Are Shrimp Good for You?

Here's what you need to know about the cholesterol and nutrients in this shellfish

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Grilled Shrimp Skewers Photo: Getty Images

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,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., a Gershoff professor of nutrition science at Tufts University. They also are extremely 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 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 trigger a life-threatening reaction in some people. On balance, is this popular seafood really good for you?

Cholesterol Concerns

Fifteen large shrimp have about 175 mg of cholesterol—just a little less than what’s in a whole egg. That might make you think that you should skip shrimp if you’re worried about your blood cholesterol level, but for many people, they easily fit into a healthy diet.

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Despite their cholesterol count, 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,” Lichtenstein says. 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. “If there are no other major dietary sources of cholesterol in the diet, it should not be of concern,” Lichtenstein says. Even people taking a statin or other cholesterol-lowering medication can incorporate moderate amounts of shrimp into a healthy eating pattern, says Lydia Bazzano, MD, PhD, a professor in nutrition research at Tulane University.

If you do get large amounts of cholesterol from other sources—for example, if you’re a pescatarian, who adds seafood to a vegetarian diet and often relies on cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs for protein—you might want to be more cognizant of your overall shrimp intake, says Penny M. Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, an Evan Pugh University professor of nutritional sciences at The Pennsylvania State University.

Shrimp Safety

Unlike some types of fish, such as swordfish and big-eye tuna, shrimp are low in mercury, which makes them safe for pregnant people, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

But there are other potential safety concerns, including bacterial contamination, with some shrimp, depending 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,” says Marin Hawk, the fisheries and commercial manager at Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit that sets standards for sustainable fishing. South East Asia is a major exporter of frozen shrimp.

This can be a concern. A Consumer Reports 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 focused on establishing protocols for farmed seafood, certifies shrimp farms that meet a variety of benchmarks, including parameters around pollution, diseases, and a complete ban on antibiotics. “However you like your shrimp, if it’s certified as responsibly produced, you have the assurance of transparency and traceability, while also doing your bit for the environment and farm communities,” says Peter Redmond, ASC’s US senior market development manager.

How to Prep and Cook Shrimp

“In a perfect world, shrimp would be bought fresh and used as such,” says Gerard Viverito, an associate professor of culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America. “Unfortunately, due to shipping, they are frozen because of their extremely high perishability.”

So unless you live on the coasts, the available shrimp will likely be frozen. “Be aware of buying ‘thawed’ shrimp at the supermarket and mistaking it for ‘fresh,’” says TJ Delle Donne, an assistant dean in the College of Food Innovation and Technology at Johnson & Wales University. In general, he recommends choosing frozen products and thawing them at home rather than buying already-thawed shrimp.

The best and safest way to thaw frozen shrimp is to move them from the freezer to the refrigerator, Donne says. “This will allow the shrimp to thaw at a safe rate and avoid the dreaded time/temperature abuse, and ensure a firm re-thermalized—i.e., not 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, Viverito says.

Once your shrimp are thawed, you have a decision to make—to peel or not to peel. For Viverito, the answer depends on the cooking method: for grilled or peel-and-eat steamed shrimp, he typically keeps the shell on. For sautéed dishes or anything that calls for a more upscale presentation, he peels them before cooking.

Either way, always devein the shrimp before cooking, Donne says. 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. “Though some shell-on recipes and smaller shrimp, like rock shrimp, won’t require deveining, for larger shrimp, it is highly recommended you do so,” Donne says. For shrimp that are still in their shells, Viverito recommends cutting the back of the shell with scissors and removing the vein. 

As for cooking, “shrimp doesn’t need a lot of fuss,” Donne says. For those watching their health, particularly their cholesterol, “avoid recipes that include butter and cream, which are high in saturated fat,” Lichtenstein says. Batter, deep-fry, or drench them in butter, and shrimp quickly go from healthy to decidedly not.

 Instead, you can sauté or grill shrimp and serve over salads, in stir-fries, as kabobs, or simply by themselves. (“Be careful not to eat too much cocktail sauce,” Kris-Etherton says, as it can be high in sodium.) Donne’s personal favorite method is to lightly poach shrimp in a court bouillon (a stock made from vegetables and wine) and then add lemon, parsley, dill, and a bit of Cajun seasoning.

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, Donne says. Overcooking will make them tough and rubbery.

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Head shot of Laura Entis, a freelance writer for Health CIA

Laura Entis

Laura Entis is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist focusing on health, business, and science. In addition to Consumer Reports, her work has appeared in Fortune, The Guardian, Outside, and GQ, among other publications.