What Are the Health Benefits of Mackerel?

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on June 07, 2022
7 min read

Mackerel is a popular nutrient-dense fish. It has great commercial value throughout the world. People mostly catch these fish for food and sport. Due to their oily and firm flesh, they also make an excellent bait for catching other fish. You can find them on the menu of most restaurants worldwide. Most fish lovers consider them a great food choice for their incredible flavor and various health benefits. 

The term "mackerel" does not refer to a single kind of fish or even a single species of fish. Rather, it's a common name for various swift-moving seawater fishes, most of which belong to the Scombridae family. The rest come from families like Gempylidae, Hexagrammidae, and Carangidae. Mackerels are close relatives of tuna and bonito, both of which also belong to the family Scombridae.

Since many fishes fall under the "mackerel" category, there's no single feature that can apply to all of them. But you'll find most fishes of this kind having a long, slender body with a deeply forked tail. Also, many of them have colored, luminous skin with distinct irregular stripes. Mackerels vary in size, ranging from the smaller bait fish to the bigger game fish. But compared to tuna, most of them are generally slimmer and smaller. 

Mackerels are mostly found in temperate and tropical seas. They live either along the coast or offshore in the ocean. Since they appear all around the globe, many countries produce and trade them. Among them, their top producers and exporters are Denmark, the Netherlands, Japan, China, and Norway.

These fish travel in groups called schools. While many mackerel schools travel across oceans to find suitable spawning grounds, most remain within a specific geographic range. This is what gives many of them their names. Others are named for their most distinctive features. 

These are some of the most popular names in the "mackerel" category:

  • Atlantic mackerel, Scomber scombrus
  • Chub mackerel, Scomber japonicus
  • Indian mackerel, Rastrelliger kanagurta
  • Blue mackerel, Scomber australasicus
  • Spanish mackerel, Scomberomorus macula
  • Australian spotted mackerel, Scomberomorus munroi
  • Japanese Spanish mackerel, Scomberomorus niphonius
  • King mackerel, Scomberomorus cavalla

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) carries out stock assessments to check the health and size of fish populations found within a specific area. Based on these assessments, the fish are given these stock statuses:

  • Overfished: When the fish population is very small
  • Overfishing: When the rate at which the fish are caught every year is too high

Among the different kinds of fishes found within the mackerel category, NOAA carries out stock assessments of most of the popular varieties. Based on these assessments, each variety has been designated its own stock status. For example, the 2021 stock assessment of Atlantic mackerel found its population within the New England/Mid-Atlantic region to be overfished and being subject to overfishing.

In the case of king mackerel, both their South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico stock were found to be neither overfished nor subjected to overfishing. The stock status for the Spanish mackerel is the same.

Therefore, while some varieties of mackerel are overfished or being subjected to overfishing, others have big populations not facing the risk of overfishing.

Mackerels taste delicious when fresh but can start smelling even when they're one day old. So, for the best taste, eat them within 24 hours of their capture. 

Almost all kinds of mackerel have a rich, distinct flavor. Their flesh is moist, flaky, and soft. You can find many praising these fish for their slightly sweet and salty taste. But, since mackerel is an oily fish, some people also find its taste a little bit fishy and oily. 

Mackerels are considered some of the most nutritious fishes. They're an excellent source of protein, vitamins B2, B3, B6, and B12, and vitamin D. Their flesh is also full of minerals like copper, selenium, and iodine. Some of these fishes also contain good amounts of iron and vitamin B1.

As mackerels belong to the "oily fish" category, they're one of the best sources of omega-3s — good fats that keep your heart and brain healthy. A 3-ounce cooked portion of Atlantic or Pacific mackerel contains over 1,000 milligrams of omega-3s — much more than what you can find in most other seafoods.

Another nutritional benefit of mackerels is that they have significantly higher amounts of good unsaturated fats than saturated fats — fats that increase your bad cholesterol. In fact, about 77% of the fat in mackerel is unsaturated.

There are many well-known health benefits of mackerel. As a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and good fats, these are some of the ways eating this fish could benefit you: 

May boost heart health. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fatty fish like mackerel per week. There's a reason for that. Mackerels, being oily fish, have high amounts of omega-3s. These good fats are known to reduce blood pressure and decrease the levels of cholesterol in your body. Studies have shown that those who eat mackerel regularly have lower blood pressure and less cholesterol in their blood.

Having lower blood pressure means your heart doesn't have to work too hard to pump blood. Similarly, less cholesterol leads to less fat buildup in the arteries of your heart. As a result, your heart will stay strong and face fewer problems. 

Many prevent brain disorders. The omega-3s present in mackerel — particularly DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) — also play a big role in brain development. These fats control the release of chemical messengers in your brain, in turn helping to maintain brain function. Studies also show that consuming marine omega-3s — like those in mackerel — can reduce your risk of mental health issues like depression, bipolar disorder, and autism.

May strengthen bones. There are many nutrients in mackerels that can help to keep your bones healthy. The most vital one is vitamin D. This vitamin helps in the metabolism of phosphorus and calcium — two minerals your bones need to grow. Getting enough vitamin D can lower your risk of bone loss and fracture. Besides this vitamin, mackerel also contains copper and selenium — minerals needed for maintaining your bone density.

May help in weight loss. Mackerel has good amounts of healthy fats and proteins. Studies show that, compared to carbohydrates, fats and proteins are much more helpful in lowering your levels of ghrelin — the hunger hormone that increases your urge to eat. Moreover, as a high-protein food, mackerels can keep you feel full for a longer time. This may stop you from overeating and help you maintain your weight.

The freshest mackerels taste the best. To make sure your fish is fresh, check that its skin is shiny, its eyes are bright, and its flesh is firm to your touch. But keep in mind that even fresh mackerel flesh can spoil quickly unless you refrigerate it properly. So, it's best to eat it fresh on the same day of capture. If that's not possible, you should cure it immediately either by smoking or with salt and vinegar. This will significantly increase its shelf life. 

You can use various cooking styles for mackerel. The way you cook will mainly depend on the kind of fish you're using. For example, you can use canned mackerel as a sandwich filler or even eat it directly from the can. If your mackerel is smoked, you can flake it over salads, add it to fish cakes, or even use it as paté. 

Mackerel fillets are meaty and robust. They hold their form well even when cooked on high heat. This makes them ideal for grilling and barbecuing. They also taste good when soused, baked, or roasted whole. If you like strong flavors, you can cook mackerel with fragrant Asian ingredients like garlic, coriander, chili, and lemongrass. With Atlantic mackerel, you can even try making sashimi. 

If you wish to add mackerel to your diet, make sure you're eating a kind with low mercury content, like the North Atlantic mackerel. Avoid fishes like king mackerel and Spanish mackerel that have high levels of mercury and pose a risk of causing mercury poisoning. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), avoiding king mackerel is all the more important for young children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers.

Before cooking mackerel, you need to follow the right steps to keep it fresh. Otherwise, you can get scombroid fish poisoning. This is a foodborne illness caused by eating fishes of the Scombridae family (like tuna and mackerel) that have been contaminated with high levels of histamine. This happens when these fishes spoil due to not being refrigerated properly, which causes bacteria to grow on them and produce excess histamine.

Since histamines are resistant to heat, this illness might occur even if you eat properly canned or cooked fish. If you get scombroid fish poisoning, you could have symptoms like sweating, headache, nausea, vomiting,  rash, dizziness, and a burning or tingling sensation around the mouth. Your symptoms should resolve on their own within 12 hours. If that doesn't happen, get medical help as soon as possible.