Become a Sardinista!

These little fish pack a big nutritional punch and they’re very affordable.

We’ve been eating and enjoying canned sardines for many years. They are a wonderfully portable food– the little cans have pull-tabs so an opener is unnecessary. Our car always has a pouch with picnic forks in the glove compartment, so we can munch a nutritious bite anywhere. We throw a couple of cans into our shoulder bags for short walks or hikes. All we need is a little salt and pepper. Sardines are satisfying and delicious, plus they’re low-carb and loaded with Omega-3 EFAs.

When we stock provisions on our boat for the summer season of cruising in the Pacific Northwest, we buy many dozen cans of sardines. They are usually easy to find at “dollar” stores for very little money, even in Canada. The sardines canned in water are preferred if we can’t find those canned in olive oil. For a short while, WalMart carried Brunswick sardines in olive oil for the same price as those in water– $1.08. We’d buy flats when we were in town. It was the only thing we went into WalMart to buy! Sadly, the store has changed brands.

Trader Joe’s stocks sardines in olive oil but they are about twice what we want to pay because we eat so many. A TJ’s brand we like is a “lightly smoked” variety that is packed in olive oil for about a dollar less at $1.69 can. The smoke flavor is mild and pleasant. We keep a cache of these on hand for quick lunch food. They also make great appetizers for last-minute cruiser get-togethers.

When we are cruising in the waters of British Columbia, we frequently encounter schools of sardines. It’s fascinating to watch the dark shapes move through the water as the thousands of fish swim as one big ball. Seals pursue them relentlessly and when the pinnepeds charge through the school, the sardines burst from the surface en masse, creating a distinctive, rather percussive swooshing sound. The photo above is of a sardine we caught north of Bella Bella in an anchorage called Morehouse Bay. Clark used a sardine jig, which is a leader with about a dozen very small hooks, each tied with a small red plastic flag. Most people we’ve met use the silver fish for bait to catch larger fish like salmon, but we ate the sardines for dinner!

When we reached Petersburg, Alaska, in June of 2007, the herring that schooled in front of the cannery numbered in the millions. Kids would perch on the outermost dock and jig for them after school. The fish were extremely easy to catch. The youngsters packed styrofoam coolers with dozens of the silvery wigglers in short order. Scales flew everywhere, glistening on the docks and on everyone’s clothing. Every so often, a boy would heave a herring or three into the sky and bald eagles would swoop low over our heads to snag the fish as they hit the water. The whooshing roar of air through the wings of these large predators was impressive. Even more memorable were the sharp, outstretched talons as the eagle passed within feet of our heads!

The Petersburg herring were particularly large and we were dismayed that none of the residents or visitors were actually eating them! The town was founded by Norwegians, for goodness sake! The waters around Norway are home to the world’s best “sardines”, the brisling. These fatty fish are highly prized in the Nordic countries as a major food source. So why were the herring around St. Petersburg being sold merely as bait? We were stumped. The young people walked each dock, peddling the fish for $5 a dozen, packed in salt. We can imagine that they made quite a nice income. We caught plenty of herring for ourselves and loaded our freezer against the chance that we would fail to catch a salmon or two (using a lure) along the way.

The interest in sardines seems to be burgeoning at the moment. Perhaps it’s partly due to chef Alton Brown’s discussion of his low-carb eating plan wherein he recently dropped 50 pounds. He is a sardinista too. We hope it’s a trend that will remain strong. There are a number of very good incentives for eating these fish of the herring family, not the least of which is the excellent nutrition profile. Herring are numerous and low on the food chain, so eating them is an ocean-friendly, responsible choice. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a program called Seafood Watch® and you can download a printable guide to making sustainable seafood choices.

A June 2009 article in The Washington Post highlights the surge of mainstream attention to these small cold-water fish. You will find a couple of recipes there too.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium estimates that more than 80 percent of the Pacific sardine catch is used to feed bluefin tunas raised in Mexico and Australia. The problem: It takes at least seven pounds of sardines to produce one pound of tuna, a ratio that they say doesn’t make sense. “Eating tuna and salmon is the functional equivalent of eating grizzly bears and cougars on land,” said Sardinista Mike Sutton, who directs the aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans. “We need to eat lower down the food chain to be sustainable.”

Eating smaller fish also offers health benefits. Because sardines eat mostly plants, they do not accumulate high levels of mercury or PCBs the way larger, carnivorous fish such as tuna or salmon do. Sardines also live shorter lives: six years vs. about 10 for tuna, meaning less time in the ocean to absorb hazardous toxins. Those factors, say the Sardinistas, plus high levels of protein and omega-3s, make sardines an excellent option for pregnant women, children and eco-conscious college students on a budget.

The California sardine fishery is making a comeback after its collapse in the 1950s. Scientists have learned that the sardine population surges when the ocean’s surface is relatively warm. They continue to spread northward as the ocean warms further. They are abundant once again. “Zillions and zillions of sardines,” is how Monterey Harbormaster Steve Scheiblauer put it in this article in the Monterey County Weekly.

So, add sardines to your grocery list. They are the perfect way to add quality selenium, vitamin B12, calcium, niacin, phosphorus and omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. We will continue to relish our sardines several times a week. We encourage you to add sardines to your menu too. The benefits are delicious!

Become a sardinista!

Our Search for Good Eggs

We eat a lot of eggs. These little powerhouses of nutrition make up a significant portion of our diet. We begin nearly every day with two or three each, sometimes cooked in butter, fried in bacon fat, or made into a frittata with meat or cheese, sometimes with both. Eggs are high protein, virtually zero carb, and they have a perfect mix of essential amino acids needed by us humans, with thirteen essential vitamins and minerals. The yolk is the major source of all this goodness. Don’t throw it away! Notably, eggs are one of the very few foods that contain Vitamin D. They are a source of biologically available lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect against age-related macular degeneration. Eggs contain the highest quality protein you can buy, second only to mother’s milk for human nutrition.

Because we rely on eggs to provide essential amino acids and fatty acids, we feel that it’s important to obtain the best, most nutritious eggs possible. If you’ve ever had a fresh egg from a chicken allowed to eat its natural diet, you know and appreciate the enormous difference there is between it and a conventionally produced egg. The taste is richer, the yolk stands tall and is more orange-yellow in hue, and the white is thicker. Eggs are truly nature’s perfect food– versatile, portable, delicious and wholesome. And they are a real bargain, both for our budget and for our well-being!

What are chickens designed to eat?

Chickens are omnivores, which means that they eat both plants and animals. When allowed to run free, chickens feed on earthworms, small insects, herbs and green plants, even fruits. Chickens also catch and eat small animals such as mice and frogs. They will even eat each other and the eggs of other animals or birds.

Unlike herbivores, omnivores can’t digest some of the substances in grains. (Humans would be included in this category.) Some birds can eat seeds/grain exclusively and these are classified as granivores. Goldfinches would be an example. There are very few strictly granivorous animals. Chickens are not among them. Despite this, all conventionally raised hens and chickens raised for meat eat feed made of grains.

The unnatural formula fed to industrial chickens is a dried concoction that may also contain soy. (We avoid soy like the plague it is for human health.) Flaxseed or fish oil may be thrown in for Omega-3 enhancement and synthetic vitamins added. Purina proudly describes its SunFresh® feed as “highest quality sun-grown grains and plant proteins to give birds the wholesome, healthy goodness and fresh taste they deserve… FREE of all animal proteins and fats, it contains all the quality nutrients necessary…” In other words, only grain. No fresh, green plants, no bugs, no worms. No animal protein or fats. Grain alone means a sickly chicken.

Egg cartons in the supermarket, especially those sold in ‘health food’ stores, are almost universally emblazoned with “fed a vegetarian diet”, as if this were a good thing. It’s not. It’s done because it’s cheap, easy and controllable. As Paul Wheaton of richsoil.com says, “When I see ‘100% vegetarian diet!’ on a carton of eggs, I think ‘our chickens suffered to satisfy the passions of ignorant twits!’ I have yet to see a package of eggs with the words ‘diet includes bugs and other meat’.”

In order to restrict the birds’ diet, their environment must also be tightly regimented. The industry uses battery cages or large barns where the hens have no access to the outdoors or sunlight. The American Egg Board website states, “The nutrient content of eggs is not affected by whether hens are raised free-range or in floor or cage operations.” However, tests conducted by Mother Earth News showed that pastured eggs (from hens that had an omnivorous diet with access to green plants and bugs) contain significantly higher nutrient values.

Here are the results per 100 grams: conventional eggs vs. the average of all the pastured eggs:

Vitamin A:
Conventional: 487 IU
Pastured avg: 792 IU

Vitamin D:
Conventional: 34 IU
Pastured avg: 136 – 204 IU

Vitamin E:
Conventional: 0.97 mg
Pastured avg: 3.73 mg

Beta-carotene:
Conventional: 10 mcg
Pastured avg: 79 mcg

Omega-3 fatty acids:
Conventional: 0.22 g
Pastured avg: 0.66 g

The superior nutrient values of pastured eggs notwithstanding, how the birds are raised is also a question of ethics and sustainability. We would prefer to support the topsoil-building practices of polyculture where we are able, but sometimes we find it nearly impossible to procure local eggs from hens that forage for their natural diet. It’s especially difficult when we’re cruising in remote areas during the summer. If one can find a local grower, it is important to ask what the hens are eating, as the farmer be may be relying on grain feed. Some supplementation with grain is okay, though it does slant the fatty acid profile toward Omega-6 PUFAs.

When we arrived for a two-month stay in Friday Harbor last July, we immediately began searching for pastured eggs, checking with all our previous local sources. Alas, during the ‘high season’, the farmers on San Juan Island have a limited supply. It seems that the numerous ‘bed and breakfast’ establishments have standing orders for all available eggs. Rarely were there any for sale at the weekly Farmer’s Market. We were very disappointed because it had always been easy to buy local eggs on the island during winter and early spring.

We resigned ourselves to buying eggs at the grocery store. We bought Omega-3 free-range eggs, a lesser choice. One really can’t be sure what the term ‘free-range’ means since it’s not regulated. Sometimes it only means that the producer has opened a small door at one end of a huge barn– access to a fenced bare dirt or concrete area. These chickens choose to stay indoors where the feed is dispensed.

In the US, only 5% of eggs are ‘non-cage’, though there is some hope for the future. The citizens of California recently passed a ballot initiative that will effectively ban hen cages in the state as of 2015. Interestingly, we read that sales of cage-produced eggs increased by 11% in 2007 due to price promotions, while organic egg sales fell. The industry took this as evidence that consumers wanted cheap eggs more than ‘welfare-friendly’ ones. We who believe in SOLE food – sustainable, organic, local, ethical – have some work to do!

As soon as we returned to Sacramento for the winter a few weeks ago, our search for Good Eggs began anew. We found several postings on craigslist and contacted the farmers. Upon questioning, we learned that all were using commercial feed and that the hens were not allowed to forage. We kept searching.

Eureka! A conscientious farmer about 25 miles away in Wilton raises chickens the natural way! We were pleased to learn too that her parents live just minutes from us. They visit the Wilton farm weekly and offered to bring our eggs home with them. So, we are now enjoying delicious, optimally nutritious, pastured eggs from Nicole– dozens of them each week. As we said, we eat a LOT of eggs! We are grateful to Nicole for her commitment to the well-being of her chickens. Healthy hens lay healthful eggs. YUM!

Obtaining good food requires a little more effort, but it’s insignificant in comparison to the dedication of local farmers.