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Herring: The Omega-3 Powerhouse that Supports the Heart and Mind

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Pickled herring - Dr. Axe

Do you generally stay away from canned fish? Typically, that’s a good idea, since many canned fish are fish you never want to eat. But once you hear about the many benefits of a European staple food known as herring, you’ll realized that all fish is not created equal.

Why is herring healthy to eat? This small but strong-tasting fish provides omega-3s and vitamin D that are associated with a number of health perks, including a potential decreased risk of conditions like cancer and heart disease.

What Is Herring?

Herring is a small fish in the Clupeidae family, which includes more than 200 different species, according to the Marine Stewardship Council. Is a herring fish the same as a sardine? The two belong to the same family, however they aren’t the same species.

Within the “herring” classification, scientifically referred to as Clupea, you will find three main varieties: Atlantic herring (Clupea harengis), Araucanian herring (Clupea bentincki) and Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii). Atlantic and Pacific herring are the ones most commonly eaten, used in recipes such as pickled (salted) herring, which has a history dating back over 1,000 years in certain European countries.

In terms of size and appearance, what kind of fish is herring? It’s considered a small to medium-sized oily fish with silver scales and a cream-colored flesh. It contains small enough bones that they are edible and often not even noticeable.

Herring’s taste is described as being mild, similar to other flaky white fish. Although it is an oily fish, it doesn’t have an off-putting taste and lends well to different preparation methods. Many find that pickled herring is an acquired taste, so if it doesn’t appeal to you, consider pan-frying or smoking it instead.

Nutrition Facts

A three-ounce serving of herring is relatively small but contains almost 150 percent of the daily recommended value of vitamin D, as well as over 100 percent of the omega-3 your body needs each day. In addition, there are several other nutrients found in large quantities in this fish, such as vitamin B12 and selenium.

According to the USDA, one ounce of pickled Atlantic herring contains about:

  • 73 calories
  • 2.7 grams carbohydrates
  • 4 grams protein
  • 5 grams fat
  • 411 milligrams omega-3 fatty acids
  • 190 IU vitamin D (48 percent DV)
  • 16.4 micrograms selenium (23 percent DV)
  • 1.2 micrograms vitamin B12 (20 percent DV)
  • 241 IU vitamin A (5  percent DV)
  • 0.9 milligrams niacin (5 percent DV)

How does this compare to other types of fish? For example, is herring the same as mackerel or salmon in terms of omega-3 content?

Mackerel and salmon are two of the best fish to eat regularly because they are among the very best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. However, eating herring is still a great way to boost your intake, as each serving contains about 950 milligrams.

Pickled herring nutrition - Dr. Axe

Benefits

1. Supports Heart Health

The leading cause of death for adult men in the U.S. is currently coronary heart disease, which is generally related to poor nutrition and treated with dangerous medications that come with intense side effects.

Fortunately, herring is one food that can help reduce your risk of heart disease. Because of the presence of polyunsaturated fatty acids in herring, studies suggest it’s a preferred source of protein over red meats like beef for people concerned with their risk for heart disease.

One important heart-protecting asset of herring fish is the high occurrence of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower high triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood that are required to stay within certain levels in order to protect the health of the heart. Research has found these omega-3s can also help reduce reduce high blood pressure in large doses in addition to reducing your risk of heart attack and arrhythmia. Herring can even help lower cholesterol.

The high presence of vitamin D and selenium in herring is other ways it protects your heart. Vitamin D deficiency affects up to 90 percent of people in the United States, and it’s linked very closely with the occurrence of heart disease. Low selenium levels are also associated with heart disease.

2. Acts as an Anti-Inflammatory

In one study, researchers found that people suffering from back and neck pain found similar results when treating the inflammatory pain with ibuprofen or omega-3 supplementation.

Eating anti-inflammatory foods like herring can help decrease pain-causing inflammation because of the presence of omega-3s, as well as the high amount of selenium, another anti-inflammatory nutrient.

3. Protects Mental Health

There’s a lot of scientific evidence pointing to an association with high omega-3 intake (coupled with the proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6) and decreased levels of depression. One reason this method of treatment has been studied more recently has to do with the high prevalence of health problems connected to psychotropic medications, including a high rate of smoking, obesity and heart problems as side effects.

Omega-3s for ADHD? They may be capable of making a significant impact on decreasing symptoms of ADHD and other neurological disorders without the side effects of medications. Some research even shows there’s an improvement in the academic performance of children whose diets were well-supplemented with omega-3s.

Vitamin D also plays a role in preventing and managing brain dysfunction. Although the method is unclear, it seems that high levels of vitamin D and omega-3s increase serotonin release, reducing the severity of several disorders, including ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and impulsive behavior.

Perhaps because of this same function, vitamin D has also been shown to regulate mood, improve concentration, and aid memory and learning.

Interestingly, one type of medication used to treat depression known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) react poorly with high-omega-3 foods, namely herring.

Benefits of pickled herring - Dr. Axe

4. Helps Prevent Age-Related Diseases

Some studies show that consuming fish, like herring, high in omega-3s can actually reverse the loss of skeletal muscle tissue and slow the process of aging.

Also related to mental health, and of great concern in the aging process, is the way omega-3 fatty acids have the potential to defer or slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This seems to be related to the ability of omega-3s to reduce overall inflammation.

High levels of vitamin D, like those found in herring, also aid in the slowing of aging. Vitamin D is an important part of keeping bones healthy for a long time and helps stave off the occurrence of osteoporosis and other bone density disorders.

Selenium, as well, is thought to aid in longevity. Although it is a trace mineral and not much is needed, the body flushes it very regularly, requiring the regular consumption of it in order to reap its benefits.

5. May Help Decrease Risk of Cancer

A well-known risk factor for breast cancer is the prevalence and ratio of omega-3s in a person’s diet versus omega-6 levels. Higher intake of omega-3s has been associated with lowered risk of breast cancer. This finding is significant because a poor ratio of fatty acid intake seems to be reversible with a dietary adjustment.

After a breast cancer diagnosis, the omega-3s in herring can also benefit you by alleviating several post-diagnosis issues, including cardiac problems, chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy and cognitive decline.

Additionally, there’s evidence showing that people with a high intake of vitamin D may also have a reduced risk for colon and prostate cancer.

How to Pickle Herring

The process of salting and pickling herring has been a popular method of preparation for many centuries. This recipe originated in Europe at least 1000 years ago to help preserve the fish so it could be consumed throughout the winter.

Today, pickled herring, already ready-to-serve, is available in jar form, much like you would find a jar of pickles. However, there are many who prefer to do the pickling themselves.

  • If beginning with totally fresh herring, you can create a brine of salt water to submerge the fillets in overnight.
  • Then, you create a pickling solution that generally includes water, sugar, vinegar and various spices (which change depending on the recipe).
  • After boiling and cooling the pickling liquid, you can place the chilled herring in a glass jar, along with flavoring foods, such as lemon and onion, then pour the liquid over them. Wait at least one more day to eat, and you can refrigerate your pickled herring about three to four weeks.

Many recipes and serving instructions call to serve pickled herring with the jar’s contents and not much more, but there are some common dishes made with it, such as solomon gundy, a sweet onion-flavored dish popular along the coast of Nova Scotia.

Aside from pickling, what are other ways to prepare herring? Try fried, grilled, fermented or smoked herring, just like you would sardines or other small fish. This fish can even be eaten raw, which is how it’s sometimes served in the Netherlands where it’s considered a delicacy.

Recipes

One of the most popular uses for herring in Europe is making kipper, a breakfast fish that includes a whole herring, butterflied open that’s been gutted, salted or pickled and typically served with eggs and garnishes. Kipper is often cold-smoked over smouldering wood chips.

Looking for an easier way to enjoy herring at home? This Scandinavian recipe for a herring snack might be just what you’re looking for. This hors d’oeuvre is made with pickled herring (you can use the canned or jarred type) on potato slices and garnished with red onion and dill at your next gathering.

If you’re going for something a little more adventurous, you may want to have a shot at this Raw “Ravioli” Recipe that uses turnip slices and pickled herring to create a ravioli-type dish you’re going to love.

Risks and Side Effects

Many people today are rightly concerned about overfishing and unhealthy mercury levels found in some type of fish. However, you can rest assured that you’re making a responsible choice when you consume herring and sardines.

Herring has a low mercury level in comparison to most fish, coming in at only 0.04 milligrams of mercury per kilogram of fish. The United States allows up to 0.3 milligrams of mercury to be considered safe, much more cautious than the standard set by the World Health Organization.

The sustainability of herring is also monitored closely. This fish is not farmed but rather wild-caught in most circumstances, and therefore you aren’t in much danger of losing the high value of their omega-3 acids, a common problem when eating farmed fish.

Herring is not a highly allergenic food, but there are known cases of histamine toxicity reaction from poorly stored and refrigerated herring. This “fish poisoning” can cause red, swollen and blotchy skin; headache; and gastrointestinal pain symptoms.

As previously mentioned, herring fish is not to be consumed by people on MAOIs for depression or other disorders, as the tyramine contained in it can cause adverse reactions.

Herring Interesting Facts

Pickled herring has been around for quite some time and actually appears in various works of art throughout the centuries, including this painting, created in 1891.

Prior to the invention of refrigeration, salting fish not only made it last longer but also made it easier transport and trade. The catching and pickling of herring fish began during medieval times and is still practiced throughout much of Europe today. Herring is also available in the U.S., but it’s far less common and not a regular part of the diet for most Americans.

Depending on where you are, people even eat pickled herring differently. Find yourself in Holland? Like the Dutch, feel free to dangle the delicacy into your mouth. However, if your travels find you in Russia, Poland or the Ukraine, you’ll blend in better by chopping up the fish and serving it with beets and mayonnaise.

In Scandinavia, it’s more common to enjoy the pickled fish on rye bread, and many of Jewish descent living in New York City tend to enjoy the fattiest version of this strong-tasting fish. Because of its popularity within the Jewish community, pickled herring can often be found at social and religious gatherings — and on the menus of kosher restaurants.

Residents of Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine serve pickled herring as a Christmas Eve specialty. Scandinavians prefer to enjoy it for New Year’s Eve.

Final Thoughts

  • Herring is a small, wild-caught fish common in European cuisine. This fish belongs to the same family as sardines. It’s considered a well-sustained fish with very low levels of toxicity.
  • What makes herring nutrition so impressive?  There are large amounts of important nutrients found in herring, including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and selenium. These are important for fighting and preventing heart disease, as well as certain kinds of cancers.
  • Many mood and mental disorders show promising results when treated with high omega-3 foods like herring. Fish with omega-3s may also prevent age-related problem, inflammation and chronic pain.
  • Pickled herring is served often in Europe, where it’s seen as somewhat of a staple, as well as a food served at particular holidays. You can purchase it ready to eat or pickle it yourself.
Josh Axe

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