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Tinned fish… The Facts

Health experts recommend we eat two portions of fish every week, one of which should be oil-rich such as sardines, mackerel, herring, fresh tuna, trout or salmon.

A storecupboard staple

Registered dietitian and nutritionist Juliette Kellow gives the lowdown on how tinned fish can make an important contribution to a balanced, varied diet that helps you reach your two-a-week…

Canning has been used to preserve fish for well over a century. Like all food that comes in a can, tinned fish has a long shelf life. This means, unlike fresh fish, you don’t need to worry about having to use seafood up quickly if it’s in a tin. And that makes it the perfect ingredient for storing in your cupboard and using when you want a quick, easy meal. Added to this, tinned fish is economical and so a great choice if you want to cut back on your weekly shopping bill. And it’s very versatile – these days there are many varieties of fish, including shellfish, available in tins.

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In the can

Tinned fish is prepared, packaged, sealed and then pressure-cooked in the can. As well as giving tinned fish its long shelf life and maintaining its flavour, this locks in the nutrients. Indeed, like fresh and frozen, tinned seafood is packed with nutrients and counts towards the recommended two portions of fish each week. In particular, tinned oil-rich fish like sardines, mackerel, pilchards, herrings, anchovies, kippers and salmon are all rich in omega-3 fats, which help the heart to work normally, and maintain normal blood pressure and levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood). Added to this, all tinned fish is rich in protein, and different varieties contribute nutrients ranging from B vitamins and selenium to vitamin D and zinc, depending on the type you choose.  

On the shelf

With so many varieties of tinned seafood available, you won’t be stuck for choice. Check out…

  • Salmon (pink and red)
  • Pilchards
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Herrings
  • Skippers
  • Kippers
  • Anchovies
  • Slid
  • Tuna
  • Crab
  • Shrimps
  • Mussels
  • Scallops
  • Squid
  • Oysters
  • Lobster
  • Clams
  • Cod roe
  • Caviar 

What’s your sauce?

You’ll find fish tinned in spring water, brine and different oils such as sunflower or olive oil. Mackerel and sardines are available in many delicious sauces such as tomato, mustard, chilli, teriyaki, BBQ and lemon. You can even get tuna mixed with mayo and sweetcorn that’s ready to go straight into sandwiches or wraps. Tuna also comes in varieties that don’t need to be drained so you can simply open the tin and use it immediately.

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Skip the salt pot

Whether it’s on its own, in oil or with a sauce, tinned fish usually contains more salt than fresh, so always check labels and look at ways to reduce the salt in the rest of your diet to compensate for this. Health experts recommend we have no more than 6g salt a day; children need less than this so stick to fish canned in spring water if you’re going to give tinned fish to youngsters. Fish tinned in brine or with a sauce usually contains more salt than fish tinned in spring water or oil. Smoked varieties usually contain more salt, too.

Bone up on health

The bones in tinned fish like salmon and sardines can be mashed and eaten – and this helps to add calcium to our diet. However, if you’re not a fan of bones, then many varieties of tinned fish such as tuna, crab, shrimps, mussels and squid are free from bones. You can also buy boneless (and skinless) salmon and sardines, although bear in mind these usually contain less calcium.

Waste not, want not

Not used the whole tin of fish? Then transfer any leftovers into a container with a lid or a covered bowl and pop into the fridge for up to two days (don’t store it in the open tin as the metal may transfer to the fish). And if you’ve chosen a tin of fish in oil, don’t automatically pour the oil into the sink – you can use a spoonful of it in place of sunflower oil or olive oil to make a pasta sauce where it will add a delicious flavour, or simply drizzle a little over pasta or pizza.

How much should I eat?

Health experts recommend eating two portions of fish each week, where a portion counts as 140g cooked fish (or 170g raw fish). Most tins of fish tend to provide smaller amounts than this – a tin of drained sardines or mackerel for example, typically contains around 85-90g fish, while a tin of crabmeat contains around 120g fish, and a tin of tuna, around 120-140g fish, depending on the size of the tin. This means if you’re sharing a tin, you may need to eat it a couple of times a week to get one of the recommended portions. Meanwhile, if you’re trying for a baby or are pregnant you should avoid having more than four cans of tuna a week. This is because tuna can contain more mercury than other fish, which can affect a baby’s developing nervous system. There’s no limit on how much you can eat if you’re breastfeeding.

The lowdown on oil-rich tinned fish

Tinned salmon, pilchards, mackerel, sardines, herrings, skippers, kippers and  anchovies all count towards the recommended one portion of oil-rich fish each week. All other varieties of tinned fish (including tuna) contain some omega-3 fats, but not in the same large amounts as found in oil-rich fish. This means they count towards your overall weekly intake of fish but not towards your intake of oil-rich seafood.