’re versatile to use in recipes and last for years, so you can consistently keep them in your pantry without having to worry that they’ll go bad.
The caveats: Check the label for BPA-free stamps, sustainable-caught varieties, and factor the sodium content into your overall daily diet.
Karla Walsh is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer and level one sommelier who balances her love of food and drink with her passion for fitness. (Or tries to, at least!) Her writing has been published in Runner’s World and Fitness Magazines, as well as on Shape.com, EatThis.com, WomensHealthMag.com, and more.
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