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Is Pickled Herring Bad For You?



Short answer

Pickled herring is not bad for you if consumed in moderation. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamin D, and B12. However, the high sodium content due to pickling can be a concern, especially for those with hypertension or cardiovascular disease. The added sugars and preservatives in some commercial varieties may also affect health. Balancing these factors with its nutritional benefits is key, as is portion control and choosing brands with lower sodium and additives when possible.



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Long answer

Nutritional Profile of Pickled Herring

Pickled herring is a traditional dish popular in Scandinavian and Eastern European countries. An attractive feature of this delicacy is its nutrient-dense profile. Herring, a small, oily fish, is naturally rich in several essential nutrients, and pickling preserves the fish in a seasoned brine or vinegar solution with various spices.

Let’s take a closer look at the nutritional composition:

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Herring is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, which are crucial for heart and brain health.
  • Protein: It provides high-quality protein, essential for muscle repair and growth.
  • Vitamins: It's particularly abundant in vitamin D, which is vital for bone health and immune function, and vitamin B12, important for nerve function and blood cell formation.
  • Minerals: Herring has a good mineral content, including selenium, which plays a critical role in metabolism and thyroid function, and phosphorus, essential for bone health.

However, it’s noteworthy to consider the added ingredients in the pickling process:

  • Sodium: The brine solution frequently contains a high amount of salt, which can lead to increased sodium intake.
  • Sugar: Some recipes for pickled herring use sugar to balance the vinegar’s acidity, which can add to the calorie content.
  • Preservatives: In commercially prepared pickled herring, preservatives may be used to extend shelf life.

According to the USDA FoodData Central, a 100-gram serving of pickled herring contains approximately:

Nutrient Amount
Calories 262
Total Fat 18 g
Saturated Fat 4.2 g
Cholesterol 60 mg
Sodium 870 mg
Total Carbohydrates 0 g
Dietary Fiber 0 g
Sugars N/A
Protein 14 g
Vitamin D 10 mcg
Vitamin B12 9 mcg
Calcium 60 mg
Iron 1.8 mg
Potassium 77 mg

The nutrient content can vary based on the ingredients and the method used for pickling. For a more accurate representation of the nutritional profile, it's advisable to check the nutrition label on the specific brand or recipe you are consuming.

The high salt content in pickled herring should be a consideration for those monitoring their sodium intake for health reasons such as hypertension. However, understanding the nutritional benefits can help consumers make informed choices. For instance, the omega-3 fatty acids in herring are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) supports the inclusion of fatty fish like herring in a heart-healthy diet.

It’s always essential to balance the positives with potential dietary restrictions, and moderation is key when including pickled herring as part of a varied and nutritious diet.

Sodium Content and Heart Health Concerns

Pickled herring, a beloved delicacy in many parts of the world, has a distinctly salty flavor that appeals to a variety of palates. However, this saltiness is indicative of its high sodium content, which raises potential health concerns, particularly regarding heart health. The relationship between sodium intake and cardiovascular disease has been the subject of extensive research, and it's crucial that consumers are aware of the implications of high-sodium diets.

One of the primary health risks of excessive sodium consumption is hypertension, or high blood pressure, a condition that can lead to heart disease, stroke, and kidney problems. According to the American Heart Association, the average individual should aim for no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, with an ideal limit of closer to 1,500 milligrams for most adults. Given that a single serving of pickled herring can contain a substantial proportion of this daily limit, it's important for individuals to monitor their intake.

For example, a 100-gram serving of pickled herring may contain anywhere from 800 to 1,200 milligrams of sodium. This represents over half of the ideal sodium limit recommended for heart health. Below is a comparative list of sodium content found in common serving sizes of pickled herring:

Serving Size Sodium Content
50 grams 400-600 mg
100 grams 800-1,200 mg
200 grams 1,600-2,400 mg

It should be noted that certain populations, including individuals with a history of cardiovascular disease, those over 50 years old, and those with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, may need to be particularly cautious of their sodium intake. Additionally, some pickled herring products may have varying sodium levels due to differences in the pickling process and added ingredients.

Interestingly, a study from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology has proposed that the nature of the sodium consumed may affect cardiovascular risk differently, suggesting that sodium from processed foods may have a more detrimental effect than sodium from natural sources. Pickled herring, falling into the category of processed foods, may therefore be particularly significant in terms of this research.

Heart health experts often recommend that individuals aiming to manage their blood pressure or reduce heart disease risk should prioritize a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, which are naturally lower in sodium. While pickled herring can be included in a varied and balanced diet, its consumption should be moderate and mindful, taking into account the impact of its sodium content on overall health.

As always when considering dietary choices, it's imperative to consult with a healthcare provider, especially for those with existing health conditions or specific dietary needs. This dialogue ensures dietary adjustments are made in the safest and most health-conscious manner possible, aligning with one's individual health objectives and medical history.

Beneficial Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Herring

When evaluating the nutritional content of pickled herring, one cannot overlook its beneficial omega-3 fatty acid profile. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital to human health, and herring is an exceptional source of these essential nutrients.

Types of Omega-3s
There are several types of omega-3 fatty acids present in herring, but the two most important for our human diet are:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

These long-chain fatty acids are integral for several bodily functions, including the maintenance of normal brain function and the reduction of inflammatory processes.

Health Benefits
Research has extensively documented the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. These benefits include, but are not limited to:

  • Promoting heart health by reducing triglyceride levels and blood pressure
  • Decreasing the risk of irregular heartbeats and heart disease
  • Supporting mental health and potentially alleviating symptoms of depression
  • Contributing to the development of the nervous system during pregnancy and breastfeeding
  • Reducing inflammatory responses which can lead to a range of chronic diseases

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that individuals who consume higher amounts of fatty fish like herring, which is rich in EPA and DHA, have a lower risk of heart-related issues.

Recommended Intake
The American Heart Association recommends eating 2 servings of fatty fish per week. A serving of herring can provide a substantial amount of the recommended weekly intake of EPA and DHA.

Sodium Consideration
While pickled herring is enriched with omega-3 fatty acids, it's important to consider the sodium content due to the pickling process. High intake of sodium could potentially counteract some of the cardiovascular benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. It is, therefore, necessary to consume pickled herring in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

Ultimately, the omega-3 fatty acids in herring make it a healthful dietary choice when consumed in appropriate amounts and balanced with other nutritional considerations. In the context of its presence in pickled herring, the overall nutritional benefits of these fatty acids can contribute positively to one's diet, providing essential nutrients that support overall health and well-being.

Preservatives in Pickled Foods: Are There Risks?

Pickled herring, like many other preserved foods, often contains preservatives that help maintain freshness and prevent spoilage. However, these preservatives, while extending shelf life, can have implications for your health that should not be overlooked. Let's delve into the common preservatives found in pickled foods and discuss the associated risks if any are present.

Firstly, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate are two common preservatives used in the pickling process. They inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeast, and molds, as found in studies such as those published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology. While effective, these chemicals have raised concerns when it comes to health.

For instance, sodium benzoate has been investigated for its potential to convert into benzene, a known carcinogen, especially when exposed to heat and light. Research in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry highlights that acidic conditions, like those in pickled herring, can facilitate this conversion. Having said that, the levels in pickled foods are generally monitored to be within safe limits as mandated by health authorities like the FDA.

Another preservative, sodium nitrite, commonly found in processed meats and occasionally in pickled foods, has been linked to an increased risk of certain kinds of cancer when consumed in high amounts over long periods, according to research published in Cancer Research and the American Journal of Epidemiology. While the amount of sodium nitrite in pickled herring is usually low, it's essential to keep an eye on overall consumption of foods containing this preservative.

Moreover, the high sodium content in pickled foods is largely due to added salt, which acts as an effective preservative by osmotically inhibiting microbial growth. The American Heart Association and numerous studies reveal that excessive sodium intake is associated with an increased risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Thus, the sodium content in pickled herring poses a risk for individuals with or at risk for these conditions.

Acetic acid is another natural preservative from vinegar used in pickling. While it has antimicrobial properties, as shown in Food Control journal, its consumption in large quantities has been associated with dental erosion and digestive discomfort in sensitive individuals.

Lastly, it is crucial to consider that some individuals may have sensitivities or allergies to preservatives. Symptoms can range from mild to severe allergic reactions, as noted in Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology. Therefore, it is recommended to check ingredient labels carefully if you have known sensitivities.

Here's a quick breakdown of preservatives commonly found in pickled foods and their potential risks:

Preservative Potential Risks
Sodium Benzoate – Can convert to benzene in certain conditions
– Generally safe within regulated limits
Potassium Sorbate – Minimal risk when consumed in established safe quantities
Sodium Nitrite – Potential cancer risk with high, prolonged intake
Sodium (salt) – Risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease with excessive intake
Acetic Acid – Dental erosion and digestive issues in large amounts

In summary, while preservatives play a crucial role in ensuring the safety and longevity of pickled foods like herring, it's imperative to be aware of their potential health impacts. Moderation is key, and for those with particular health concerns or sensitivities, seeking preservative-free options or carefully reading labels becomes especially important.

Balancing the Benefits and Drawbacks of Pickled Herring

Pickled herring is a traditional delicacy enjoyed in many parts of the world, particularly in Europe. While it's a source of several beneficial nutrients, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider when incorporating pickled herring into your diet.

Nutritional Benefits of Pickled Herring

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Herring is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for heart health, reducing inflammation, and supporting brain function. The preservation process of pickling does not significantly diminish the content of these fatty acids.
  • Protein: It is a good source of high-quality protein, which is vital for muscle repair, immune function, and overall health.
  • Vitamins: Pickled herring contains vitamins such as Vitamin D and Vitamin B12. Vitamin D plays a critical role in bone health and immune function, while Vitamin B12 is essential for red blood cell formation and neurological health.
  • Minerals: It also provides minerals, such as selenium, which acts as an antioxidant, and phosphorus, important for bone health.

Potential Drawbacks of Pickled Herring

  • Sodium Content: One of the primary concerns with pickled herring is its high sodium content due to the brining process. High sodium intake is associated with an increased risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Individuals on a sodium-restricted diet should be particularly cautious.
  • Added Sugars: Some pickled herring recipes include the addition of sugar, which can increase the calorie content and potentially lead to health issues if consumed in excess.
  • Heavy Metals: As with many fish species, there is a risk of heavy metal accumulation, such as mercury, however, herring is generally considered to be lower in these contaminants compared to larger fish like tuna or swordfish.
  • Food Allergies: For individuals with fish allergies, pickled herring is naturally a food to avoid, as it can trigger an allergic reaction.

In light of these benefits and drawbacks, balancing pickled herring consumption within a varied and balanced diet is important. Health professionals generally recommend consuming foods high in sodium and added sugars in moderation. Furthermore, for those looking to maintain a heart-healthy diet, the American Heart Association suggests including fish (particularly fatty fish like herring) at least twice a week as part of a balanced diet.

To make a more informed decision on whether pickled herring is suitable for your dietary needs, it's always advisable to consult a healthcare provider or a dietitian. They can help tailor your diet to include the right balance of nutrients, considering your personal health history and nutritional goals.

When planning to include pickled herring in your diet, it's beneficial to choose versions with lower sodium and added sugars when possible. Moreover, being mindful of the portions can help manage overall intake of these substances. It’s also worth noting that consuming a variety of fish can help minimize the potential risks associated with specific contaminants.

To assess the place of pickled herring in your diet, it's crucial to consider both its nutritional assets and its liabilities. As a dietitian, I encourage individuals to take a holistic view of their eating habits, ensuring that nutritional indulgences such as pickled herring fit into a balanced and health-conscious dietary pattern.

Frequently asked questions

When consuming pickled herring, it's beneficial to choose herring that is sustainably sourced to ensure ocean stocks are not being overfished. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) provides certifications for sustainably caught fish. Additionally, opting for packaging that is recyclable or reusable can minimize environmental impact.

Pickled herring can fit into a weight management diet since it offers high-quality protein and heart-healthy fats, which can aid in satiety. However, its high sodium content and potential added sugars should be taken into account within a calorie-controlled diet. Portion control and careful monitoring of other sodium and sugar sources are necessary.

Pickled herring is a significant source of vitamin D, with a 100-gram serving providing about 10 micrograms. The recommended daily allowance of vitamin D for most adults is 15 micrograms, so a serving of pickled herring contributes approximately two-thirds of this requirement, supporting bone health and immune function.

Pickled herring provides omega-3 fatty acids important for fetal brain development. However, due to concerns about sodium content and the potential for listeria contamination in some types of pickled foods, pregnant individuals should consult healthcare providers before consumption and thoroughly check product safety and quality.

Ask a question about Pickled Herring and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • increased blood pressure
  • digestive discomfort

Possible long-term side effects

  • hypertension
  • increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • risk of cancer from preservatives
  • dental erosion

Ingredients to be aware of

  • sodium
  • sugar
  • preservatives like sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, sodium nitrite
  • acetic acid


  • source of omega-3 fatty acids
  • high-quality protein
  • rich in vitamin d and vitamin b12
  • contains selenium and phosphorus

Healthier alternatives

  • preservative-free options
  • lower sodium pickled herring
  • fresh or frozen herring

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Wild Planet Wild Sardines

  • Rich in Omega-3
  • Non-GMO verified
  • Sustainable seafood
  • Sea salt added
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Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 03-19-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 03-19-2024

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