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Anchovies: A Tiny Powerhouse of Nutrition and Flavor

anchovies on bread

Oh, and I want no anchovies.  And I mean, no anchovies.  You put anchovies on this thing and you’re in big trouble, okay?!”  It was that day in 1990 when the Ninja Turtle Michelangelo implanted in the brains of countless children that anchovies = gross. But in 2013, we know better. Brimming with nutrients and omega-3s and low in mercury and calories, this little fish is an excellent option for boosting our diets.

Consumers are coming around on this abundant and nutritious fish.  It is delicious, relatively inexpensive, and versatile– perfect for any large-scale operation.   It can be used as a staple in healthy dishes, a unique and mouth-water hors d’oeuvre, or, yes: on a pizza.  Read on to learn why, on some occasions, it makes great business sense to ignore a giant talking turtle.

The anchovy love affair

Despite their mixed reputation in the States, this bite-size fish has been a staple in the diet of many cultures for thousands of years.  Romans had their garum, a highly prized condiment.  Koreans make kimchi with aek jeot.  Filipinos have patis.  Indonesians have used kecap ikan for centuries.  Vietnam has nuac mom while Thailand uses nam pla.  All usually contain anchovies.  They are still the backbone of many Italian recipes and are consumed with surprising regularity in France, Spain, and Portugal.  There are numerous ways to reap their delectable and nutritious properties, whether they come salty or fresh.  They can be lain on a bed of avocado and drizzled with a vinaigrette of black olives, tossed in a Mediterranean salad with parmesan and cherry tomatoes, sautéed with butter and garlic and placed on a bed of pasta with red peppers, or simply dosed with lemon juice and placed atop fresh arugula.  And oh so many more options.

Value as a food item

Only a fraction of the world’s anchovies are destined for the dinner plate.  Most of the total catch is processed into fishmeal and oil for use in animal feeds, food additives, fertilizers, and dietary supplements.  A recent study in Peru has shown that Peruvian fish are worth more as a food item than as fishmeal.  The Peruvian anchovy is the biggest fishery resource, with annual landings of 5-10 million metric tons.  This catch produces one-third of the world fishmeal supply.  The study, conducted by the Centre for Environmental Sustainability, calculated the economic impact of anchovy and found that the vast majority of the revenue and employment comes from bringing the little fish to the dinner table.  A campaign to encourage consumption of anchovies recently launched in Peru, focusing on providing recipes and promoting the health benefits, low cost and ease of preparation.

Anchovy: a superfood

Despite being a food phobia of many, these oily little fish have increasingly become exposed as a powerhouse for healthy living.  A 100g serving of anchovy meat can provide our bodies with 19 grams of protein, 77 grams of calcium, 3 milligrams of iron and plenty of omega-3s.  They are a rich source of the B vitamins niacin, riboflavin and vitamin B-12.  These vitamins play a vital role in energy production, neurological health, formation of red blood cells, digestions and can help maintain healthy skin, nerves and vision.  A 2-ounce serving of anchovies provides 26% of the daily recommended amount of iron, 16% for phosphorus and 10% for calcium and zinc.  These minerals are vital for bone, nerve and muscle health as well as glucose regulation, energy production, immune function, blood clotting and blood oxygenation.  Are you convinced yet?

Mercury? I think not.

They fall under a class of fish called “forage fish”, which also includes sardines and smelt – smaller fish that are fed upon by larger fish.  Because they are low on the ocean food web, they have fewer environmental contaminants such as mercury, PCBs, and pesticides.  When tested, anchovies were found to contain less than 0.09 parts per million of mercury and are considered safe for pregnant women and children to eat up to 12 ounces per week.

Umami – A fifth taste

An obsession over anchovies may stem from the belief of scientists and food experts that they have a fifth taste, otherwise known as “umami”.  Umami takes your eating experience beyond salty, sweet, sour and bitter and can be characterized as a “savory” taste, so satisfying that it lingers on your taste buds long after the last bite.  Chips and other processed foods contain artificial umami, but it is naturally found in foods such as seaweed, mushrooms, and certain meats.  It is the processing of anchovies that has given this delectable fish its bad reputation.  They are packed in salt, canned in oil, fermented into fish sauce or mashed into paste in order to travel long distances.  In such concentrated, conditions the true flavor is often overburdened by salt, oil and “fishiness”.  For many recipes it works well to use these versions, but for other dishes it is beneficial to seek out fresh anchovies if and when they are available.


Last, but not least, one of the best reasons we can choose anchovies is that many of the world fisheries for them are considered sustainable.  They have short life spans (3-4 years) and reproduce quickly.  Populations tend to be resilient to fishing and remain plentiful.  In 2005 the Bay of Biscay fishery collapsed, only to rebound with astonishing productivity and is now certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as sustainable.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration considers our very own North Atlantic and Pacific stocks healthy and sustainable.  Bycatch has never been a major issue with the fishery.  Villy Christensen of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre has urged people to consider eating smaller fish like anchovies and sardines.  His studies have found that forage fish populations have more than doubled over the last century as a result of overfishing top predators like tuna and cod.  “You remove the predator, you get more prey fish,” says Christensen.

I was able to look beyond my fear of these little silver fish and I encourage you to do the same- the people you serve will love you for it!  Boost your health and the health of your clients, and enjoy the unique flavor of this tiny superfood in a wide variety of dishes.

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