Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
With nutritionists and health experts telling everyone to build their meals and snacks around whole foods and steer clear of processed ones, it would be easy to think that anything that comes in a can isn’t the healthiest choice. But that’s not always the case.
The confusion is totally understandable because “processed” is a catch-all term with a great deal of bad press tied to it, but there are various degrees of processing. Sure, it’s wise to limit your intake of ultra-processed foods that come with baggage like sugars, refined grains, sketchy fats and ingredients like emulsifiers and preservatives you wouldn’t usually cook with at home. But some processed foods can make mealtime easier and healthier. Case in point: canned fish.
We know what you’re thinking, but it’s not just for college students — canned fish is a convenient packaged food you can feel good about buying and eating frequently. Salmon, sardines, tuna and others are nutritional heavy hitters that many people wrongly dismiss. No longer should it be your last resort for protein in your pantry.
Here’s everything you need to know about this underrated seafood and why you should consider the canned fish aisle if you’re trolling for tonight’s dinner.
1. You’ll Save Some Cash
Canned fish can seem much less enticing than fresh options, but if you’re trying to keep your grocery bill under control in this new reality of rising food costs, then seafood packed into tins can be a much more budget-friendly option.
If you go by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should aim for two 4-ounce servings of seafood per week. Many experts recommend eating at least 12 ounces per week. Chipping away at this requirement using canned fish is more economical than solely relying on fresh fish where prices have been rising sharply of late. Canned fish can also last years in your pantry before making their way into your tummy, whereas the clock is ticking on fresh seafood as soon as you bring it home.
2. It’s An Easy Way to Load Up on the Best Fats
You dropped some canned fish into your shopping cart — awesome, you’re that much closer to reaching your omega-3 fatty acid needs.
The best evidence available suggests we consume a daily average of 250 to 500 milligrams of the long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA for better health. Canned sardines and mackerel deliver an Olympic-sized punch of these omega-3 fatty acids, with about 1,300 milligrams in a 3-ounce serving. Sockeye salmon in a can offers up at least 1,000mg of the mega-healthy fats, which is several times more than you’ll get from tilapia. So if you simply consumed a 3-ounce serving of sardines and two 3-ounce servings of sockeye salmon in a week, it would work out to a healthy daily average. Although, the omega-3 content of fish like mackerel and herring can vary based on the season when they’re caught.
A recent study in Nature Communications discovered that people who had greater levels of omega-3 fatty acids — specifically, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) that are most easily found in a variety of canned fish — had a 13 percent lower risk for all-cause mortality, as well as a lower risk for death due to cancer, cardiovascular disease and other causes combined, compared with those with lower levels. Another study from Tufts University in Boston suggests that people may be more likely to age without health problems when they have higher blood levels of these superhero fats. There are likely a few reasons why these omegas can help us stick around longer with good health, including lowering inflammation, reducing blood triglycerides and lowering blood pressure.
If you’re looking to maximize your omega-3 intake, keep in mind that canned sockeye has about 30 percent more than canned pink salmon. Also, canned albacore (white) tuna supplies roughly three times as much omega fat as canned pink (light) tuna. You can also seek out brands like Wild Planet that bring to market higher omega-3 tuna because they reel in more fat-dense fish and cook their catch in the can rather than before it’s packed. That means less of the healthy fat (and flavor) is thrown overboard.
Also, choosing fish packed in water or oil is not just a matter of personal taste and saving calories. There is the chance that some of the omega-3 fats can leach into the surrounding oil, which often is a cheap vegetable oil like soybean that you’re likely dumping down the drain. The degree of omega-3 loss has not been adequately tested, so it may or may not be a significant amount. One investigation, however, did find that there was a high amount of omega-3 fat found in the tomato pulp of canned mackerel, suggesting that there was an exchange between fish fillet and acidic pulp while they were stored together within the cans. That means it would be a wise move to consume the whole contents of the can in this case.
3. Grab Hold of a Boatload of Protein
Having a few cans of sardines and salmon on the shelf guarantees a reliable source of inexpensive protein even when the fridge is empty. And they provide a wallop of protein for relativity few calories. A 3-ounce serving of canned white tuna or sockeye salmon has about 20 grams of muscle-building protein, pretty much the same you’d get by grilling up the same amount of chicken breast. Canned oysters, which are easy to toss onto any salad, offer up 13 grams of protein for a 2-ounce serving.
Beyond helping your muscles recover and get more defined, dietary protein is especially satiating, so including high-protein sources like canned fish at meals can help you stay full for longer to put the brakes on unnecessary snacking.
4. Canned Fish are Micro Magic
Beyond the omegas and protein, when you crack that lid open, you’ll also be digging into a wide range of essential micronutrients. Canned fish large and small are reliable sources of phosphorus, vitamin B12, iron and selenium. One mineral that may not get as much attention as it deserves is selenium, which has been linked to a lower risk for depression.
Selenium can also help protect against damage due to mercury exposure because the selenium compound selenide binds mercury by forming mercury selenide. This neutralizes the harmful effects of the heavy metal. This could be a big reason why so many studies show that higher fish intake is beneficial for heart and brain health even if it results in increased mercury intake.
Another nutrition perk is good levels of immune-boosting vitamin D in canned sardines, salmon, mackerel and herring. There aren’t too many go-to food sources of vitamin D at the supermarket, so this nutritional benefit is especially noteworthy. And the softened edible bones in canned salmon, sardines and anchovies are a source of bone-benefiting calcium. Boneless options are available if that’s your preference and you’re making sure to get enough of this nutrient elsewhere in your diet.
Just be aware of sodium levels. While not super high in sodium, some canned fish like tuna can have around 200 milligrams per serving. And canned fish is typically significantly higher in sodium when compared to unseasoned fresh or frozen. Most people should be looking for ways to trim some of the sodium from their diets, if for no other reason than to help beat the bloat. You can compare sodium levels among brands and choose those with less. Or select canned fish that state “No Salt Added.” Be leery of options packed in tomato or other sauces as those tend to be higher in sodium. But if you eat a diet based mostly on whole foods, the sodium in a can of fish should not put you in the daily red zone.
5. Fish Are Brain Food
We already talked about the omega-3 bounty of canned fish, which is a vital fatty acid for brain health as they make up the membranes that surround brain cells. But seafood is also a reliable source of phosphatidylserine, which is a phospholipid fatty substance that covers and protects the cells in your brain and carries messages between them. We need the stuff to keep our minds sharp.
With that said, we need to see more quality research to show that higher consumption rates can help boost brain power and stave off cognitive decline. Still, getting more phosphatidylserine from canned fish seems like a smart move.
6. You Can Fret Less About Mercury
Mercury gets a lot of press as a contaminant in some fish that can inflict damage on various organs, including brain, heart and nervous system. Because mercury can cross the blood-brain barrier, fetuses are particularly vulnerable during crucial times of development. But at typical intake levels for Americans, perhaps we should worry less about how much we might be getting from canned fish. A study in JAMA Network Open found that mercury exposure in adults currently eating low to moderate amounts of seafood was not significantly linked to the risk of cardiovascular disease death or all-cause mortality. Furthermore, blood mercury levels associated with current seafood consumption patterns were not attributed to premature death.
Still, if you’re planning on adding more seafood — including canned fish — to your diet, it’s a good idea to take the necessary steps to make sure you’re not going into the red zone for mercury intake. Luckily, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data shows that many canned fish species including sardines, mussels, anchovies and salmon are typically low in mercury. So, you should be able to bump up consumption without concern of causing a dangerous buildup of mercury in bodily tissues (also, remember the selenium-mercury connection discussed above.) Worth noting is that canned salmon may have less mercury than fresh or frozen salmon.
Things are more tricky for canned tuna, which generally is a fish species to be aware of when it comes to this contaminant. Larger and more mature tuna accumulate higher levels of mercury, whereas younger and smaller species like yellowfin and skipjack — often labeled as “chunk light” — tend to have less. For this reason, the FDA recommends limiting white albacore tuna consumption and mixing a variety of other fish into our diets. It’s a larger species of tuna, which means it has eaten smaller fish that also contain some mercury that in a process called “bio-accumulation” can cause a buildup of mercury in its flesh over time.
This is a bigger issue for pregnant women (or for those who are trying to get pregnant), nursing moms and young children, as brain and nervous system development can be affected by mercury. Just keep in mind that any canned tuna will have less mercury than other fresh types of large predatory fish, like Bluefin and bigeye tuna, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. This chart from the FDA helps you choose which fish to eat and how often based on mercury content.
If canned tuna is the preferred catch of the day, you can greatly limit your mercury by splurging on cans from smaller companies like Wild Planet and Raincoast Trading, which pack in smaller tuna that have soaked up fewer toxins. The brand SafeCatch tests every wild tuna and salmon they process to guarantee that it contains several times lower mercury levels than the FDA limit. This is why it’s the tuna choice from the American Pregnancy Association.
7. BPA-Free Is Now the Norm
BPA, or Bisphenol-A, is a plastic-based lining that was invented in the late 1800s to serve as a barrier between foods and tin cans to help decrease corrosion and food contamination. Fast-forward decades later, and this endocrine-disrupting chemical has been suggested to be a contributing factor to a range of health woes including heart disease and even weight gain with high amounts of exposure. (It’s worth noting that the FDA has deemed BPA safe at typical consumption rates. Meaning not centering your diet around just canned foods.)
Luckily, most brands of canned fish, including the mega-ones like Bumblebee, have now eliminated BPA from their cans. Of course, the question remains what have they replaced the chemical with, and if there’s any reason to also fret about whatever this is leaching into your tuna salad. If you’re still concerned about BPA exposure, you can search the Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores site to find out if a brand of canned fish you like is suspected to use BPA or has any other red flags, including ingredient concerns.
8. It’s Easy to Go Wild And Sustainable
If you’re in the wild fish camp, it’s good to know that the vast majority of canned fish hails from wild-caught stocks and not aquaculture. This includes canned salmon that most often is sourced from sustainable Alaskan fisheries. Many people feel that wild-caught fish are superior to their farmed counterparts because of their ability to grow and feed in an organic environment. But there are now plenty of well-performing farmed fish options that are produced using less environmentally damaging methods and don’t necessarily play second-fiddle nutritionally to wild.
When it comes to canned tuna, it’s ideal to seek out options where the fish is caught using smaller boats that employ “pole-caught” techniques instead of large nets or long line methods that can bring in a lot of bycatch. A brand’s website is a good place to hunt down this information to see which options are worthy of high-water marks for sustainability. You can also look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) blue label on a product’s package or check-in with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch site to see where your most ocean-friendly options are. Spoiler alert: Alaskan canned salmon and canned sardines from the Pacific are “Best Choices.” Fortunately, more and more canned fish brands are focusing on ethical and sustainable practices. But, still, there is plenty of greenwashing out there.
9. It’s Versatile in the Kitchen
Not just for sandwiches, canned fish can also anchor a huge number of workday lunches and quick weeknight dinners. Use the meat in salads, soups, curries, quesadillas, frittatas, omelets, fried rice, pasta dishes and, of course, fish cakes. Use finely chopped anchovies to add an umami flavor punch to salad dressings, pasta sauce and dips.
Go fish for these brands that score high marks for nutrition, taste and sustainability.
- King Oscar Royal Fillets Mackerel in Olive Oil with Lemon
- Wild Planet Sardines in Water
- SafeCatch Elite Chili Lime Wild Tuna
- Raincoast Trading Sockeye Salmon with No Salt Added
- American Tuna Wild Albacore No Salt
Recipe: Oat Salmon Loaf
Canned salmon makes for a convenient and nutritious swap for ground beef in this meatloaf.
- 3 (6-ounce) cans pink or sockeye salmon, drained
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup rolled or quick-cook oats
- 1 large carrot, grated
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/3 cup barbecue sauce
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, flake salmon with a fork and stir in eggs, oats, carrot, shallot, garlic, parsley, lemon, salt and pepper. Add salmon mixture to a 9×5-inch greased loaf pan and spread until the mixture is well compacted. Bake for 30 minutes. Spread on barbecue sauce and bake for another 10 minutes. Let cool for several minutes before unmolding. Makes 4 Servings.