You Should Be Eating More Canned Fish



February 7, 2020

Think of it as oceanic charcuterie
David Neimanis

Whenever I bring up my love of canned fish, my friends and colleagues morph into picky children.

Canned seafood has a bad reputation in the United States, and it’s not just anecdotal: On an annual basis, the average American consumes about 3.5 pounds of canned seafood, a number that’s been steadily falling over the last three decades. Meanwhile, the average Spaniard polishes off nearly three times that.

I wasn’t always a canned fish lover. A friend of mine recommended sardines during one of my sporadic efforts to work out often and eat well. He raved about the health benefits, cost-effectiveness, and convenience of these protein-packed little cans. I tried them out, and, well, I liked them. I didn’t love them, but I liked them enough that they became part of my diet.
It wasn’t until I went on a trip through Southern Europe that my love story began.
People in Spain and Portugal love canned seafood, or conservas. I knew this prior to visiting, but I didn’t quite understand the extent to which conservas were appreciated. At a tiny tapas bar in Barcelona called Quimet & Quimet, it all began to make sense. The only options for food and drink were wine, spirits, and canned seafood.

It wasn’t just sardines and anchovies, but razor clams, stuffed baby squid, mussels, and more. Each fish and mollusk was handled and plated with expert care. I was hooked.

For nearly two centuries, canned seafood has been viewed as a delicacy in Southern Europe. Rather than processing low-quality fish parts (i.e., some of the canned tuna you’d find in a U.S. grocery store), artisan producers use their highest-quality yields, carefully clean the product, cook them to perfection, and preserve them at peak freshness. In these regions, conservas are often seen as a gourmet preparation that is of even higher quality than fresh seafood. It’s similar to cured meats like jamón ibérico; because of the preservation process, the end product is very different and much more valuable than fresh Iberian pork. Canned seafood is oceanic charcuterie.

While many Americans associate canned food with tough times and wartime bunkers, those in Spain and Portugal see the cans as small packages of gold, and they’re often willing to pay the price. For example, a 4-ounce can of almejas, the most expensive Galician clams, can set you back nearly $80.

Yes, some canned seafood is a delicacy, but most of it is more wallet-friendly. It’s also a healthy, sustainable, and convenient food choice.

With high protein content and rich omega-3 fatty acids, it’s no secret that a fish-heavy diet welcomes a range of health benefits. The canned varieties, however, are nutritional powerhouses. For starters, oilier varieties of fish, such as sardines, anchovies, and mackerel, are among the highest sources of omega-3s that you’ll find at a grocery store.

So you eat the bones? I get it. Many people get squeamish about eating tiny fish bones, as is to be expected when eating whole sardines. While you can buy boneless, skinless sardine filets, it’s worth noting that not only are the bones almost unnoticeable, but a single can of sardines can make up for as much as 35 percent of your daily recommended calcium intake, thanks to the little bones.

It’s also worth reaching for the smaller fish because they’re on the bottom of the food chain. Unlike tuna, sardines and anchovies are low in mercury, a neurotoxin that’s particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women. Smaller fish are also more sustainable.

Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute notes that “every species has its own sustainability tale, but from mussels to tuna, canned seafood often has a very good story to tell.”

“The vast majority of tuna stocks are healthy and abundant, and mussels, I mean, come on, they literally clean the environment.”

Canned seafood also does not require refrigeration. This means that canned seafood can be transported and stored using much less energy than fresh or frozen products. Additionally, while the flavor may begin to degrade over time, many varieties of canned fish are considered non-perishable and can be safely stored for up to five years, reducing food waste.

While the U.S. may be slow to catch on, canned fish is beginning to have a moment. The global canned seafood market is expected to grow to $36.70 billion by 2021, up from $29.75 billion in 2016.

According to Jonathan Harris, owner of La Tienda, an importer of Spanish products, his company’s canned seafood sales in the United States are at an all-time high. Harris attributes this to more Americans visiting Spain, a rate that increased by 11.8 percent in 2018, in addition to an overall interest among Americans in adding healthier foods into their diets.

“There are a huge amount of Americans that are now visiting Spain — Barcelona being a premier destination, and conservas is a tradition in that area,” Harris said. “Broadly, Spanish food is becoming more well-known, and people are eating more seafood in the U.S., kind of as a health thing, and they are looking for quality.”

La Tienda offers a wide array of canned seafood products that can be shipped to your doorstep. Not only has Harris noticed an increase in sales of familiar items like tuna and sardines, but he’s also seen a spike in sales of angulas (baby eels) and razor clams, both of which were unpopular in the U.S. until recently.

Based on the ease of shipping non-perishable cans, there are quite a few online sources for getting great products in addition to La Tienda, such as Caputo’s, Portugalia Marketplace, and even Amazon. But before rushing to make an online purchase, consider checking out a local specialty store if you have one in town. Any store that sells artisanal cheeses and other products imported from Europe will likely carry a few varieties of canned fish, and may be able to provide some insights. Even Whole Foods has a few options, from entry-level anchovies to interesting products like canned octopus or José Andrés-branded mussels and uni.

When it comes to eating and serving canned fish, keep it simple. Some canned fish already comes coated in all the flavor you’ll need, including extra virgin olive oil, tomato sauce, escabeche sauce, white wine and herbs, lemon, and padron peppers. Otherwise, the seafood can be the condiment — most notably anchovies, which impart salty, umami flavors in many Italian recipes.

Feel free to make fun of me for being a stereotypical millennial, but one of my favorite preparations is drained sardines or mackerel on top avocado toast with lemon, cracked black pepper, and pickled red onions.

Grab a few cans and give it a try. And don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not into it right away. Even La Tienda’s Harris wasn’t always a conservas connoisseur; he went through the same transition.

“It’s a conversion experience for people,” he said. “We’ve been fed such poorly prepared canned seafood that we see it as a cheap source of protein, rather than something to really savor. Once you open one of these cans, it can really open your eyes and can really change how you think. I know because it happened to me.”

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