Health Benefits of Herring

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on December 21, 2022
5 min read

Herring is a white fish that hatches in freshwater but spends most of its life in the ocean. Herring can be found in oceans around the world, but the vast majority of herring are caught in the waters near Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Herring is a nutritionally dense food that you can add to many recipes from cuisines around the world. Whether you make it the star of a dish or use it as a protein-packed snack, eating herring may offer some great health benefits.

Pickling is a traditional way of preserving herring. Pickled herring is consumed throughout the world, but it’s especially popular in the Scandinavian and Northern European regions. Like fresh herring, pickled herring contains many beneficial nutrients.

To pickle herring, commercial producers and home chefs use a two-step process. First, the fish is cured with salt, which extracts water. The salt is removed, and then the herring is soaked in a brine made from vinegar, salt, and sugar. You can add additional flavor with spices during the second step. Common choices include:

  • Peppercorn
  • Bay leaves
  • Raw onion
  • Mustard
  • Dill
  • Sherry

Health experts at the American Heart Association and elsewhere have suggested that everyone should eat fish twice a week if possible, but most Americans don’t. Fish carry many nutrients that are hard to find in other foods, such as omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for muscle function. Here are a few of the potential benefits:

Improved Heart Health

One reason nutrition experts recommend eating more fish of any kind is because it has been shown to significantly reduce the risks associated with heart disease. Omega-3s have been found to significantly reduce arrhythmias, or fast heartbeats.

Support for Fetal Brain Development

Omega-3 fatty acids are also crucial for fetal brain development. One study showed that the children of women who ate two or more servings of fish per week during pregnancy tended to test better in intelligence, behavior, and development. 

Support for Essential Body Functions

Herring contains the vitamin B12, which supports many functions throughout the body, including proper brain function and healthy nerve cell maintenance. Together with folate (vitamin B9), it helps the body create red blood cells.

Anemia Prevention

Herring has high levels of iron, which helps the body produce hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that helps blood carry oxygen throughout your body. When you don’t have enough iron, your body can’t make enough hemoglobin to carry out this function well, leading to anemia. Anemia can make you feel tired and dizzy and can lead to breathing trouble and headaches.

Herring is an excellent source of lean protein. A single 3-ounce serving of herring contains a whopping 20 grams of protein. In addition to its high protein content, herring contains many other key nutrients, such as: 

Nutrients per Serving

One 3-ounce serving of grilled or baked herring contains:

  • Calories: 173
  • Fat: 10 grams
  • Cholesterol: 65 milligrams
  • Sodium: 98 milligrams
  • Carbohydrates: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams
  • Protein: 20 grams

Pickled herring can contain multiple ingredients, including sugar, so nutrition information may vary depending on the brand or your recipe. A quarter-cup serving of pickled herring contains roughly:

  • Calories: 92
  • Protein: 5 grams
  • Fat: 6 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 3 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sugar: 3 grams

Pickled herring is a good source of:

  • Vitamin B12
  • Iron
  • Omega-3 fatty acids

Pickled herring is high in sodium, which can contribute to high blood pressure, increasing your risk of a heart attack.

If you are concerned about the high level of sodium in pickled herring, you could try smoked herring, which contains a much lower level of sodium, or fresh herring that has not been cured or smoked.

In general, fish is safe to eat, including for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Some types of fish have high levels of mercury, which can be dangerous in high quantities. But herring has a low mercury content, when compared to some other fish. 

Still, it’s important to keep in mind that water pollution in certain areas can affect the quality of your fish. While store-bought fish is safe to eat, it’s always a good idea to check local advisories before eating locally caught fish, especially if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

Most herring that’s purchased in stores will be processed in some way before it gets to you, whether it’s frozen, smoked, canned, or salted. The natural oils found in herring’s skin make them sizzle when cooked.

Herring are relatively small and have many small bones in them. These bones can be eaten and can actually provide a good source of calcium. But if you don’t like bones in your herring, you can cut the herring open and debone it before you cook it. 

First, use a pair of kitchen shears or a knife to remove the head, tail, and fins of the herring. Next, cut the herring open and use a rolling pin to gently flatten it. At that point, you can use a knife to gently pull the spine and small bones away from the fish. 

To do this, many recommend fish tweezers, but you can also raise the head end of the spine with the tip of your knife, and then grip it gently between your fingers. Pull slowly and smoothly upward and along the direction of the spine at the same time. Removing a spine all in one go takes practice, so don’t worry if you don’t get it the first time! 

Once your herring has been deboned, your options for cooking it are endless. Herring can be pan-fried, grilled, sautéed, boiled, or broiled. Some great ways to enjoy herring include:

  • Seasoned with lemon juice
  • Crusted with oats and pan-fried
  • Stuffed and baked in the oven
  • Grilled with onions