These days there’s a lot of confusion surrounding which types of fish are healthy versus those fish are potentially harmful. Based on what we know about catching methods, mercury levels and other factors, is herring good for you or bad for you?
Herring has been a “staple” food in parts of the world like the Mediterranean and Russia since roughly 3000 B.C. According to many studies that have investigated the effects of eating fish like herring — which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and other nutrients — some of the health benefits associated with herring include:
- Protection against metabolic syndrome, heart disease and diabetes
- Reduced risk for autoimmune disease symptoms
- Help with growth and development in infants and children
- Help preventing vitamin D deficiency and low immunity
- Protection against cognitive disorders, memory loss and mood disorders like depression
- Less need for medications to treat conditions like high blood pressure or cholesterol
- Reduced risk for cancer
- And many more
What Is Herring?
Herring (species name Clupea harengus harengus or Clupea harengus pallasii) is a common type of fish eaten around the world that belongs to the family called Clupeidae. Specific types of herrings include sardines and shads, which are abundant in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In fact, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “One of the most abundant species of fishes in the world, herring eat such minute organisms as copepods, pteropods, and other planktonic crustaceans, as well as fish larvae.” (1) Each female produces about 40,000 sticky eggs during periods of spawning, depositing the eggs on seaweed or rocks before they hatch about two weeks later.
Herrings are described as “small-headed, streamlined fish with silvery iridescent sides and deep blue, metallic-hued backs.” They’re typically small, oily and bony (just like sardines). While herrings are generally small fish, they travel in very large schools. Each fish ranges in size from about eight to 15 inches long (or 20 to 38 centimeters).
These fish mature by the time they reach about 4 years old, and each fish can live up to 20 years! However, most live fewer years due to natural predators and fishing. Predators that survive at least partially on herring include bigger fish like cod, salmon and tuna, as well as dolphins, whales, sharks and sea birds. The most common ways that herring are currently caught include use of large drift nets or surrounding nets, which are usually deployed with the goal of not mistakenly catching other larger fish in the process.
In the United States, these fish available in grocery stores or restaurants, including those called “sardines,” are most commonly caught in the Northern Atlantic, while herring caught in the Pacific (usually near California) tend to be exported to Europe, Japan and China. Depending on where you live it might also be possible to find them caught off the shores of British Columbia or Vancouver. A high percentage of the herring caught in the Pacific are used to make fish oil products, bate/meal for catching other fish, or sold after being salted, canned, smoked or pickled herring. This fish can either be cooked or eaten raw, such as when it’s used to make certain types of sushi rolls. When eaten sushi-style, herring is called “nishin.”
6 Herring Fish Benefits
1. Great Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s offer protection against diseases in many ways, including:
- Reducing inflammation and autoimmune reactions
- Impacting intracellular signaling pathways and transcription factor activities
- Impacting gene expressions
- Decreasing levels of interleukin 1 (IL-1), a pro-inflammatory cytokine
Due to their anti-inflammatory properties, eating foods with omega-3s has been associated with less risk for coronary heart disease, major depression, symptoms of aging like joint pain, cancer, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and autoimmune diseases like lupus.
A 2012 report published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition states: (2)
There have been a number of clinical trials assessing the benefits of dietary supplementation with fish oils in several inflammatory and autoimmune diseases in humans, including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis and migraine headaches. Many of the placebo-controlled trials of fish oil in chronic inflammatory diseases reveal significant benefit, including decreased disease activity and a lowered use of anti-inflammatory drugs.
2. High in Many Vitamins & Minerals
One serving of herring (or sardines) provides more than 100 percent of your daily need of vitamin D, which is especially impressive considering many foods provide little or none. Herring also contains a good dose of your daily selenium, as well as trace minerals, including calcium, potassium and iron. One average serving of herring even covers your entire daily need of vitamin B12.
Vitamin D is a nutrient that acts similarly to a hormone in the body, helping support the immune system and improve mental health. Vitamin B12 is needed to help prevent fatigue, weakness and brain fog, yet it’s missing in many diets that are low in quality sources of protein (such as vegan or vegetarian diets), especially animal proteins. Selenium is needed to support bone health, the thyroid gland, cognitive health and cardiovascular functions.
3. Can Help Lower Risk for Metabolic Syndrome
Due to how omega-3 fatty acids help control inflammation and regulate hormones, research shows that consuming more food sources of omega-3s can help lower your risk for conditions like diabetes or heart disease. One study found that feeding diabetic rats different types of fish (including sardines, mackerel, herring and bolti) resulted in improvements in several health-related parameters, including serum glucose, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Compared to the control group (a group of diabetic rats given insulin), the rats fed fish experienced significant improvements in glucose regulation, lipid fractions, kidney and liver functions, especially when fed mackerel and sardines, which were found to be highest in omega-3s. (3)
4. Good Source of Protein as a Meat Alternative
Herring is an affordable source of protein and a great alternative to eating other types of expensive fish (especially those that are higher in mercury), dairy products or meat. If you’re looking to decrease your meat intake but also want to keep your grocery budget low, consider trying canned sardines or pickled herring, which are usually cheap and shelf-stable.
Fish that are rich in omega-3 fats are preferred protein foods over things like processed meats or red meats, especially for people with an increased risk for heart disease. Instead of having grilled chicken over your salad or a burger for dinner, switch up your proteins by adding chopped sardines to homemade caesar salad or mixing some into pasta sauce. Experiment by trying recipes like pan-fried fish cakes made with herring or seared fresh filets in a pan topped with olive oil, lemon and bread crumbs (and more recipe ideas found below).
5. Unlikely to Have High Mercury Levels
As a general rule of thumb, fish that are smaller and near the “bottom of the food chain” are fish that contain less mercury. Considering they aren’t predators, herring and sardines typically contain much less mercury than bigger fish like tuna or swordfish. It’s possible, however, for herring to still have low amounts of mercury, which depends on how mature and big the fish is.
Water pollution also influences how safe it is to consume herring, but experts believe that this isn’t a significant concern when eating sardines or herring. In general, look for smaller types of herring or sardines over large herring (such as Baltic herring), which may have higher mercury levels.
6. Low Impact on the Environment
While over-fishing is a serious concern regarding species like cod or salmon, herring is still a very abundant fish. Therefore there’s less concern over human consumption of herring, especially since some research suggests that populations of these fish are actually increasing. As populations of some predator fish continue to decline, herring and sardines have a better chance of survival and are more likely to keep successfully reproducing.
Herring Fish Nutrition
Eating herring is one of the best ways to get natural omega-3 fatty acids into your diet, which are associated with numerous benefits, including decreased inflammation, mental health, normal brain development and growth, decreased autoimmune disease symptoms, and improved heart health. Omega-3s are types of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which possess strong immunomodulatory activities. Omega-3s include the types called eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, which are found in fish and seafood and believed to be the most biologically active — and alpha-linolenic acid, which is found in nuts and seeds. (4)
Not only does herring provide omega-3s, but it’s also a good way to obtain more vitamin D and is very high in selenium and B vitamins, especially vitamin B12, vitamin B2/riboflavin and vitamin B3/niacin. Other nutrient found in sardines include phosphorus, calcium, potassium, iron and selenium.
One half of a large filet of Atlantic herring (about 75 grams or close to 3 ounces) contains about: (5)
- 145 calories
- 16 grams protein
- 8 grams fat
- 1,585 milligrams omega-3 fatty acids
1384 IU of vitamin D (346 percent DV)
- 9 micrograms vitamin B12 (more than 150 percent DV)
- 33 micrograms selenium (48 percent DV)
- 5 milligrams niacin (15 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram riboflavin (12 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram vitamin B6 (12 percent DV)
- 300 milligram potassium (9 percent DV)
If you can only find herring pickled or canned, a one-ounce serving contains about: (6)
- 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 milligram niacin (5 percent DV)
Herring vs. Sardines
- While you might not have much experience cooking with herring — and maybe you’re unsure if you’ve ever even tried it — there’s a good chance you’ve tried sardines before.
- Herring caught in the Atlantic, especially near Canada or off the shores of the northeastern U.S., are usually caught when they are young and small, then canned and sold under the name”sardines.” Most of the time when the fish are still young they are called sardines. Once they grow and mature they are then called herring.
- Sardines means “small fish.” Sardines earned their name many years ago due to being abundant near the island of Sardinia, a large island in the Mediterranean near Italy where many people still tend to eat sardines often. Other countries where sardines are popular include Canada, France, Portugal, Spain, Russia, Scandinavian countries, the U.K., Germany and, increasingly, the United States.
- Sardines are considered one of the healthiest fish in the world, in addition to being one of the best choices in terms of their low ecological impact. They’re low relatively inexpensive and easy to find. Sardines are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and many other nutrients, including those mentioned above.
How to Find the Best Herring
Seafood Watch — an organization that recommends certain types of seafood to the public that have a less destructive impacts on the environment and other species — recommends looking for Atlantic or Pacific herring that has been caught with purse seines, which they consider to be the best choices. (7) Another “best choice” option is purchasing Pacific herring caught by method of bottom gillnets.
- Purse seines refers to the catching method where a large wall of netting is deployed around an entire area or school of fish. (8) This catching method has less of an impact on the habitat and also other species. (9)
- Bottom gillnets is another similar method used to catch herring, in which netting with bigger openings (allowing some small fish to pass through) is placed toward the bottom of the seabed. (10)
- As an alternative to Atlantic or Pacific varieties caught with purse seines or bottom gillnets, Seafood Watch recommends U.S. Atlantic herring caught with with midwater trawls, which has a higher impact on other fish living among herring. According to its website, “Midwater trawl fishery catches unknown amounts of alewife, blueback and American shad, three overfished species that are collectively referred to as river herring.”
- Depending on the exact type you’re buying at fisheries or in grocery stores, herring may be called by various names. These include the individual species names sardine, kipper, labrador herring, nishin, sild, sea herring or sperling.
Luckily, herring and sardines are almost always “wild” rather than farm-raised. It’s best to look for wild fish whenever possible (in this case Atlantic or Pacific). Whenever you buy fish, purchasing fish that is “wild” ensures that the fish was caught in open water, as opposed to raised in a fish-farm. Why does this distinction matter? Farms tend to produce fish with less nutrients and more toxins, making them fish you should never eat.
When shopping for herring look for fresh filets that are whole, firm and slippery. In recipes, mackerel or sardines can be used as a substitute if you can’t find herring fresh or canned.
How to Cook Herring
Depending on what part of the world you live in, you might have access to herring that’s:
- Fresh (although this is usually harder to find)
- Raw (sushi-grade)
- Salted and canned
- Pickled in barrels
- Cured by smoking
- Sold as “kippered herring,” which is a canned variety that is usually served with lemon
- Or sold as bait
While it’s usually hard to find fresh/raw filets, it might be possible if you have access to a big fish market. When it’s fresh, this fish will cook very quickly, needing to only be grilled or fried for several minutes (about two to three minutes on each side) in a pan. (11)
Ideas for Herring Fish Recipes
Some of the ways that herring can be cooked and used in recipes include:
- Greek-style, such as wrapping the fish in grape leaves or serving it over salad with feta
- Grilled and drizzled with lemon juice, herbs and olive oil — chefs recommend cooking it with some type of acidic ingredient, such as white wine or light vinegar to boost its flavor
- Salted and eaten with flavor-enhancers like chopped bacon or charred veggies
- Added to fish cakes made with breadcrumbs or cornmeal
- Pickled and served with condiments like mustard, olives or grass-fed butter
- Used to make a spread for sandwiches or toast, such as when combined with olive tapenade
- Coated with oat flakes or another almond meal, then either pan-fried or baked to make fish sticks
- In place of lox or salmon salad, use herring spread served on sprouted english muffins, with eggs or in omelettes
- Try making pickled herring “Scandinavian style,” served with potato slices and garnished with red onion and dill
- Added to bolognese sauce instead of chopped meat
Final Thoughts on Herring
- Herring is a small, wild-caught fish that’s abundant in the northern Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific.
- Herring and sardines are related (sardines are immature, small herring). Benefits of both include supplying omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and selenium. Some research finds that these fish can be useful in preventing inflammation and reducing related pain.
- Look for it fresh, pickled or canned. It’s considered a well-sustained fish with low levels of mercury or toxicity.
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