Tinned sardines are a cardiovascular store-cupboard superstar. The problem is that some people are put off by the bones and can find them strong tasting. Out of all the tinned sardines we have tried this specific Waitrose version is our favourite and not bad value at 89p — they seem to be in a different league to other tinned sardines. Perhaps other people have noticed this as well as they always seem to sell out! They are skinless and boneless fillets packed in olive oil with a hint of chilli and somehow taste milder and sweeter than other tinned sardines without any excessive ‘fishiness’.
We should all eat more fish but for an island nation it’s particularly difficult to find freshly caught fish on the UK high street. Super fresh fish is amazing — clean and pure tasting with a smell of the ocean. The problem is that fish quickly passes its fresh best and this is responsible for stronger tastes and smells that puts many people off eating fish regularly. This has probably precipitated a cultural vicious-cycle with public demand, turn-over and supply for fresh fish which is very different from our Mediterranean neighbours. We even export some of our best products to the continent!
Even if you are enthusiastic about ingredients and source fresh fish from a quality fish-monger, for optimal results you still need to prepare, cook and eat that fish within a relatively small window. For these reasons and within our busy modern lives this can be difficult during the working week and we end up eating less fish than we would like (and should) — as doctors this is definitely something we can relate to.
The regular consumption of fish and particularly oily fish has been consistently associated with marked improved health and specifically cardiovascular protection — the evidence is pretty compelling. For example in men who eat oily fish at least once a week the risk of heart attack and sudden death is 50% lower. In another study there was a 30% reduction in death in men following a heart attack who were advised to increase oily fish consumption—amazing statistics for something so simple. This has been related to the rich marine omega-3 fat content of oily fish. As a result of this evidence we now recommend at least 2 portions of oily fish per week and this is even more important if you have established cardiovascular diseases or risk factors (especially if you have a poor cholesterol profile with elevated Triglycerides).
These observed health benefits were subsequently translated to the production, sale and marketing of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated-fatty-acids capsules. ‘Fish oil’ supplements targeting cardiovascular health now top a £675 million UK supplements market and are worth £139 million per year to the industry. It is estimated that 40% of the UK population regularly take a supplement to be ‘healthy’. The problem is that although the evidence to support eating oily fish is good, the evidence to support taking Omega-3 supplements although well studied is inconsistent. In fact the most recent and well designed studies have been noticeably negative with no observed benefit. Prior to these studies and based specifically on the GISSI-Prevezione study published in 1999 we (in the Cardiology community) were using a pharmaceutical grade Omega-3 supplement in our heart attack patients called Omacor but as a result of evolving evidence this is now rarely prescribed in units across the UK.
We can only speculate as to the reasons why eating oily fish is beneficial but taking supplements less encouraging. Perhaps there are other beneficial ingredients in natures package which when combined with Omega-3 trigger the health effects? Perhaps the processing into a capsule form effects the benefit? Our advice is to avoid supplements and concentrate your efforts and finances on a whole food diet which is rich in marine Omega-3 fats. If you can’t eat fish then there are plant sources of Omega-3 fats but it appears to be the marine versions which are particularly important. There are also some concerns about the way these supplements are manufactured and specifically the environmental impact of harvesting Krill from the worlds oceans. Krill are tiny shrimp-like crustaceans and form a very early step in the marine food chain—increasingly used now for the supplement industry. You will have noticed that some brands are now specifically called ‘Krill oil’.
Now back to tinned Sardines which are a great source of Omega-3 fats, convenient and inexpensive. Introduce these into your diet and they will help you get 2 portions of oily fish per week despite a busy life. They are also pretty versatile and can be used in multiple, quick meal options. We would definitely recommend the Waitrose Sardine Piccanti (if you can find it on the shelf of your local supermarket) and would otherwise direct you towards sardines packaged in olive oil or tomato instead of sunflower oil or brine.
We hope to bring you some sardine recipes in the near future.