Sardines – A Sustainable Meat for the Trailhead?

Bela-Olhão sardinesThis summer, I was given the opportunity to try BELA-Olhão sardines. While my first through was…. um, no, I’m vegetarian… two other points quickly came to mind. My first thought was that when I travel for running it is often hard for me to find good sources of protein outside of dairy products or highly engineered protein foods. Second, I remembered that sardines just about the most sustainable meat option available. Seeing as how I’m vegetarian for environmental and sustainability reasons, I said what the heck and gave them a try. Below I explore the taste, functionality, nutrition, and sustainability of Bela-Olhão sardines.

Taste
Bela-Olhão sardines cayenneBela-Olhão offers a variety of sardine products. I tried four Bela sardine varieties – Sardines in Olive Oil, Sardines in Lemon Flavored EVOO, Sardines in Tomato Sauce, and Sardines in Cayenne Pepper Flavored EVOO – all of which were quite tasty. That said, my favorite flavor is without a doubt the cayenne pepper. The little bit (but not too much) of bite is awesome without any additional preparation. The lemon flavored EVOO and olive oil versions came in nearly even as my second and third favorite varieties. The sardines in tomato sauce were also tasty … I simply liked the other flavors better. Oh, and I should add, these sardines are not at all salty or “fishy” tasting.

Functionality
A tin of Bela-Olhão sardines is a compact package that easily fits into the pocket of any backpack…. or even a jeans pocket. This means Bela sardines can easily go anywhere. Recently, I ran the GORE-TEX TransRockies Run, a 6-day, 106 mile stage race across the Colorado Rockies. Needless to say, I beat up my muscles pretty badly every day and needed protein to recovery. While the food was great, I found myself without enough protein on two days. Fortunately, I’d packed a few emergency tins of Bela sardines and ate them up. I’m happy to say that my muscles recovered very well every day thanks to a little help from a little fish.

When I’ve tried the Bela sardines on the road, all I’ve done is pop the top a bit, drain the excess oil, take the lid fully off, and dig in with a fork. When I’ve tried the sardines at home, I’ve made very satisfying sandwiches by placing a tin’s worth of sardines on bread. That’s all there is too the sandwich except that I might drizzle a little of the tin’s olive oil or tomato sauce on the bread. The result is a yummy sandwich that I can really sink my teeth into.

The only drawback of the sardine tin is what to do with it afterwards as it will still be oily. If you’re at home this isn’t a problem, but if you’re in the back of your car or the back country this is something that must be dealt with. If you are hiking or fastpacking and near water you can always wash the tins out and that should be good enough to keep your gear clean. While I’ve yet to try it, I imagine you could also rub the tin with dirt or dig with the tin to get rid of the excess oil, as well. Rumor has it that Bela is working with Leave No Trace to develop a plastic cover that will turn the tin into a tiny rubbish bin. If that’s true – good thinking folks!

Nutrition
The sardine is a pretty nutritious little fish. For me, a vegetarian…. er, now a very minimal meat eater, the protein content of the sardine is tops for me with 22-26 grams of protein per tin. Sardines (at least the ones with bones) also have good amount of calcium and Vitamin D, both of which are vital for bone health. (30% DV calcium, except 20% for the tomato version) As I very rarely eat meat, getting enough B vitamins is difficult… and I usually resort to dietary supplements as my only source. Sardines conveniently offer me a solid amount of Vitamin B-12. Sardines are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids and CoQ10… things I don’t worry about.

Sustainability
I had done a ton of research into the sustainability of sardines and was going to summarize my findings here. The simple explanation is that sardines eat very low on the food chain and reproduce very quickly meaning that you can sustainably harvest a much higher quantity of sardines than you can of salmon, swordfish, or some species of tuna. Here are some resources that explain this sustainability of sardines much better than I ever could:

  • Caught in a Net of Confusion Over What Fish to Eat? – The Green Guide [broken link removed]
  • Sardines With Your Bagel – New York Times Op-Ed
  • Sustainable Alternatives to Tuna Fish – Yahoo! Food Green Table [broken link removed]

One fact that I think needs to be thrown in this section is that farmed fish are not necessarily a sustainable choice. For instance, salmon are often feed fish meal and require 4 pounds of harvested fish (such as sardines, pilchard, or blue whiting) to produce 1 pound of farmed salmon. Think about the wastefulness of that process for a second.

Bela-Olhão’s Corporate Responsibility
Above and beyond the relative sustainability of sardines there are Bela-Olhão’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. These efforts focus on the impact of operations, local communities, the environment, and transparency. Bela is also looking towards the future. Here are Bela’s CSR goals as of April 2008:

  • Solidify memberships with Conservation Alliance and Leave No Trace
  • Purchase renewable energy credits to help offset the emissions required to transport BELA–Olhão products from Portugal to the US
  • Determine more ways to encourage recycling of product packaging and reducing impacts from waste
  • Expand reporting of monitoring efforts for Health Benefits and possible contaminants

Conclusion
I think Bela sardines are a very tasty, reasonably conscientious protein source for runners. The convenience of their packaging means you can easily take them anywhere and they are quite nutritious.

To those who might grab for a couple burgers or brats after a long day on the trail, consider trying some sardines instead.

To those runners who don’t regularly eat meat, but have difficultly getting enough protein after trashing your muscles… sardines are a way to minimize your environmental impact if you are going to indulge.

Questions
Do any of you eat sardines? Do any of you think anchovies and sardines are the same thing? (I did… and they’re not!) Got any good sardine recipes? (Here are Bela’s recipes.) Do any of you think I’m an evil person for trying and liking fish?

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Bonus Review – Gear Gals review Bela-Olhão sardines