Mackerel is underrated in the British diet, but comes with a host of benefits, writes Hatty Willmoth.

This article was originally published in print in the Summer 2022 issue of Optimum Nutrition.


The arrival of summer brings mackerel migrating to British shores. But despite being local to us at this time of year, this delicious fish is woefully underrepresented on British menus — we generally prefer cod, tuna and salmon.

In fact, mackerel is the UK’s second biggest fish export, behind only salmon. In 2020, we exported 60,000 metric tons of mackerel to the EU alone.

Mackerel is packed with nutrients

Classed as an ‘oily fish’, mackerel is packed with omega-3 essential fatty acids: crucial nutrients that the body needs but is unable to produce by itself.

Regularly eating oily fish such as mackerel has been associated with a multitude of benefits: a lower risk of heart disease, heart failure, stroke and heart attack; less risk of kidney cancer; maintenance of good eyesight; lower levels of inflammation; a healthy immune system; and less risk of intense migraines.

In fact, higher omega-3 levels have been associated with a significant increase in overall life expectancy — that’s according to research published in July 2021.

In a study of 2,200 people over 11 years, researchers found that regularly eating oily fish increased life expectancy by about five years; concluding that a 1% raise of omega-3s in the blood had the same effect on mortality risk as quitting smoking.

As if that wasn’t enough, mackerel is a great source of vitamin D. Oily fish contains, on average, between three and five times more vitamin D than less fatty alternatives, and this is in turn associated with supporting the immune system, protecting bone health, reducing inflammation and reducing risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Mackerel also contains vitamins B6 and B12, iron, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, folate, selenium and zinc.

What to do with mackerel

With a rich flavour and meaty texture, mackerel is a versatile ingredient in cooking, but works especially well when paired with spicy or acidic flavours.

Grill it with black pepper and a squeeze of lime, add it to salads with a zingy vinaigrette, serve with potatoes, veg and horseradish sauce, or just spread it on toast straight out of a tin — you can even stick it on the barbecue!

Smoked mackerel vs unsmoked mackerel

For those who enjoy the taste, smoked mackerel can be a great choice.

Much of the ‘smoked mackerel’ available commercially is actually just flavoured with ‘liquid smoke’, otherwise known as ‘wood vinegar’: smoke that has been condensed and distilled in liquid form.

This preserves the water content of the mackerel, making it softer, but it can also contain additives, such as caramel.

Many of the carcinogenic compounds are filtered out of liquid smoke, so it can come with a lower cancer risk than real smoking.

On the other hand, real smoking inhibits the formation of toxins and reduces the growth of bacteria, extending shelf life, and both real and liquid smoking can increase mackerel’s antioxidant properties.

Choose mackerel this summer

Smoked mackerel is arguably the tastiest choice, but tinned mackerel contains the same nutrients, and is easy to find in supermarkets and relatively cheap; in the UK’s biggest supermarket, tinned mackerel costs around half the price of smoked.

Not to mention, tinned mackerel lasts for ages in the cupboard.

It’s time we fell back in love with mackerel: a locally sourced, delicious, versatile, highly nutritious food. Why not add it to your shopping list this summer?


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