People are often confused by the similarities of the two species and when shopping at the fish market, wonder, “Which is healthier sardines or anchovies?” Sardines and anchovies are both small, oily fish that are packed with nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids. While both have health benefits, there are some key distinctions between the two. 

Sardines tend to be larger, making them easier to filet and eat, while anchovies can be a little too strong for some palates. Both are often used in traditional Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.

And unlike other types of seafood, both of these fish are sustainable, which means that they can be harvested in a way that does not signifcantly harm the environment. They are also very low-mercury fish, which means that they are safe to eat even in large quantities.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference which fish you choose to eat, but either choice is a healthy one.

Let’s get more specific, and perhaps in the end we can proclaim a “winner!”

What Is The Difference Between Sardines And Anchovies?

Sardines and anchovies belong to two different families within the “blue fish” macro-group. Given their similarity in appearance, taste, and preparation methods, how do we distinguish them apart? Here are a few general factors:

  • Sardines are longer than anchovies. Sardines measure 20-25 cm (8-10 in), and anchovies rarely exceed 18 cm (7 in).
  • The anchovy is flatter and has a less pointed snout than the sardine.
  • Anchovies have golden hues, while sardines tend towards red.
  • Sardines are fattier, so they should be eaten younger than anchovies.

The term “blue fish” is not scientific, but rather commercial. The adjective “blue,” which refers to the blue-silver color of the back, differentiates this category from the other major type of Mediterranean fish called “white fish” (which includes sea bass, bream, cod, redfish, and grouper, to name a few).

The Adriatic Sea is characterized by the presence of a strong fishing tradition and its waters are home to various families of these so-called “blue fish.” All fish in this category are rich in Omega-3, vitamin D and high-quality proteins.

Which Is Healthier Sardines or Anchovies_

These species are often referred to as “poor man’s” fish, from an economic point of view, but which are actually extremely rich in nutritional properties and easy to apply in many different culinary preparations. Some of these species are often confused in common thinking because they appear to look similar: this is the case with sardines and anchovies.

The Varieties of Blue Fish are Characterized by:

  • Plentiful in the Mediterranean Sea
  • Their backs are a dark silvery-blue; their bellies are a slivery-white
  • Relatively small in size
  • Excellent quality to price ratio
  • Lack of scales, which makes it easy to consume them whole

Beneficial And Nutritional Properties of Sardines and Anchovies

As mentioned, sardines and anchovies are concentrated sources of precious substances that our bodies need for good health. They are rich in “good fats,” Omega 3; in mineral salts including calcium, zinc, selenium, potassium, iodine and phosphorus; and in vitamins, in particular vitamins A, D, and B vitamins.

Furthermore, both species are very low in mercury. This follows the trend that larger fish (ex. swordfish, tuna) have a higher concentration of mercury. Put another way, the higher the fish is on the food chain, the higher concentration of mercury in their meat, which of course can passed on to the consumer.

Anchovies vs Sardines: Which Has More Omega-3?

All blue fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the level of triglycerides in the blood and prevent heart attacks or strokes thanks to the high content of “good cholesterol.” The intake of omega-3 diminishes the risk of blood clots by keeping the blood more fluid and less “sticky.” 

Therefore, oily fish also helps prevent atherosclerosis, chronic inflammation of the arteries caused by a high level of cholesterol in the blood, thus avoiding vascular damage. Omega-3 has also been shown to improve brain health

As to which fish has more of this “magic potion?” Well, it’s close, but anchovies contain a marginally higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids.

High in Proteins, Low in Saturated Fats

Fish in general, especially blue fish, are an excellent source of protein and are also low in “bad” fats. A modest 100-gram serving of these fish provides around 25 grams of protein, more than third of the recommended daily allowance.

Therefore, choosing sardines or anchovies is a wise choice for those trying to maintain a healthy weight. They contain no more than 120 calories per 100 g, moreover their fatty acids do not convert into bodily fat, thus helping to maintain the proper BMI (body mass index). Blue fish is an excellent substitute for meat because of its rich high-quality protein, low saturated fat content.

It is also an excellent ally for bone health: it contains calcium and enhances its absorption thanks to vitamin D. This is why it helps prevent osteoporosis, and is therefore particularly suitable for women who are perimenopausal. 

How To Know If Sardines and Anchovies Are Fresh

Learn to recognize the freshness of the product: the eyes must be vivid and bright in color, the surface must be between silvery-blue, the gills a bright red, and the belly intact and full. 

How To Know If Sardines and Anchovies Are Fresh

If the fish is opaque, flaccid, and with veiled eyes, as well as having a bad smell, it is better not to buy it. If you buy fish already cut, make sure that the meat adheres perfectly to the bone.

Which Is Healthier Sardines or Anchovies? – The Verdict

So which is better, anchovies or sardines? As we’ve read above, they are both very healthy, but if pressed to pick a winner, ultimately it would be anchovies.

This is because anchovies have a higher percentage of protein and heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, as well as B vitamins and minerals. Specifically, anchovies provide more B6, riboflavin, B5, niacin, folate, iron, potassium, magnesium, zinc and selenium. Also because sardines contain slightly more fat and cholesterol than anchovies.

But they are both better choices than almost any other type of fish, and certainly better than meat, so look for them the next time that you’re at the fishmonger. Here’s to your health… salute!

Rick Zullo

Former doctor, current science teacher, and life-long food lover, Rick's passion for Mediterranean cuisine was ignited while living as an expat in Rome, Italy. 


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