Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 May

A Quick Guide to Shrimp

People love shrimp. Its taut, delicate, firm, sweet flesh pops in the mouth and provides meaty texture to dishes, and, despite its distinctive taste, shrimp works with every cuisine. Rich Indian curries? Check. Intensely zesty Cajun stews? Definitely. Heck, even just a light sautee in garlic, butter, and white wine is a masterful way to prepare shrimp. Partly for those reasons, shrimp is the most eaten seafood in the United States – by far – and the most valuable aquaculture crop in the world. Intensive shrimp farming in Latin America and Asia supplies the world with plenty of inexpensive shrimp which we readily gobble up, because, like I said, people love the little critters. As of 2008, each American plowed through 4.1 pounds of shrimp a year, on average.

But is shrimp healthy? Is shrimp good for the environment? Are there certain kinds of shrimp you should be avoiding? Should you eat wild caught or farmed? Imported or domestic? Head on or peeled? So many questions. Let’s dig in…

First, the raw nutrition numbers. Shrimp isn’t particularly nutrient-dense, though it is a good source of selenium and calcium, and a decent source of iodine. It’s full of protein and certain B vitamins, of course, being an animal and all, but it’s not exactly a powerhouse, like oysters or beef liver. Shrimp is eaten for the taste, not the nutrition, and that’s a perfectly sufficient reason. I could only pull numbers for “shrimp, mixed species, cooked, moist heat,” so it’s possible that individual species have different nutrient profiles. Likely, even. The basics, though, will hold true for all shrimp. True shrimp connoisseurs prize the head in addition to just the tail (which is all muscle meat), and this probably gets them a more complete micronutrient array. Shrimp is generally very low in mercury.

Allow me to quell a comment board fight over environmental issues before it begins. I think we can all agree that the earth has been a pretty good place to live for millions of years, and there’s definitely a balance to how natural processes play out amongst the various lifeforms (plant, land animal, aquatic animal, bug). I’m not sure I’d say it’s even a “delicate balance,” because nature is quite hardy and robust, but I will say that modern homo sapien sapiens have the distinct ability to render swathes of the place uninhabitable. We can, but should we? Of course not. It makes sense that we, as lifelong beneficiaries of this beautiful blue orb who selfishly want it to stay that way (so, you know, we can keep enjoying its bounty), would prefer to respect that robust, hardy balance. Besides, maintaining respect for nature and the way life interacts with other life usually makes for tastier, more nutritious animals and plants.

So is shrimp good for the environment? No, not really, but it’s complicated. Most shrimp is acquired through environmentally unsound methods. That having been said, let’s get to the sustainability problems with modern shrimp acquisition.

What Not to Eat

Farmed Shrimp from Asia or Latin America (black tiger shrimp, tiger prawn)

Shrimp farming used to be a traditional subsistence activity. Small ponds and low-density methods were used, like letting the natural tides do all the work and raising shrimp and growing rice in the same paddy. This was low-density farming: it produced just enough shrimp to feed the family or sell at the market and it didn’t overburden the water with intensely concentrated shrimp waste. Today, shrimp farming abroad is high-density intensive farming: it produces enough shrimp at a low enough price to make “Endless Shrimp” month at Red Lobster a financial success by cramming shrimp into ponds, up to fifteen per square foot, all of whom produce waste which must then be dealt with. Inland fish farms, as you might recall, can effectively process fish waste with good management, while coastal farm waste is often “dealt” with via spillover into the ocean. Because most shrimp require brackish water, moving farms inland to prevent spillover means transporting sea water, which is too expensive for most small scale farmers and carries its own environmental impact (Thailand even banned inland saltwater shrimp farms due to over salination of surrounding agricultural land). By definition, coastal brackish water is in constant interplay with the sea via the tides.

Shrimp farmers tend to have a heavy hand with the chemicals and antibiotics, leading to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and chemical residues on many imported shrimp. One reporter spent time with small-scale Vietnamese shrimp farmers and found that they employ a complex chemical cocktail to keep their shrimp alive and burgeoning, the composition of which is determined more by hearsay and local tall tales than any real scientific rigor. The government tries to establish standards, posting lists of forbidden chemicals, antibiotics, and other pharmaceuticals, but enforcement is difficult and the forbidden compounds are all widely available to farmers. Most of this stuff is banned for use in US farms, but somebody’s still making it – so there’s definitely a market out there – and some of it is showing up on dinner plates.

Most estimates figure that 90% of the shrimp sold in the United States comes from intensive or semi-intensive Asian or Latin American farms. If you’re eating shrimp at a restaurant, even a Cajun restaurant adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico, chances are you’re eating imported farmed shrimp. I wouldn’t make it a habit.

Wild-caught (imported)

Wild-caught isn’t always best or even necessary, as previous seafood series have shown, but surely any wild-caught shrimp is a superior product than any shrimp plucked from the overcrowded feces-brine-chemical slurry of a foreign shrimp farm… right? Nutritionally? Maybe. Wild caught shrimp will have fewer antibiotic residues and drug-resistant bacteria than farmed shrimp, but the real problem with wild caught imported shrimp is the method used to catch them. Trawling the sea floor with massive nets in search of shrimp picks up huge numbers of bycatch – all the fish and other sea creatures caught by fishermen in search of other fish. The ratio of bycatch to shrimp can be as high as 20:1; most of that “20” gets thrown back dead or dying. That’s just wasteful. That’s a lot of collateral damage that we could be avoiding (or at least eating!). Improved netting has reduced that ratio, especially among US shrimpers, but the problem remains abroad.

What’s Questionable?

Wild-caught (Gulf of Mexico)

It used to be that shrimp from the Gulf were the pride of this country. They were said to be the best in the world. More expensive than farmed from abroad, sure, but bigger, plumper, and tastier. And then the oil spill happened. The official word is that wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico is safe. Following the BP spill, testing is underway and constant. Oil-based toxicants levels are low enough to preclude any danger to humans who eat the shrimp. All is well, then… right? Not exactly. They’re only testing the “edible portion” of the shrimp, which is the tail. The best bits – the head and the fatty portion adjacent to the shell that locals know to be the tastiest – aren’t being tested, and that’s where you’ll find the oil, according to ecologist Paul Sammarco of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

If you’re eating wild caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, stick to the muscle meat and consider avoiding the head, at least until more testing confirms the safety.

What to Eat

Wild-caught spot prawns – These are massive, trap-caught shrimp from the waters of British Columbia or the Pacific coast of the US, also known as amaebi in Japanese restaurants. They’re often sold live, at least here on the west coast. Trap-catching is less intrusive than trawling, but it’s also less productive, meaning spot prawns command a higher price.

Wild-caught bay shrimp, cocktail shrimp, northern shrimp, pink shrimp – These are the tiny, cold-water shrimp used in salads and as garnishes. They typically hail from Oregon or the Northeast and are very reasonably priced. Consumers often assume that bigger is better and reach for the imported tiger prawns, but I’m a big fan of bay shrimp. Eat freely and often.

Wild-caught rock shrimp – They’re related to shrimp, but on the dinner plate, rock shrimp are closer to lobster. Sweet flesh that cooks very quickly – far quicker than normal shrimp. Note that most rock shrimp are caught in the Gulf of Mexico, so stick to the muscle meat for the time being.

US-farmed shrimp – Although rarer than the ubiquitous imports, the US farmed shrimp is generally a good choice. Standards are higher, US regulation restricts the use of most antibiotics and chemicals, and the best farms, located inland, are contained within themselves entirely or employ full circulation systems to mitigate environmental impact. Less pristine coastal farms still release waste and runoff, but the problem isn’t as dire as with imports. Eat your fill, and know that you’re sending a message with your dollars.

Well, that’s the general gist. Shrimp can be a healthy, sustainable food, but you have to look hard. You’ve got to read labels and ask questions. And yes, you’ll probably have to spend a decent amount of money.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Dude, you didn’t even mention wild-caught South Carolina shrimp. You’d better not show up at a seafood restaurant in Charleston until you fix this indignity!

    Fred wrote on May 26th, 2011
    • Lol. Where do you live in SC? Myrtle Beach is one of my favorite vacation spots. I am a 5 club Barefoot golfer.

      Primal Toad wrote on May 26th, 2011
    • have to agree about atlantic shrimp…..the gulf shrimp tastes like metal…ugh…hate that packages try to hide the fact of where these creatures are from and how raised…..atlantic calabash style yum…..I understand everyone doesn’t like fried from the beginning….but you don’t eat these everyday….you can if you had them though…

      selina wrote on May 29th, 2016
  2. I just ate shrimp last night using the Shrimp cake recipe from PB Cookbook. Sadly they were frozen and from Thailand, which all the frozen shrimp in bags seems to be.

    Daria wrote on May 26th, 2011
  3. Shrimp are delicious! I’d love to see some primal shrimp recipes, especially since so many shrimp recipes pair them with rice.

    Hal wrote on May 26th, 2011
  4. Wow lots of info! So, wild caught is not environmentally friendly with the exception of spot prawns, foreign is dirty and drugged up, and local is mostly ok with the exception of gulf shrimp heads. I had no idea! Thanks Mark. You do all the research that I really don’t want to do! I love it.

    Peggy The Primal Parent wrote on May 26th, 2011
  5. Just another reason to eat locally (or American) grown protein and produce. Been wondering about shrimp for a while, thanks for the outline!

    Nutritionator wrote on May 26th, 2011
  6. Great, and very useful, article. Personally I like my shrip cooked whole in a gumbo. And the locals are right, the head is by far the best part.

    Jaybird wrote on May 26th, 2011
  7. Thanks a lot for this Mark! I won’t go eat a ton of shrimp but I will be buying a bag of frozen shrimp next time I stop into Costco as long as its from the US.

    I call them a tasty dose of protein.

    I spotted some wild caught shrimp at the Chicago Trader Joes this past weekend and would have purchased a few bags had I not lost my wallet. I’ll just have to go back soon. I believe it was from the US but i am not 100% sure.

    This is very valuable information!

    Primal Toad wrote on May 26th, 2011
  8. My only problem with shrimp is they don’t have an appreciable amount of fat. I have to bathe them in butter before I eat them.

    DHT wrote on May 26th, 2011
    • I fail to see the problem.

      Nelly wrote on May 26th, 2011
    • Yeah, I hate having to bathe things in butter before eating them. 😉

      Mark Sisson wrote on May 26th, 2011
  9. aw man…now I REALLY want curried shrimp! 😀

    Keet wrote on May 26th, 2011
  10. Out of curiosity what about the argument that they are bottom feeders and therefore not healthy to consume?

    Meissa Hettick wrote on May 26th, 2011
  11. homegrown over import = standard rule. And if it gets down to species go for Os: nOrthern, spOt, cOcktail versus Is: tIger or thaI. Easy!
    My 2.5yo requests cocktail shrimp as a snack at the grocery store. I’d been buying them because they were the only ones NOT trumpeting ‘raised in aquaculture!’. We live waaaay inland and I do miss a good “bay bug” (probably related to spot prawns) on the grill.

    Lauren wrote on May 26th, 2011
  12. U got it DHT! same here

    frank wrote on May 26th, 2011
  13. This is a pretty sad state of affairs. I love eating shrimp but for the most part stopped eating them exactly for the reasons stated in this post.

    On the brightside crawfish are a decent alternative, they are free for the taking and fun to catch.


    Hunt-Fish-Forage wrote on May 26th, 2011
  14. I wish this was out yesterday because I was *just* looking for shrimp and turned down the Asian farmed varieties. I must return to another local store and retrieve some spot prawn – hopefully they are still on sale!

    Chris Sturdy wrote on May 26th, 2011
  15. I have learned to live without them…
    The crappy Sushi bars here in new jersey dont even list AMAebi..
    Every shrimp I see is frozen..and for how long!?!??…I just do without..
    GROK ON>>>

    Daveman wrote on May 26th, 2011
  16. What about the Omega 3’s? I love shrimp but usually buy it because I don’t actually like fish and I need to up my omega 3. Right now I’m using fish oil supplements.

    Rosmary wrote on May 26th, 2011
  17. Thanks for the fear-mongering on Gulf shrimp.

    Meanwhile, I’ll continue to eat wild-caught Gulf shrimp. It’s good to be related to a shrimp boat captain.

    Dood wrote on May 26th, 2011
    • What fear-mongering? Saying they don’t test the heads so consider only eating the meat isn’t fear-mongering.

      There is real fear mongering going on that is scaring people away from all Gulf seafood. Information is the only thing that will correct that.

      Sarah wrote on May 27th, 2011
  18. Great post! Spot on!

    Dennis wrote on May 26th, 2011
  19. Bah, why does getting decent food have to be such a pain in the ass these days? I love being armed with the knowledge, but just once it would be great to have a topic where Mark says “this industry has its sh*t together, eat anything they sell”

    Peter wrote on May 26th, 2011
    • Because for 60 years yall consumers told us farmers that all you cared about was cheap, convenient, and in line with whatever set of fads the USDA, Land Grant ag colleges, and NYT cookbook best sellers were coming up with.

      Remember Laurel’s Kitchen? And Diet for a Small Planet? You know how many times I was called a fascist earth raping animal abuser for raising beef on pasture, rather than soybeans and fairy farts? (The latter undoubtedly caused by ingestion of too much kamut.)

      So. That’s why getting decent food is a pain in the ass. Everyone was willing to pay thru their asses for cars, highways, the internet, tanning salons, junior year abroad for their teenagers…but when it came to food? Cheap, Fast, Now.

      While it’s nice to see people waking up, I wish it could have happened before Big Ag’s carbo-farming took over the whole world, generated another 4 billion people (since the 1960s), and made most people sick, angry, confused, and weary.

      And finally: life is a pain in the ass. Ask any farmer. It’s only easy for yall city folks.

      Farmer Pat wrote on January 13th, 2012
  20. I eat Gulf shrimp when I can, because I like it, but also to help the gulf fishermen who’ve taken it in the pants from oil spills, hurricanes, and foreign shrimp. The bycatch issue does bother me though.

    As an aside, I’m peripherally involved with oyster bed restoration in the Gulf. So many of the abundant Gulf natural oyster reefs have been silted over by hurricanes.

    julietx wrote on May 26th, 2011
    • We still have them, at least all along the Mississippi Coast! Go to the beach and dig. You’ll hit 60 feet of oyster shells after a couple of scoops. It’s crazy! The oyster beds allow for great percolation and the shrimp that are stuck between the coast and the barrier reefs are best! Trapped in a briney bath. Our shrimp don’t even need any kind of seasoning!

      Since the big oil spill, though, I have been very weary of them, and have only eaten them on fewer than a dozen occasions since!

      Thanks for your help, julietx!

      Aidan wrote on May 27th, 2011
  21. Ok, so that means shrimp is out… thank all the Gods for bacon!… sigh

    Janet NZ wrote on May 26th, 2011
  22. Hmmm. I just bought a bag of frozen shrimp from Costco. I looked on the back and it said farm raised–didn’t indicate where. But at bottom of package it said, product of thailand.

    bleu wrote on May 26th, 2011
  23. Lymphatic system… Enjoy

    Dasbutch wrote on May 26th, 2011
  24. I really like shrimp but have a hard time paying the current prices for wild caught. When I can get wild caught tuna, halibut or salmon for the same price or less as shrimp that is a no-brainer for me… eat the fish! Sometimes i really get a craving for oysters or even scallops once in a blue moon but I cannot remember ever craving shrimp. Must have something to do with what is in them. My body probably senses the minerals and nutrients in oysters and knows it needs them and puts out the “eat oyster” crave signal.

    Michael wrote on May 26th, 2011
  25. Got an order in for 20 pounds of gulf shrimp! Thinking twice about making shrimp stock from the heads, though.

    joni wrote on May 26th, 2011
  26. BC shrimp rocks my socks. It’s so cheap here in Vancouver 😀

    Nion wrote on May 26th, 2011
  27. Thank you for the great information Mark. I am still in shock from the meat glue.

    Tatianna wrote on May 27th, 2011
  28. One of my favorite foods is steamed shrimp with old bay. Yum:

    Gary Deagle wrote on May 27th, 2011
  29. After all of the information on fish we now have widespread fraud in labeling:

    IvyBlue wrote on May 27th, 2011
  30. In my opinion rock shrimp is the best shrimp on the planet!! I love love love it!

    Mark wrote on May 27th, 2011
  31. Mark, thanks for informing us on the different ways shrimp is supplied. Knowing the environmental sustainability of these different harvesting practices puts us in a better position to make intelligent decisions.

    Reducing our footprint on planet earth is an urgent and pressing issue. I appreciate all you do to address it.

    Jeremy Priestner | Art of Lifting wrote on May 27th, 2011
  32. Shrimp is about the only seafood I’ll actually eat. I wish I could actually like fish, it just smells like a dumpster. I have had fish that was “cooked right”, too.

    Just my opinion. Give me a steak any day.

    Trey wrote on May 27th, 2011
  33. Someone please tell me the omega 3 for shrimp. Its easy to cook and about the only fish I’ll eat but its pricy and I won’t buy it if its low on omega 3.

    Rosmary wrote on May 27th, 2011
  34. Thanks so much for posting this. I’ve been paleo/primal for 2 years now, which has taken some adaptation as an environmentalist and marine conservation professional.

    Though increased consumption poses problems with our limited supply of wild fish, our community’s choices can also prove catalytic in driving eco-labeling and certification schemes, just what we need for the long-term.

    Your teasing through the details here is something I’ve not yet encountered on the paleo blogs. Thanks for being the leader here.

    Mark wrote on May 27th, 2011
  35. What do you think about eating the shells. I hear a lot of Louisiana people do that.

    Catharine wrote on May 28th, 2011
    • And what about the “veins?” That’s the intestines, which is an organ meat, but if they’re still full of excrement isn’t that the same as eating the poorly farmed ones? Is their digestive system clean enough for this?

      Michael B wrote on June 20th, 2012
  36. I love shrimp, but stay away from most sea food any way. Love it, just don’t trust where it comes from unless I catch it.

    Paleo Josh wrote on June 2nd, 2011

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