Sardines are a love-it-or-hate-it kind of food, but the real question is if they are safe to consume during pregnancy – and how much mercury is in them?
Sardines are generally safe during pregnancy and can be consumed two to three times a week. Sardines are also one of the fish species with the lowest levels of mercury, on average.
In this article, I’ll walk you through how you can safely enjoy sardines during pregnancy, what kinds of sardines are safe including smoked and canned sardines, and how to prepare them.
Are Sardines Safe During Pregnancy?
Sardines are a very popular pregnancy craving so no wonder so many women find themselves Googling “Can I eat sardines during pregnancy?” In fact, a lot of women who would have previously been grossed out by them before pregnancy find themselves craving sardines!
The good news is that yes, sardines generally are safe during pregnancy, as long as they are fully cooked. As with most other foods in your pregnancy diet, it’s better to vary the fish you eat, rather than stick to sardines every day.
Sardines are safe during pregnancy up to three times a week. Pregnant women should not consume raw or undercooked sardines due to the risk of bacteria and foodborne illness in all raw fish (source: PMC).
Since most sardine dishes are cooked, that’s what we’ll talk about throughout this article. Raw sardines should be avoided during pregnancy, and they’re quite rare. In sushi, it’s called Iwashi, and should be avoided as it’s either prepared raw, or raw and marinated – neither of which is cooked. Read more on sushi and pregnancy here.
The other preparation of sardines that should be avoided is sardine spread, or pate – unless it’s homemade. This is due to the risk of listeria in pre-prepared fish spreads or pastes. You can read more about pate and spread safety here.
Are Canned Sardines OK During Pregnancy?
Overall canned fish, including sardines, are safe during pregnancy as the canning process heats foods at a certain temperature to make the fish “commercially sterile” (source: Science Direct). You shouldn’t have to worry about bacteria or even mold contaminating your fish – as long as it is not expired and has been stored correctly!
Canned sardines in brine are safe but if you’re monitoring your salt intake or trying to lower it, then a salt-free brand will be a better choice than sardines soaked in brine. For example, sardines stored in spring water will be a much lower-sodium choice.
Canned sardines in oil are pretty common, too – the oil is usually olive oil. Olive oil is a great source of omega 3 and vitamins E, A and K so will boost the existing nutrition content of the sardines. However, if you are monitoring your calorie and fat intake then remember that this will be higher in calories than sardines in water.
Canned sardines in tomato sauce is very popular and can be the best of both worlds as you’re combining two very nutrient-dense foods. Tomato puree is a great source of antioxidants, B vitamins, iron, and potassium (source: Nutritionix) and is a healthy fruit to consume during pregnancy.
Questions have been raised about BPA cans as the National Toxicology Program in the US expressed “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures” after eating canned soups, fruit and vegetables. However, more research is needed on the matter (source: FDA).
That said, canned sardines are not a major concern for BPA exposure because a study showed that canned fish and meats were not linked to increased BPA levels in urine within 24 hours of consumption (source: Forbes).
For more on BPA, we talk about this in our article on canned tomatoes during pregnancy.
Can I Eat Smoked Sardines When Pregnant?
Smoked fish are safe during pregnancy so long as they are cooked, and sardines are no exception.
Canned smoked sardines should be a safe choice so long as the fish is not raw as smoked sardines are almost always hot smoked, but it is best to double-check the label or the brand’s website to be on the safe side.
Hot smoked means that the food is cooked and smoked at the same time whereas cold-smoked foods are smoked at a lower temperature to lock-in that smokey flavor but they should be cooked later regardless of whether or not you’re pregnant. Cold smoked sardines will need to be cooked thoroughly before consumption.
Fish should have a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F (62.8 °C) before consumption (source: USDA).
You can read more about smoked foods here.
Can I Eat Sardines During Early Pregnancy?
Many women worry about miscarriage during the first trimester and understandably you might want to be more careful about what you’re eating.
However, sardines are a low-risk fish to eat during any trimester and are loaded with nutritional benefits for you and your growing baby.
While nausea and morning sickness might curb your appetite during the first trimester, it’s important to eat 70 to 100 grams of protein per day to keep both you and your baby strong, in fact, the current protein serving suggestions may even be too low, so be sure to consume protein with most meals (source: National Library of Medicine).
As sardines are a complete protein (they all have the essential amino acids) they are a great protein source. A 124g can (4.3 ounces) of sardines in water contains 13 grams of protein which makes them an ideal snack, too (source: Nutritionix).
The omega 3 content is also great for your baby’s developing brain. For some meal ideas on how to incorporate sardines into your pregnancy diet, scroll down to our suggestions below.
Are Sardines High in Mercury?
The FDA suggests that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding consume between 8 and 12 ounces of seafood per week. Sardines are listed as one of the best choices due to their low mercury content.
Sardines have a mercury concentration mean of 0.013 which is better than tuna, catfish, and mackerel (source: FDA).
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans also recommend between 8 and 12 ounces of low mercury seafood per week, and give all sardine types the “low” mercury rating (source: EDF).
Almost all fish have trace levels of mercury due to environmental pollution but predator fish such as shark, tuna and swordfish have higher amounts than sardines, as they feed on plankton rather than other fish. Smaller fish that feed on plants and microorganisms generally have lower levels of mercury (source: Scientific American).
This means that sardines are an excellent choice of fish to eat during pregnancy, with no concerns about mercury levels.
Are Sardines a Good, Healthy Choice for Pregnant Women?
Not only are sardines reasonably safe during pregnancy but they’re actually a very healthy choice if you’re expecting! Like all fish, sardines are a great source of omega 3 fatty acids.
The FDA suggests that pregnant and breastfeeding women consume 2-3 servings (8-12 ounces) of low-mercy fish per week, which means sardines are in the clear!
In the UK, the NHS suggests eating 2 portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily fish such as sardines.
Meanwhile, in Australia 2 to 3 portions of low-mercury fish such as sardines are recommended per week (source: better health).
A 3 ounce serving of sardines contains 2 grams of omega-3 which is good for brain and heart health for both you and your baby (source: Cleveland Clinic). Omega-3 has also been linked with a reduced risk for premature birth.
Even after birth, children whose mothers consumed omega 3 had higher mental processing scores than those who took cod liver oil supplements (Source: Obstetrics & Gynecology).
Omega 3 is not all you should be consuming during pregnancy, calcium and vitamin D are crucial for fetal skeletal growth and both your health and your babies health during pregnancy, and in the third trimester in particular.
The Food and Nutriiton Board recommends 200 IU/d of vitamin D per day for prengant (and nonpregnant) women). 3.5 ounces of sardines provides 200-300 IU (source: American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology).
Vitamin D is good for fighting bone loss which is key during pregnancy and helps to regulate the amount of calcium in the body.
Should you eat the bones in canned sardines? Small bones in canned sardines can be unnerving but they are safe to eat. In fact, the bones make up a large portion of sardines’ calcium content.
3 ounces of sardines contains approximately 25% of the recommended daily amount of calcium (Source: Nutritionix). However, this only applies to canned sardines as the bones are softer thanks to the cooking process. If you’re eating fresh sardines, then pick the bones out.
Sardines are also a source of vitamin A, C and iron (Source: Nutritionix). Iodine is also a concern when it comes to eating seafood or seaweed during pregnancy. Too much iodine can affect thyroid function but too little has adverse health effects too.
Pregnant women should consume 220 ug of iodine per day and breastfeeding women should consume 290 ug of iodine per day. 3 ounces of sardines contains 30 ug of iodine, which is crucial for regulating your thyroid hormones (source: zrtlab).
How to Eat Sardines During Pregnancy
Now that we have established that sardines are safe and nutritious to eat during pregnancy, how do you eat them?
Straight out of the can:
If the sardines have been hot smoked or cooked per-canning then they are safe to enjoy straight out of the can!
Fresh sardines from a fishmonger must be cooked thoroughly before eating but are less “fishy” tasting than canned sardines. They’re delicious grilled and seasoned with sea salt, parsley, lemon juice and a little dash of chili (source: Irena Macri) They can be enjoyed alone as a snack of as part of a larger meal with pasta or couscous.
Canned Sardines on crackers are the savory snack that may just satisfy your cravings. Chop or dice them up into little chunks and top with salad leaves of grated carrots for an extra nutritional bonus. We like adding Worcestershire sauce or hot sauce for a kick.
Sardines are a great way to add some protein to a salad. Mash up some canned sardines, add some cubed veggies and bind with Greek yogurt and (pasteurized) mayonnaise for a filling, protein-packed salad!
So yes, sardines are safe during pregnancy! Just make sure to eat enjoy them in moderation, and ensure they are fully cooked before consuming.