5 Reasons to Eat Canned Fish, According to a Dietitian

Canned fish is already a part of many global diets—you may know it as tinned fish, conservas in the Iberian Peninsula, kanzume in Japan (which can also include meat or veggies) or by a host of other names—and it’s having a banner year. While you might first think of canned tuna, there are many other fish in the sea that lend themselves to preservation by canning. That’s because preserving fish in tins is not only convenient, it’s honestly a bit magical.

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Canned fish, including salmon, sardines, mackerel and anchovies, just to name a few, are shelf-stable nutrition powerhouses packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Eating fish, especially those containing omega-3 fatty acids, is a hallmark recommendation of the Mediterranean diet, the dietary pattern consistently named one of the healthiest eating patterns by U.S. News & World Report.

But its nutritional benefits aren’t the only reason canned fish is having a moment. We’ve all noticed the rising prices of food at the grocery store—the USDA Consumer Price Index reported that food prices were 6.7% higher in May 2023 than in May 2022. Healthy protein sources such as eggs and poultry have seen price spikes, and fish and seafood prices are predicted to keep rising as well. While there isn’t much you can do to reduce egg prices (besides possibly owning your own chickens), canned fish is a budget-friendly and tasty alternative to fresh and frozen seafood.

According to research from IRI Worldwide, a data, analytics and insights provider, sales of canned fish increased by 5%, while fresh seafood sales fell by almost 6% in August 2022 compared to the same period last year. Considering you can find a 5-ounce can of tuna for as low as $2.39 while a half pound of fresh tuna can cost about $8, it’s easy to see why consumers are eating canned fish.

Along with its nutrition benefits and price, canned fish is also a smart choice because of its versatility. Here, we’ll delve into the nutrition and culinary benefits that make canned fish deserving of more shelf space in your pantry.

The Canned Fish Trend & the Mediterranean Diet

The range of fish that comes in a can is as wide as the sea. In recent years, the offerings have expanded from canned tuna, salmon, anchovies and sardines to trout, mackerel, cod, mussels, clams, oysters, octopus and squid. Chefs, wine bars, restaurants and specialty stores are serving canned fish like a charcuterie board complete with pickles, mustards and crackers. Top-quality canned fish may be served in place of higher saturated-fat foods like pâté and cured meats.

The swap from red meat to fish also coincides with the principles of the Mediterranean diet. While the Mediterranean diet initially focused on foods from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, the healthy eating pattern that prioritizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and healthy fats can easily be adjusted to your eating pattern and cultural roots. Instead of meat as the main protein source, fish and other lean proteins usually dominate.

Some people regularly include canned fish in their meals, but others may benefit from a thoughtful introduction. Here are the five most compelling reasons to eat more fish, both from a nutrition and culinary perspective.

5 Reasons to Eat Canned Fish

1. It’s a Great Source of Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential fat—your body is not able to produce them, so they must be consumed through food or in supplements. Research, such as a 2019 article in International Immunology, shows that a diet rich in omega-3s can have a positive effect throughout the body, as these healthy fats are anti-inflammatory in nature. They help protect against heart disease by improving helpful HDL cholesterol, per a 2018 article in Food & Function. Omega-3 fatty acids also play a key role in joint health, as their anti-inflammatory nature has been shown to aid those with osteoarthritis, according to a 2022 review in Nutrients.

Fish varieties that are typically canned, like anchovies, salmon, sardines and tuna, are all great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines of America, it’s recommended that adults eat 8 ounces of seafood every week.

2. It Lasts Longer Than Fresh or Frozen

It is estimated that 27% of all captured fish across the world is thrown away, according to a 2018 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This is most likely due to its shorter fresh food safety window. Along with being a less expensive option than fresh seafood, canned seafood is sealed in an airtight container and heated or preserved in salt, extending its shelf life to years instead of days. Even frozen fish, which is a less expensive option than fresh, doesn’t retain the same quality for as long as canned fish.

Due to its shelf-stable nature, canned fish is a reliable, nutrient-dense protein option for those who have limited access to utilities. It’s also a great option for travel, camping and picnic when refrigeration isn’t an option.

3. It Can Be Sustainable

Thanks to many companies prioritizing working with local fisheries and canneries that adhere to sustainable fishing practices, canned fish can be a sustainable seafood option. When looking for sustainable canned fish, check the can to make sure the fisheries are using environmentally friendly equipment. Pole-and-line-caught, pole-caught, troll-caught, FAD-free, free school and school-caught are all terms the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a conservation program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, recommends looking for on canned fish, especially tuna. If you do not see any information about how the fish was caught, especially for tuna, there’s a good chance it was harvested using an unsustainable method.

4. It’s a Great Source of Vitamin D & Calcium

Vitamin D and calcium work in tandem to support healthy bones. While your body can make vitamin D with the help of sunlight, it’s one of the hardest nutrients to get in your diet. However, canned fish such as tuna, salmon, trout and sardines are great sources of calcium and vitamin D. In fact, 3 ounces of salmon contains approximately 570 IU of vitamin D, which is 71% of the recommended Daily Value, according to the National Institutes of Health.

5. It’s Tasty & Versatile

Quite possibly the best reason to eat canned fish is because it’s flavorful and versatile, on its own or as an ingredient. Many types of canned fish, like octopus, squid and mussels, can be served directly from the cans with crackers but others are perfect for adding to recipes. Anchovies are essential for a classic Caesar salad, and canned salmon and tuna make incredible salmon burgers and tuna melts. Canned mussels, clams and sardines make showstopping pastas as well as high-protein salad toppers, and canned trout can be transformed into a restaurant-worthy spread.

The Bottom Line

Canned fish is growing in popularity for many reasons. It’s a delicious, nutritious and budget-friendly ingredient for getting a healthy meal on the table in minutes, all from the convenience of your pantry. There are many options for canned fish, from the big brands that line your grocery store shelves to the specialty brands offering curated, artisanal tins. If you’re trying to eat more omega-3s, looking for a great dietary source of vitamin D or simply wanting sustainable, shelf-stable fish options, canned fish checks all the boxes.