After years of being maligned for its cholesterol content, shrimp may finally be in nutrition’s good graces.
The good news is that this popular crustacean’s negative health image (especially with regard to cholesterol) is patently undeserved; the bad news is there are so many environmental issues surrounding the procurement of shrimp, that it’s praise must be tempered with a few provisos and cautions.
Always Start with the Good News
Shrimp is the single most popular seafood in the United States; the average American consumes over 4.5 poundsa year. And yes, the cholesterol count is high (about 200 milligrams in 3.5 ounces), but that is a deceptive figure. Because the fat content of shrimp is so low (barely 1 gram per serving, as opposed to around 20 grams for an equal amount of beef) and saturated fat increases cholesterol absorption in the body, the cholesterol in shrimp is not fully absorbed. Studies have shown that shrimp actually improves the ratio of “good” cholesterol to “bad” cholesterol; and the high levels of unsaturated fatty acids may even contribute to lowered cholesterol levels.
There are numerous other nutritional benefits on offer from this tiny sea critter. It is an excellent source of protein, it provides a whopping dose of vitamin B12, a generous amount of omega-3 fatty acids, and a serious helping of the trace mineral selenium. Both B12 and omega-3s contribute to cardio health on several levels, and omega-3s are known to combat depression and provide protection against age-related cognitive decline.
You can easily “devein” shrimp by holding them under cold running water, and making a slight incision down the center of the back to remove the black “vein.”
Now the Bad News
Unfortunately, there are some disturbing facts in the larger scheme of things. Shrimp on the dinner plates of America comes at a high price for the environment and certain cultures. As with other seafood, wild-caught is preferable to farmed, in this case infinitely preferable, and domestic must be selected rather than imported.
Wild-caught shrimp carry a few drawbacks, it is true—mainly the sustainability issue inherent in all commercial fishing. But these negatives are nothing compared to the various forms of havoc that can be wreaked by shrimp farming, specifically overseas. And keep in mind that in 30 years, the percentage of farmed shrimp in the marketplace has gone from 1 percent to over 40 percent.
From a human health perspective, the dangers of farmed shrimp are many. All sorts of harmful chemicals are used in the farming process—pesticides, antibiotics, disinfectants, and detergents. The pollution caused by runoff from and abandonment of shrimp farms is a serious health hazard for nearby populations. And 99 percent of all farmed shrimp in the United States is imported from developing nations whose oversight and regulation operate at standards far below what would be demanded domestically.
In terms of the environment, the damage appears to be nearly catastrophic. It takes several pounds of wild-caught fish to provide food for a resulting 1 pound of shrimp, with a major net loss of protein. Globally, more than a third of the mangrove forests have disappeared over the past 20 years, 38 percent of these forests were destroyed to make way for shrimp farms—which are often abandoned after five to eight years, leaving behind a wasteland for decades. “Escapees” from these farms can carry diseases and antibiotics into the wild population, wreaking further havoc. And negative social impacts and human rights abuses have been documented in numerous communities.
So for all these reasons, and many more that space constraints prevent enumerating, it’s important to know the origins of the shrimp you buy, which should be domestic—either wild-caught or farmed. Your local market is obliged to inform you of the origin of seafood, so do inquire. Ask your restaurant server where the shrimp are from. And that chain restaurant that’s offering an all-you-can-eat shrimp dinner? Just say no—those shrimp are without a doubt farmed and foreign.
Now Can I Do Dinner?
When selecting, look for firm bodies with no black spots or yellow tinge. Ask to smell them—they should have a slight saltwater aroma; any whiff of ammonia, give ’em back. Keep them cold, and use within 24 hours—they’re very perishable. If you’re using frozen, check for ice crystals or dark spots indicating freezer burn; defrost in cold water, and use immediately.
Lemon Shrimp with Orzo Pasta, Wild Mushrooms, Feta, and Asparagus Serves 2
This glamorous and tempting but oh-so-easy feast makes a perfect New Year’s Eve dinner for two and pairs beautifully with that vintage Champagne you’ve been saving!
10 jumbo U.S. wild-caught shrimp, peeled and deveined
2½ Tbs. olive oil, divided
1 Tbs. organic dried oregano
6 oz. orzo pasta
6 oz. wild mushrooms (chanterelle, shiitake, oyster), sliced
1 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
½ Tbs. organic unsalted butter
½ lb. pencil asparagus tips
2 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice (Meyer lemon, if available)
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
PER SERVING: 863 CAL; 57 G PROT; 37 G TOTAL FAT (11 G SAT FAT); 79 G CARB; 369 MG CHOL; 723 MG SOD; 8 G FIBER; 9 G SUGARS