The bones in anchovies are technically edible, but they are very small and sharp, making them unpleasant and potentially hazardous to eat. Most people avoid eating anchovy bones and remove them before eating.
Are Anchovy Bones Edible?
Anchovies are small, oily fish that are common ingredients in many cuisines around the world. They are bony fish, meaning they have a lot of small bones throughout their bodies. While the bones are technically edible, most people prefer to remove them before eating for several reasons:
- The bones are very small and sharp. They can lodge in the throat or puncture soft tissues in the mouth, throat, or digestive tract.
- The bones add an unpleasant texture. Anchovy bones give a grainy, crunchy texture when eaten.
- The bones provide minimal nutrition. Fish bones are mostly indigestible calcium compounds and do not add much nutritional value.
- The bones are easy to remove. The bones in anchovies are concentrated in the center cavity and spine. These are easy to pull out and discard.
- Eating bones is considered taboo in some cultures. In certain societies, eating fish bones is associated with poverty or undesirable animal parts.
For these reasons, most people prefer to fillet anchovies and remove all the bones before eating them. However, it is technically possible to safely eat anchovy bones in small quantities if they are thoroughly chewed. The bones are digestible, though not recommended for a pleasant eating experience.
Why Do Anchovies Have So Many Bones?
Anchovies are part of the Engraulidae family of fish, which are characterized by having a large number of small, fine bones. There are over 144 species of anchovies around the world, but the most common edible types include:
- European anchovy
- Peruvian anchovy
- Japanese anchovy
- Californian anchovy
All engraulids have elongated, tender bones as a result of their physiology and diet:
- Small size – Anchovies are small, typically under 6 inches long. This means their bones are also tiny.
- Fast growth – Anchovies have short lifespans, growing rapidly to adulthood. Their bones don’t have time to become dense and rigid.
- High in omega-3 – Anchovies eat algae and plankton rich in omega-3s. This makes their bones softer and more pliable.
- Compressed organs – To fit all their organs in a small frame, anchovies’ bones are flattened and overlapped instead of long and tubular.
The combination of many fine bones in a small fish makes anchovies notoriously bony and difficult to fillet. But their tender bones are also less dangerous to accidentally consume than larger fish bones.
Can You Eat Anchovy Bones?
Yes, technically the bones in anchovies are completely edible. Here are some key points about the safety and digestibility of eating anchovy bones:
- The bones are soft enough to chew completely.
- Thoroughly chewed bones pose little choking hazard.
- The bones are small enough to pass easily through the digestive tract.
- Anchovy bones provide calcium, phosphorus, and other nutrients.
- Bones are only a small part of an anchovy’s weight.
- Eating a few bones accidentally is unlikely to cause harm.
However, there are some risks and downsides to consuming anchovy bones:
- The bones can scrape or puncture the digestive tract if swallowed in large quantities.
- Sharp bones can damage the mouth, gums, and throat if not fully chewed.
- Bones may cause discomfort, indigestion, or constipation if too many are eaten.
- Bones add an unpleasant sandy texture.
- Bones have a fishy taste many people wish to avoid.
Overall, deliberately eating anchovy bones is not recommended. But accidentally consuming a few bones while eating the fish is harmless for most people. Those with gastrointestinal issues may still wish to avoid getting any bones in their portion.
Do You Need to Remove Anchovy Bones?
It is not an absolute requirement to remove anchovy bones prior to eating. However, most recipes and food safety experts recommend removing bones from anchovies whenever possible for a better texture and taste.
Reasons removing anchovy bones is advised:
- Bones add unwanted crunch or gritty texture.
- Bones have a strong fishy flavor some wish to avoid.
- Bones can cut the mouth or throat if not thoroughly chewed.
- Bones should be avoided by those with digestive issues or reflux.
- Bones are an choking hazard for children, elderly, or impaired eaters.
- Bones in quantities may cause minor gastrointestinal upset.
- Picking out bones takes time and interrupts meal enjoyment.
However, you can leave bones in place if:
- Bones are finely minced or pulverized into a paste or powder.
- Anchovies will be strained out, as in stocks and soups.
- You don’t mind bones and will chew carefully.
In most cases, taking a little extra time to fillet or debone anchovies leads to a better eating experience. But bones don’t necessarily have to be removed if their presence doesn’t bother you.
Methods to Remove Anchovy Bones
Here are some effective methods to remove the bones from anchovies:
Run your finger along the anchovy spine to loosen attached bones. Gently pull out the backbone and center bone structure from end to end. Open up the anchovy and lift out any remaining pin bones with tweezers or pliers. Rinse to remove any lingering small bones.
Canned or Jarred
Purchase high-quality canned or jarred anchovy fillets packed in oil or vinegar. These have typically had all bones removed already. Some may contain a back vein which can also be pulled out.
Pass Through a Fine Sieve
After cooking, pass the anchovies and liquid through a fine-mesh sieve. The flesh and oil will pass through while bones are caught in the sieve.
Grind in a Food Processor
Pulse the anchovies into a paste in a mini food processor. The bones will grind into a fine powder that most people won’t notice. Strain out any remaining bone fragments.
Mince Finely and Mash
Mince the anchovies into a paste with a sharp knife, then mash and rub through a sieve to remove any straggling bones. The paste can then be incorporated into sauces, spreads, and dressings.
Stock and Soup
Simmer whole anchovies into a stock or soup, then strain out all solids. The stock extracts flavor but leaves even tiny fish bones behind.
Are Anchovy Bones Safe for Pets?
Anchovies and their bones can make a healthy treat or supplement for some pets. The bones are digestible and provide nutrients like calcium. However, there are also risks, so anchovy bones should be fed sparingly and only to certain pets.
Pets that can eat anchovy bones:
- Large birds like parrots
- Some reptiles and amphibians
Avoid feeding anchovy bones to:
- Rabbits, hamsters, and small rodents who cannot digest bones
- Small birds who could choke on bones
- Fish who cannot adequately chew bones
General precautions when feeding pets anchovy bones:
- Remove sharp backbones which could puncture internally.
- Only feed occasionally as a treat, not as a dietary staple.
- Chew, mince, or grind bones thoroughly first.
- Supervise pets to ensure bones are properly chewed before swallowing.
- Discontinue feeding if bones cause any digestive upset.
Talk to your veterinarian for specific advice before sharing anchovy bones with pets. Properly prepared, they can provide added nutrition. But caution is advised as bones pose risks if fed incorrectly.
Nutrition of Eating Anchovy Bones
Anchovy bones are highly nutritious, offering a concentrated source of key minerals. Here is the nutritional breakdown for 3-5 grams of anchovy bones:
- Calories: 13-22
- Calcium: 130-215mg – 10-20% DV
- Phosphorus: 55-90mg – 5-10% DV
- Sodium: 25-40mg – 1-2% DV
- Potassium: 42-68mg – 1-2% DV
- Selenium: up to 9mcg – 13% DV
- Iron: 0.5-0.7mg – 3-4% DV
Along with calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D are especially important for bone health. Eating anchovy bones can provide significant levels of these nutrients.
However, bones make up just a small portion of an anchovy’s weight. Eating the whole fish provides plenty of the same nutrients along with muscle-building protein, heart-healthy fats, and more.
For most people, the tiny bump in minerals is not worth the unpleasant texture. But the bones are far from nutritionally void and can occasionally be consumed without issue.
Are Anchovy Bones Safe to Eat?
For most people, occasionally consuming a few anchovy bones is perfectly safe. However, there are a few groups who may wish to avoid eating the bones due to higher risks:
- Children – Bones pose a choking hazard for kids who may not chew thoroughly.
- Elderly – Older adults often have difficulty chewing small bones safely.
- Denture wearers – Those with dentures or dental issues may not be able to grind bones fully.
- Reflux, IBS, diverticulitis – Sharp bones could further aggravate intestinal issues when swallowed.
- Recent surgery – Bones could potentially complicate healing after procedures like tonsil removal.
- Pregnant women – Some avoid fish bones when expecting due to general safety concerns.
Additionally, those with shellfish allergies may wish to avoid anchovy bones. Anchovies are not technically shellfish, but can share some allergenic proteins.
As long as bones are few and well-chewed, the risks are low for most healthy adults. But those with underlying conditions may prefer playing it safe and removing the bones.
Tips for Safely Eating Anchovy Bones
If you wish to consume the bones along with the anchovy flesh, here are some tips for eating them safely:
- Chew each bone thoroughly – at least 15-20 chews per bone.
- Avoid gulping down bones or letting them slide down the throat.
- Eat other food along with the anchovies to help grind up the bones.
- Consume only a few bones at a time, limiting your quantity.
- Don’t give whole fish or bones to children or pets.
- If a bone feels lodged, drink water and seek medical help if needed.
- Stop eating the bones if any discomfort or pain occurs.
Properly preparing anchovies can also reduce the risk from bones:
- Remove the backbones where bones are largest.
- Marinate, cook, or cure anchovies in vinegar to soften bones.
- Grind, pound, or mince anchovies into a paste.
- Filter out bones by sieving or straining.
Exercising caution and chewing thoroughly allows most people to safely consume the occasional small anchovy bone. But removing the bones entirely or limiting their quantity is the safest approach.
Are Anchovy Bones Good for You?
Anchovy bones provide small amounts of calcium, phosphorus, and other minerals. However, they are not necessary for most people to eat. The potential negatives outweigh their minimal nutritional benefits:
- Source of calcium for bone health
- Contains phosphorus, selenium, and other minerals
- Adds crunchy texture
- Provides omega-3s from bone marrow
- Adds unpleasant sandy texture
- Pose a choking/injury risk if not chewed thoroughly
- Can cause minor gastrointestinal discomfort
- Nutrients negligible compared to flesh
- Unpleasant taste and smell
Given the ample calcium and minerals found in the flesh, roe, and marinade or oil, the bones themselves are unnecessary. Anchovies’ overall nutrition and flavor is not reliant on consuming the bones.
For most consumers, skipping the bones makes enjoying anchovies far more pleasant and safer. But the occasional fish bone swallowed won’t cause harm for otherwise healthy adults.
Anchovy bones are edible, but eating them is not recommended. The tiny bones can pose a choking hazard, cause mouth or throat injury if not fully chewed, add an undesirable crunch, and provide minimal nutritional value that can be obtained from eating the fish flesh.
However, accidentally consuming some bones while eating anchovy fillets is unlikely to cause harm. The bones are small, soft, and digestible. Those who don’t mind the texture and Seattle flavor can safely eat the bones in small quantities by chewing them thoroughly.
To enjoy anchovies at their best, it is advisable to remove the bones via filleting, straining, grinding, or buying pre-prepared fillets. This provides all the nutrients and flavor without the risks and unpleasantness of the bones. But overall, yes – the bones in anchovies are technically edible if one doesn’t mind the experience.