By Rachael Link, MS, RD
You may have noticed them stacked up on the shelf of your local supermarket or on the menu of your favorite pizza place, but have you ever really given anchovies a try?
Hailing from the Engraulidae family of fish, anchovies are equally rich in both flavor and nutrients. These fish may be tiny, but they pack a major punch, providing tons of protein, heart-healthy fats, and important vitamins and minerals in each serving.
Best of all, you can add these flavorful fish and potent omega-3 foods into a variety of dishes or even enjoy them straight from the can to get a concentrated megadose of nutrition into your diet.
Benefits of Anchovies
1. High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of important fatty acid that play a role in everything from heart health to brain function. Research shows that these healthy fats may also influence weight management, eye health, fetal development and immunity. (1)
Anchovies are a good source of these crucial fatty acids, providing 951 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids in each two-ounce can.
Although there is no set guideline for the amount of omega-3 fatty acids that you need each day, most organizations recommend between 250–500 milligrams of combined DHA and EPA, the two main forms of omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood. (2) The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fatty fish each week or taking a fish oil supplement to meet your omega-3 fatty acid needs. (3)
2. Support Strong Bones
Each serving of anchovies provides a hearty dose of nutrients, including several that are critical when it comes to supporting bone health. Calcium is essential for keeping your skeletal structure strong. In fact, 99 percent of the calcium in your body is found in your bones and teeth. (4)
A two-ounce serving of anchovies provides 10 percent of the calcium you need for the entire day, plus 7 percent of your daily requirements for vitamin K to help enhance bone health.
3. Good Source of Protein
Getting enough protein is key to many aspects of health. It builds and repairs tissue, produces important enzymes and hormones in the body, and is an essential component of your bones, muscles, cartilage and tissue.
Just one serving of anchovies contains 13 grams of protein. Combining these fish with a few other protein-rich foods throughout your day can help you easily meet and exceed your daily protein requirement.
Other healthy sources of protein include grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes.
4. Boost Heart Health
It goes without saying that the heart is one of your most crucial organs. It pumps blood throughout your entire body, supplying your tissues with the oxygen and important nutrients that they need.
Anchovies boast an impressive nutrient profile and contain many vitamins and minerals that can help protect the health of your heart. Niacin, for example, has been shown to reduce triglycerides and cholesterol, two risk factors for heart disease. (9) One study out of Chicago even found that supplementation with niacin significantly reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke. (10)
Omega-3 fatty acids can also keep your heart healthy by easing inflammation and decreasing cholesterol and blood pressure. (11)
Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition even found that selenium, another nutrient found in anchovies, can lower the risk of heart disease. In fact, researchers found that a 50 percent increase in selenium blood concentration was associated with a 24 percent decreased risk of coronary heart disease. (12)
Pair anchovies with other heart-healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, limit your consumption of ultra-processed foods, and exercise regularly to boost the health of your heart even more.
5. Promote Weight Loss
Anchovies are low in calories but high in protein, vitamins and minerals, making them the perfect choice if you’re looking to lose some weight. Protein helps curb your appetite by keeping you full and slashing levels of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for stimulating hunger. In a 2006 study, eating a high-protein breakfast decreased ghrelin and also slowed the emptying of the stomach to promote satiety. (13)
In another Australian study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, following a 12-week high-protein diet resulted in almost double the weight loss as a low-protein diet in healthy women. (14)
Because they are also low in calories, anchovies are a great option for your diet to keep you feeling full while promoting weight loss.
6. Low in Mercury
While fish can be a very healthy part of the diet, eating too much can put you at risk for mercury poisoning. Mercury is a type of heavy metal that is absorbed by fish. When you eat fish, you’re also absorbing the mercury that it contains.
High levels of mercury can be dangerous and even lead to neurological damage in children or infants. For this reason, pregnant women are often advised to steer clear of certain types of unsafe fish that are high in mercury, such as king mackerel, shark and swordfish.
However, one of the top anchovies health benefits is the low amount of mercury contained in each serving. In fact, anchovies have one of the lowest mercury concentrations among all types of fish, making them a safe and nutritious option for all when consumed in moderation.
7. Highly Sustainable
Did you know that a huge chunk of the fish you see at the supermarket are actually farm-raised? That’s right — fish like tilapia, salmon and catfish are all commonly born and raised in massive enclosed tanks for the sole purpose of food production.
Not only do these farm-raised fish have lower amounts of certain nutrients, but they also are exposed to greater amounts of pesticides, antibiotics and other harmful compounds. Fish farms may also cause harm to the environment by contributing to overfishing to produce feed, decreasing biodiversity and creating a massive amount of waste.
Fortunately, anchovies are caught in the wild and are even considered one of the most sustainable species of fish, allowing you to take advantage of their many health benefits without worrying about the dangers of farmed fish.
Anchovies are low in calories but brimming with protein, heart-healthy fats and nutrients. However, like many canned foods, they also tend to be high in sodium.
A two-ounce can of European anchovies contains approximately: (15)
- 94.5 calories
- 13 grams protein
- 4.4 grams fat
- 9 milligrams niacin (45 percent DV)
- 30.6 micrograms selenium (44 percent DV)
- 2.1 milligrams iron (12 percent DV)
- 113 milligrams phosphorus (11 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram riboflavin (10 percent DV)
- 104 milligrams calcium (10 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram copper (8 percent DV)
- 31.1 milligrams magnesium (8 percent DV)
- 1.5 milligrams vitamin E (7 percent DV)
- 5.4 micrograms vitamin K (7 percent DV)
- 0.4 microgram vitamin B12 (7 percent DV)
- 245 milligrams potassium (7 percent DV)
- 1.1 milligrams zinc (7 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram vitamin B6 (5 percent DV)
Dangers of Anchovies
While anchovies do come with a wide array of nutrients and health benefits, there are some drawbacks that need to be considered.
First of all, canned foods tend to be higher in sodium because salt is typically added to help with preservation. One two-ounce can of anchovies contains 69 percent of the recommended daily value for sodium, making them among the top sodium foods.
Reducing your salt intake has been shown to be especially beneficial for those high blood pressure. One study with 3,230 participants showed that a modest decrease in salt intake caused an average decrease of 4.18 mmHg for systolic blood pressure and 2.06 mmHg for diastolic blood pressure. (16)
To reduce the amount of sodium in your anchovies, simply drain and rinse canned anchovies to remove excess salt or opt for fresh anchovies.
Additionally, eating raw anchovies may come with a risk of parasitic infection. Although not as common as cooked or canned anchovies, raw anchovies are a staple ingredient in dishes around the world. Boquerones, for example, is a traditional Spanish dish comprising raw anchovies marinated in vinegar.
Anisakiasis, or herring worm disease, is a parasitic infection that can be caused by raw anchovies and can result in symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. (17) The best way to kill off parasites is to avoid eating them raw, so cook to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees or freeze your fish.
Anchovies can also contain domoic acid, a dangerous type of neurotoxin that accumulates in sardines, shellfish and anchovies. Domoic acid can become concentrated in the gut of the anchovy and lead to amnesic shellfish poisoning if anchovies are eaten whole.
If you experience symptoms like nausea, vomiting or abdominal cramps within 24 hours of eating whole anchovies, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Anchovies vs. Sardines
Although sardines and anchovies do share some similarities, there are some major differences between these two types of small saltwater fish.
Sardines tend to be larger with white flesh and a less distinct flavor. Sardines are most often eaten straight from the can, grilled or cooked, added to sandwiches, or used as a savory salad topping.
In terms of nutrition, the two are pretty comparable. Both offer a good amount of protein, omega-3 fatty acids and micronutrients. Because canned sardines typically include the bone as well, though, they do contain a higher amount of calcium and vitamin D.
Most importantly, however, both sardines and anchovies are low in mercury, highly nutritious, tasty and easy to incorporate into your diet.
Where to Find Anchovies and How to Eat Anchovies
Anchovy paste as well as canned anchovies in both whole and filleted forms are available at most grocery stores. Make sure to look for tins that are BPA-free, such as Trader Joe’s brand, to avoid the negative BPA side effects of this potentially harmful chemical.
You can also find salted anchovies at some specialty Italian markets as well as fresh anchovies at your local fish market. Fresh anchovies should be silver with bright eyes and no foul odor to ensure that you’re getting the best quality possible.
How to Eat Anchovies
Anchovies taste savory, salty and flavorful, making them an excellent addition to everything from sauces to pasta dishes and pizzas. These tiny fish are a staple ingredient in Caesar salad dressings and tapenades. Anchovy paste, made from ground anchovies, is also available for boosting the flavor of stews and soups.
Oil-packed canned anchovies are often the easiest and most convenient choice as they have already been cooked and deboned so that they can be eaten straight from the can. If you are using canned varieties, however, be sure to rinse thoroughly to remove excess sodium.
You can also prepare your own oil-packed versions using salted anchovies. To do this, simply remove them from the tin, rinse off excess salt, dry, and then soak in either milk, water or white wine for 15–30 minutes to help them soften. Next, fillet and debone your anchovies, let them dry, and then store in oil until you’re ready to enjoy.
Ready to explore the many uses of anchovies beyond just dumping them on your anchovies pizza? Here are some tasty anchovies recipes for you to try:
- Roasted Cauliflower with Anchovy Sauce
- Pan-Fried Anchovies
- Garlicky Chicken with Lemon-Anchovy Sauce
- Brussels Sprouts with Anchovy Caper Butter
- Anchovy, Chili and Sweet Potato Gratin
Despite being one of the least popular pizza toppings, anchovy pizza remains a staple on the menus of pizza parlors across the nation and world.
Topping bread with fish has been an integral part of Italian cuisine for thousands of years. It can even be traced back to the ancient Romans who used garum, a type of condiment made of fermented fish intestines and salt.
When the modern pizza was invented in Naples in the late 1800s, anchovies were one of the original toppings, popular for being abundant, readily available, cheap, easily preserved and full of flavor. As Italian immigrants flooded the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they brought both their traditional pizza and this beloved topping with them.
Today, despite being one of the most neglected pizza toppings, these tiny saltwater fish have managed to stand their ground in most pizza shops. They’re economical, long-lasting and reminiscent of the origins of pizza and how it was once enjoyed.
Some people may be allergic or sensitive to anchovies and should avoid consuming them. If you experience adverse symptoms like itching, hives or difficulty breathing after eating anchovies, you should discontinue use and talk to your doctor.
Anchovies can be high in sodium, so if you have high blood pressure or are on a low-sodium diet, be sure to rinse canned varieties before consuming and eat in moderation as part of a heart-healthy diet.
Additionally, pregnant women are warned to monitor their intake of mercury to prevent developmental delays and birth defects to the fetus. Anchovy is low in mercury and safe to eat during pregnancy in moderate amounts, but should be limited to one to two times per week as part of an otherwise healthy, well-balanced diet.
It’s also important to make sure you’re not eating raw anchovies. If you’re buying fresh anchovies, they should be thoroughly cooked or frozen prior to consumption to kill off parasites and prevent negative effects on health.
Final Thoughts on Anchovies
- Anchovies are high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and an assortment of important vitamins and minerals.
- The nutrients provided in each serving could aid in weight loss, preserving bone health and protecting your heart.
- In addition to being one of the most sustainable types of fish, they are also low in mercury, versatile and easy to add to your diet.
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