Fresh clams are best. That said, there are occasions when canned clams are handy to have around. They can back up a limited supply of clams you’ve just dug in a dish like clam pie, or they can be tasty in the winter when clamming is cold and nasty. Canned clams are also used in commercial manufacturing and, unfortunately, are sometimes used in restaurants to make chowder even when fresh meat is available. Canned clams are cheaper than fresh ones.
There are various types of canned clams available, including chopped, whole, smoked, and more. My local grocery store contained more varieties than expected, especially since fresh ones are commonplace and relatively inexpensive here in New England.
Canning itself began with American industrialization. Clarence Birdseye’s freezing process allowed the transportation of food crops over long distances, bringing vegetables to areas with short or no growing season. Canning, the hermetic sealing of foodstuffs for preservation, can be a home practice but for the most part involves mass production. Like many canned foods, clams have sodium added to them before they are sealed in airtight metal containers. This improves flavor and retards spoilage. World War II was a major impetus to industrial canning. Troops needed field rations that were safe to eat. The food production business made famous on San Francisco’s Cannery Row began with small fish like sardines and anchovies, as well as clams, shrimp and oysters (sometimes smoked – another technique to retard spoilage and add savory flavor). Because clams are high in trace metals and are 100% protein, canned clams can be a useful contribution to the diet when fresh food is unavailable.
In recent years, a trend toward healthier eating has drawn attention to high sodium levels in canned food. Major manufacturers such as Campbell’s are introducing low sodium brands, although none of these is a dominant market player, for the simple reason food with more salt usually tastes better. Canned clams make up a small portion of the canned foods market, and to date sodium content and possible health risks associated with the smoking process, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), have not been an obstruction to purchase. PAHs are compounds created by burning that make smoked or grilled food taste better, but are thought to be associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.
Canned meats generally have not been preferred in the US outside fixed uses such as for travel and for the military. Still, everyone knows tuna fish, a source of tasty protein for decades. Aquacultured clams are most often canned (or frozen). Most US grocery retailers carry several varieties of canned clams at any given time. Well-known national canned clam brands include Ace of Diamonds Whole Baby Clams in Brine; Bar Harbor Whole Maine Cherrystone Clams; Snows Chopped Clams (owned by Bumble Bee) and Granadaija Smoked Baby Clams|