Despite what you may have heard or read earlier, shrimp have a lot going for them. They are low in calories—about 100 calories in 15 large shrimp—quick and easy to cook, and a good source of protein. They also are nutritious, with 20-plus vitamins and minerals, including iodine, calcium, and magnesium. And one serving supplies more than 70 percent of an adult’s daily need for selenium, a trace mineral that helps reduce inflammation and enhances immune response.
Yet some people avoid shrimp because they are thought to be high in cholesterol. Others worry that shrimp can be contaminated with bacteria or heavy metals. And since shellfish are one of the top food allergens, shrimp may rarely trigger a life-threatening reaction in some people. So here is what we can conclude about the health effects of is this popular seafood.
Fifteen large shrimp have about 175 mg of cholesterol—just a little less than what’s in a whole egg. Therefore, for most people, they can easily fit into a healthy diet. Moreover, even despite their modest cholesterol content, shrimp are very low in saturated fat, which actually plays a far more significant role in elevating LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Shrimp have a good ratio of unsaturated to saturated fat, and if you’re watching your cholesterol, it’s more important to limit your intake of red meat, butter, cheese, and other foods high in saturated fat.
Unlike some types of fish, such as swordfish and big-eye tuna, shrimp are low in mercury, which makes them safe for pregnant women, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
But there are other potential safety concerns, including bacterial contamination, which depends on how they are raised and harvested. Shrimp can either be caught from wild populations, or sourced from shrimp farms. Both are available in stores, but the majority of shrimp consumed in the US is imported from aquaculture sources in other parts of the world, especially southeast Asia. This can be a concern, for one independent investigation in 2015 found bacteria on more than half of tested, raw shrimp samples, and antibiotic residues on 11 samples of raw imported farmed fish.
To help consumers choose shrimp products that have been produced responsibly and with minimal chemicals or drugs, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), a nonprofit orgination focused on establishing protocols for farmed seafood, certifies shrimp farms that meet a variety of standards, including pollution, diseases, and presence of antibiotics. This means that if it’s certified as responsibly produced, you have the assurance that it is reasonably safe.
HOW TO PREPARE AND COOK SHRIMP
Unfortunately, due to shipping, shrimp are usually frozen because of their extremely high perishability. Thus, unless you live on the coasts, the available shrimp will likely be frozen. In general, even if a merchant claims to be selling “fresh” shrimp, it’s best to choose frozen products and thawing them at home rather than buying what could be already-thawed shrimp.
The best and safest way to thaw frozen shrimp is to move them from the freezer to the refrigerator. This will allow the shrimp to thaw at a safe rate and avoid a soggy product. If you’re pressed for time, you can also thaw frozen shrimp by putting them in a bowl and placing it in the sink under a faucet set to run cool water in a slow stream.
Once your shrimp are thawed, you have a decision to make—to peel or not to peel, which depends on the cooking method: for grilled or peel-and-eat steamed shrimp, one should keep the shell on. For sautéed dishes or anything that calls for a more upscale presentation, peel them before cooking. Either way, always de-vein the shrimp before cooking. Raw shrimp have two visible veins—one along the concave belly of the tail and another along the back—but the only one you need to remove is the vein running along the back of the tail, which contains the digestive tract. Some smaller shrimp, like rock shrimp, won’t require de-veining, but for larger shrimp, it is best to do so. For shrimp that are still in their shells, try cutting the back of the shell with scissors and removing the vein. As for cooking, avoid recipes that include butter and cream, which are high in saturated fat. If you batter, deep-fry, or drench them in butter, and shrimp quickly go to unhealthy. Instead, one can sauté or grill shrimp and serve over salads, in stir-fries, as kabobs, or simply by themselves. But be careful not to eat too much cocktail sauce, which can be high in sodium.
Whichever method you choose, watch the shrimp closely. They are done when opaque and develop a reddish-coral color. That should take just three to four minutes in liquid or in a skillet for medium shrimp and five to six minutes for large ones. Overcooking will make them tough and rubbery.
So despite some much publicized early fears, with reasonable safeguards, shrimp turns out to be a really good food choice!