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Tinned Fish Could Be the Next Grocery Item to Run Out. Blame TikTok

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Next time you go to the grocery store you may have a hard time finding tinned fish like tuna, anchovies, or sardines in the aisle. That’s thanks to the viral “tinned fish” niche on TikTok and the growing group of online creators making video content on “conservas”—tasty and sometimes elaborate dishes made from canned fish and seafood.

One such creator, Danielle Matzon, posts videos of her nearly daily consumption of tinned sardines, smoked mussels, and caviar to her 500,000 followers. Tinned fish videos have garnered 27 million views on the platform, with content ranging from taste tests to tinned fish snack boards. There’s even a tinned seafood subreddit with over 28,000 enthusiasts sharing their favorite tins, accompanying condiment pairings and their thoughts on its newly coined title of “hot girl food.”

How TikTok became obsessed with tinned fish

A large allure to U.S. audiences is the fact that most Americans appear unfamiliar with the concept of tinned fish as a delicacy. Chef José Andrés has been quick to remind viewers just discovering tinned fish that it has long been common as part of the cuisine in Spain and Portugal.

But this isn’t the chunk light tuna in water, which most known to Americans as “canned fish.” The focus of TikTok’s obsession is upscale tinned fish with colorful packaging from companies like Los Angeles-based Fishwife (one of TikTok’s favorite brands). Cans can cost you upwards of $10 each.

Now, the big canned-fish producers like Bumble Bee are trying to get in on the action, and promoting their higher-end cans to live up to the trend. “It’s possible to have a gourmet experience with a can of tuna,” Jeremy Zavoral, Bumble Bee’s brand marketing director told the Wall Street Journal.

The internet’s obsession with tinned fish has gone beyond the confines of TikTok’s ForYouPage. Matzon’s online success has even made it difficult for her to find some of her favorite tinned fish snacks, and she now stocks up in advance of recommending a product to her viewers. Its real life effects are apparent in the countless comments on her videos of users not able to find her recommendations anywhere. “You need to make some calls because there’s no mussels at Whole Foods,” writes one fan. Ali Hooke, a professional chef by trade in the San Francisco area known for her “tinned fish date night” videos, has also noticed the impact at her local grocery store, Mollie Stone’s. There’s a new “tinned fish” sign by their entrance.

The canned fish market size is forecast to reach over $11 billion dollars by 2027, according to IndustryARC. Younger consumers are, thanks to videos such as Matzon’s, becoming more familiar with products such as caviar, a usually slow selling product, mainly popular during holidays or bought for special occasions. Products are now often hard to come by at local grocery and gourmet stores, says Matzon.

The attraction of tinned fish is its convenience. “It becomes this gourmet snack that literally took five minutes to put together,” Matzon says. “I think that’s what really resonated with my audience.” Matzon isn’t a newcomer to the world of tinned fish—her family owns Marky’s Caviar, whose products she often reviews on her page. “It’s always been a natural synergy,” she says of her tinned fish and caviar obsession. “Not only because of my family’s business, but because in our Eastern European culture, it’s a staple we’ve always had in the house.”

Bay Area chef Hooke is believed to have kickstarted the TikTok trend when she started posting her “tinned fish date nights” back in July 2022, a tradition she has with her husband every Friday. The viral videos feature her at-home date night set ups: an assortment of tinned fish, usually paired with some natural wine and crackers. Her audience has grown to nearly 100,000 followers who tune in every week to see what tinned fish Hooke will try next.

“I did not at all expect that to have a reaction. I just was posting it because it was what we were doing, what we were eating and we loved it,” Hooke tells TIME. Her most popular video, with over 4.5 million views, features a snack board of chorizo sardines, char-grilled octopus, and fried mussels. Comments on the post range from “This is my new favorite series on TikTok” to “I do not like tin fish, but I would try every one of these.”

Tinned fish gets a second look

For Hooke and Matzon, posting this content is more than just a passing internet trend. It’s an opportunity to destigmatize a genre of food that Matzon recalls feeling embarrassed to eat when she was younger. “You can call it a trend in terms of numbers, but what’s really happening here is consumer education,” says Hooke. “I’m very passionate about discrimination in food and highlighting food that is viewed as less than, to be worth as much as it should be. Tinned fish absolutely falls in that category.”

Audiences are now more aware of the range of this fish, but it doesn’t make the fancy cans any less expensive for trying. When asked for recommendations for beginners looking to participate in the craze, both Matzon and Hill reference $10-per-tin Fishwife products, known for their bright, retro-like packaging and quality fishes, like their popular Smoked Rainbow Trout and Smoked Atlantic Salmon.

Becca Millstein, who co-founded the company after noticing a gap in tinned fish innovation in the U.S., argues bringing this elevated tinned fish experience to the market comes at a cost. “These products are expensive because high quality, sustainably sourced seafood is extremely expensive.”

Sourcing and manually packing premium fish is a rigorous process, and building a supply chain for the company with a finite amount of canneries in the U.S. has been no easy feat, says Millstein. “You can’t really imagine how much work goes into this,” she says. Since launching the company in 2020, they’ve grown by 9,900% and are now having to expand to other canneries to keep up with the growing demand for their products.

Despite the success, Millstein is eager to get more people on the tinned fish train. “Sometimes I think we’ve saturated the market and that this is as big as it gets. And then you realize that there’s still millions of mindsets to change about an ingrained idea they’ve had about this food category for years,” she says. “That’s really exciting.”

Correction, Jan. 26

The original version of this story misstated Fishwife’s growth since its launch. The company launched in 2020, not 2021, and has since grown by 9,900%, not 200%.

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Write to Mariah Espada at mariah.espada@time.com