Tinned fish has been around for centuries; it’s played a role in cultural cuisines around the world, including coastal regions in Spain and Portugal (where products are referred to as “conservas”) as well as Korea, China, and Japan. But Stateside, canned seafood products have historically been relegated to mayo-laden tuna sandwiches or less-than-appetizing pizza toppings. Today, the tides are turning. Tinned fish is rising to not just acceptance but prominence in America, particularly among folks who are looking for convenient, nutrient-dense, and sustainable meal solutions—or in some cases, transportive dining opportunities.
“Tinned fish is ubiquitous worldwide, but much like finding the perfect wave to surf on, the conditions for its ability to truly take off in America had to be right—and that started with the pandemic,” says Joshua Scherz, the founder and manager of Bela Seafood, which has been sourcing canned sardines, tuna, and mackerel from Portugal since 1995. “The hurdle for the U.S. market has always been getting folks to simply open the tin and taste the product, and the popularity of cooking with pantry staples during COVID-19 finally helped us cross that bridge.” Canned seafood can last for five years on a shelf, after all.
The tinned fish market has continued to swell since the pandemic. According to an April 2022 report by Grand View Research, the global canned seafood market size is expected to reach $50.5 billion by 2030, rising at an annual growth rate of nearly 6 percent, and the canned sardines industry alone is projected to reach a valuation of nearly $15 billion over the next 10 years.
And if you’re familiar with the term “sea-cuterie board” or watched one of the many #tinfishdatenight (a hashtag boasting 20 million views) videos on TikTok, you know just what we mean when we say that canned seafood products are suddenly swimming in social media sex appeal. “In our house, every Friday night is tinned fish date night, where my husband and I pick a few tins from our collection, and put together a snack board for dinner,” croons TikTok creator Ali Hooke in the fifth installment of her Tinned Fish Date Night series. The rest of the video—which has garnered over 4.4 million views—is dialogue-free; it just shows Hooke opening can after can of sardines, mussels, and octopus.
When you take a look at the proliferation of new tinned fish products on the market, it’s even more evident that America is taking the bait. Fishwife, a canned seafood company founded in 2020, is a prime example: “The idea for—and launch of—Fishwife happened at the peak of lockdown,” says Becca Millstein, the brand’s CEO and co-founder and a Well+Good Wellness Trends Advisor. “There are very few shelf-stable foods that are both as easy to prepare as tinned fish and have such a rich nutritional profile, yet no American companies were catering to the audience of people looking for premium-quality, ethically-sourced options at the time.”
Fast forward to 2022: Fishwife now offers five products, including rainbow trout and a new smoked salmon tin that incorporates Fly By Jing’s popular Sichuan chili crisp. “We’re finally convincing Americans that tinned fish is not just canned chunk lite tuna that you need to mash with mayo and put between two slices of white bread; that it’s incredibly elevated and delightful,” Millstein says.
“We’re finally convincing Americans that tinned fish is not just canned chunk lite tuna that you need to mash with mayo and put between two slices of white bread; that it’s incredibly elevated and delightful." Becca Millstein, CEO and co-founder of Fishwife
There’s also Scout, a canned seafood company that launched its first three products in 2020. Today, Scout sells nearly a dozen varieties of tinned seafood, including lobster and PEI mussels, and just raised $4 million in funding this October. You can also dive into the new eight-product lineup—mackerel filets cooked in korma curry included—from Ocean’s, which launched in 2022. Wild Planet, which was founded in 2004 and originally focused solely on cans of sustainably-sourced pole-and-line-caught tuna, has since expanded to offer over 50 tinned fish products, including wild yellowtail filets, Pacific mackerel, and the brand’s September release: wild skipjack tuna bowls tossed with quinoa and veggies.
Freshé, which has been making ready-made tinned fish meals since 2018, also added two new salmon tins, Barcelona Escalivada and Moroccan Tagine, to its lineup this fall. “Tinned fish is so popular right now because U.S. consumers are discovering what Europeans have known for over a century: That high-quality fish [that’s] meticulously preserved in a tin is delicious and incredibly healthy,” says Freshé’s president and co-founder, Henry Lovejoy.
These products are, indeed, drowning in nutritional value. “It's hard to beat the convenience factor of a shelf-stable nutritious protein option that is so flavor-packed,” says Christina Manian, RDN, a Boulder-based registered dietitian, sustainable food systems professional, and a Well+Good Wellness Trends Advisor. “Tinned salmon, tuna, mackerel, and the like are all great sources of omega-3s—vital for maintaining heart health and improved cognition—plus selenium and iodine, which are essential for a healthy immune system and thyroid function. The smaller canned fish varieties, like sardines and anchovies, provide plenty of calcium and vitamin D, too.”
What’s more, the very format of tinned fish is inherently sustainable, a quality that has become hugely important to U.S. consumers when purchasing seafood products. “A major part of sustainable fishery management is harvesting from the ocean at the right time, from the right place,” says Dan Creagan, seafood product development manager at Patagonia Provisions, which has been sustainably sourcing fish since 2013. “By processing and preserving seafood caught during the correct window of time [when fish are of the right sexual maturity] and location, we can enjoy seafood throughout the rest of the year with the confidence that we are supporting healthy ocean ecosystems. The long shelf-life of tinned fish promotes a system that generates less food waste, too.”
Christina Manian, RDN
"When it comes down to it, tinned fish increases accessibility to seafood for many Americans. At an affordable price, consumers can have access to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids—plus many other vital nutrients—found in many tinned fish products. Plus, buying fish in a tin provides shoppers the opportunity to make a more informed, sustainable purchasing decision that will benefit our oceans."
Shannon Daily, Wild Planet’s marketing director, adds that “canned fish and seafood products naturally require less energy to produce than fresh because these foods can be transported and stored without refrigeration.” Then there’s the impact of eating lower on the food chain: “Species such as sardines, mackerel, and anchovies are naturally more plentiful in our oceans,” Daily says.
The sourcing narrative and rich cultural value inherent to tinned fish products is the very reason that, according to Millstein, the term “merroir” has started to float around in the tinned fish industry. A nod to the French word “terroir,” which references the characteristic taste and texture imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced (and is often translated as a “taste of place”), “merroir” references the transportive, experiential, and illuminating nature of tinned fish. Schertz echoes this sentiment, connecting it to the proliferation of tinned fish products on social media: “The popularity of TikTok’s tinned fish date night makes perfect sense to me, because for $20, you can have a beautiful sea-cuterie platter, pair it with a bottle of wine, and you feel like you’re on the French Riviera or the Portuguese coast!”
So, what new tins will you be popping on date nights in 2023? For starters, Schertz says Bela will be doubling the number of products offered for the first time since it was founded nearly 30 years ago—”We currently sell seven products and plan to launch another seven next year”—and that several of the new items will focus on what he says is the traditional Portuguese way of packing canned seafood. “The Portuguese-style canned codfish, for one, will be mixed with sauteed sauces and onions,” Scherz says. “This classic serving technique, while delicious, also saves so much time for consumers; it’s like a meal in a can. You can simply drape the fish over a bed of rice or vegetables and dinner’s ready.”
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Patagonia Provisions also plans to wade into the pre-sauced, -tossed, and -seasoned seafood concept next year; the brand will be releasing new flavors of mussels, mackerel, and anchovies, which will be the latest additions to its line of ready-to-eat seafood bowls that also include vegetables, pasta, or legumes. “In 2023, I think we’ll see the tinned fish market move away from the ‘packed in oil or water’ offerings and move towards more robust, unique flavor profiles, like spicy, sauced, or salad versions of canned seafood products,” says Creagan. Freshé, meanwhile, plans to add new varieties like shrimp, mackerel, and sardines to its roster next year, and Scout is set to release a new product line, Scout Snack Kits, this January.
Finally, Millstein says Fishwife will launch at least five new tinned seafood products in 2023. “We’re planning to source from different parts of the world to bring the price point of some of our products down, since we are a premium brand compared to some of the other options on the market. Our ambition is not to serve just the one percent; we want to make it easy for all folks to eat more delicious, sustainably-sourced, nutrient-rich seafood products.” Pun intended: We’re on board. ✙
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Photography by Tim Gibson, Art Direction by Jenna Gibson for Well+Good
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