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.

TAGS:  omega 3s

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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65 thoughts on “A Quick Guide to Shrimp”

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  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!

    1. 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…..lol

  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.

  3. Shrimp are delicious! I’d love to see some primal shrimp recipes, especially since so many shrimp recipes pair them with rice.

  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.

  5. Just another reason to eat locally (or American) grown protein and produce. Been wondering about shrimp for a while, thanks for the outline!

  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.

  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!

      1. I just checked my bag of “Kirkland Signature Shrimp” and it says it is farmed, but doesn’t say where. At the bottom of the bag it says “Product of Indonesia.” 🙁

    1. Trader Joe’s currently sells frozen shrimp from the waters of Argentina.

  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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.


  11. 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!

  12. 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>>>

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

    1. 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.

  15. 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”

    1. 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.

  16. 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.

    1. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. Got an order in for 20 pounds of gulf shrimp! Thinking twice about making shrimp stock from the heads, though.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. What do you think about eating the shells. I hear a lot of Louisiana people do that.

    1. 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?

  25. 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.

  26. Good article. Just another point to consider about Gulf shrimp… the millions of tons of corexit released underneath the ocean by the “spill” and sprayed overhead on vast areas of the Gulf. I do not hear that anyone is testing for residue of this highly toxic chemical in seafood products.

  27. In my view things like shrimp are something our remote ancestors would have eaten if they couldn’t find something tastier, like a moose with lots of fat and marrow.

    For me the only reason to put a shrimp near my mouth is as a carrier for herb-infused melted butter and a strip of bacon.

  28. Prawns or shrimp are the best meals in the world. God!!!!! I think the Asians should use other safer method to catch or farm them without using chemicals which in most cases are cancerous.

  29. Where I live in Scotland, the local sea crustaceans are langoustines (delicious giant prawns, also known as Dublin Bay prawns), lobsters, and crabs, all wild-caught in the North Sea and the north Atlantic. Any word on the sustainability and healthiness of these?

  30. So,I haven’t read all the comments, but what’s the deal with farm raised shrimp from India? Is it ok to eat?

  31. Just 20 years back, I remember, shrimp used to be a big deal and they used to cost so much more than anything else, and then suddenly, there is shrimp everywhere in super markets at such affordable prices. It all adds up now. I have stopped eating shrimp after I read many articles that say the same thing.

  32. I’m concern about some tiger shrimp which were ship from Thailand. I have never seen a shrimp such as these because their legs are blue and some part of their body as well. I am not quite sure if I should cook these for my family. Any suggestions. It’s been frozen. Thanks.

  33. Definitely DON’T eat any of Costco’s Kirkland brand frozen shrimp. This crap has been brined, so its salt content is god knows how high, plus who knows what other crap has been injected, along with salt and water. Tried cooking some of these for dinner tonight, and even though they were patted bone dry before they went into the hot skillet, they released tons of liquid and ended up rubbery. YUCK! Beware the fine print: if it says “shrimp, salt,” it’s brined – Do Not Buy!

    1. Actually, the reason behind this is really simple, plain all natural shrimp have very little taste, salt is added to give flavor. Most shrimp are treated with Tri-Poly Phosphates (no different then chicken/pork, etc) this aids in retaining moisture weight thus lessening the cost of the product. This solution adds a salty flavor to the shrimp, most Americans sadly to say actually prefer this. So the solution in offering an all natural flavorful shrimp is to add all natural sea salt to the processing, meaning as the shrimp are being cooked they are cooked utilizing salt for flavoring, no chemicals. Our Wholey brand utilizes the same process as most Shrimp that claim “All Natural”

  34. I have to tell you as a person that procures shrimp from all corners of the world unfortunately the good old USA is in the top quadrant in regard to weakest standards for catching and especially processing.

    I do-not disagree with your findings in regard to antibiotics from foreign suppliers however one thing to keep in mind, if that product is shipped to the USA the processor will essentially be banned from further shipments as they are put on an importer alert.
    There are disingenuous players in every industry, however its been are QC’s teams findings that the reputable processors deal with the reputable farmers which do-not take short cuts.
    The reputable processors standards in Vietnam, Thailand, India, Ecuador, Mexico are first rate. This industry is just like the rest, they are not impervious to people looking to circumvent the system for quick fiscal gains.

    Costco does a great job with their seafood program, I see there product being produced in some of the same plants our Wholey product is produced. Costco like ourselves control the shrimp from the farms all the way through the processing and to the retail shelf.
    I don’t think we can cast aspersions on all Asian Shrimp producers just as we shouldn’t with the American companies.
    Deal with a retailer you trust, to do so ask questions, if they are on their game they will have all the answers you need.

  35. Hey Mark! I live in South Asia and we use tiny dried shrimp in some of our cooking. They’re a great flavouring agent and also a very good source of protein. Just wanted to know if it’s paleo/primal?