Shrimp – Myths & Facts

All the news that everyone should know about shrimp!

Shrimp are a unique source of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients called astaxanthin. It is possible for a single 4-ounce serving of shrimp to contain 1-4 milligrams of astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a carotenoid that received particular attention in the latest research related to health, primarily for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. In animal studies, astaxanthin has been shown to provide antioxidant support to the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. In addition, some animal studies have shown a decreased risk of colon cancer associated with astaxanthin intake, as well as decreased risk of certain diabetes-related problems. Importantly, the astaxanthin content of shrimp can vary depending mostly on its proportion to the amount of astaxanthin in their diet. In addition, the source of astaxanthin in the diet of shrimp remains an ongoing controversy. Since over half of the shrimp consumed both in the U.S. and worldwide are farmed, the diets they consume depend on the approach of the producers. Both synthetic forms of astaxanthin and naturally occurring forms found in phytoplankton and zooplankton have been used in shrimp farming. In general, when purchasing farmed shrimp, we believe that it makes sense to select shrimp that have consumed natural and plentiful amounts of astaxanthin from natural dietary sources including marine algae and zooplankton.

At 56 micrograms in every 4 ounces, shrimp is an excellent source of the antioxidant mineral selenium. Recent research studies show that the selenium contained in shrimp can be well-absorbed into the human body. In one study, we’ve seen an estimate of about 80-85% for total selenium absorption from this shellfish. Since selenium deficiency is a risk factor for heart failure and other forms of cardiovascular disease, as well as for other problems including type 2 diabetes, compromised cognitive function, and depression, shrimp may have a unique role to play in your meal plan if your health history places you at special risk in any of these areas.

Shrimp is often included on the “avoid” list for people wanting to minimize their dietary intake of cholesterol. The 220 milligrams of cholesterol contained in a 4-ounce serving of shrimp makes this approach a legitimate concern. However, despite its high cholesterol content, several recent research studies have noted some desirable aspects of the fat profile in shrimp. One of these desirable aspects is shrimp’s omega-3 fat content. Four ounces of shrimp provide about 350-375 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, including about 50% EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and 50% DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). EPA and DHA are essential omega-3s for cardiovascular and nervous system health. In addition to this great mixture of omega-3s, shrimp also provides an outstanding ratio of omega-3:omega-6 fats. There are approximately three times as many omega-3s as omega-6s in shrimp. Since higher ratios of omega-3:omega-6 are associated with decreased risk of many chronic diseases—including obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes—this aspect of shrimp’s fat content is a huge plus. Finally, it is interesting to note that according to recent studies, cholesterol is not the only sterol in shrimp. This type of fat is found in smaller amounts in the form of clionasterol and campesterol. While chemically similar to cholesterol, these other sterols function as anti-inflammatory molecules and they are associated with decreased levels of LDL-cholesterol, which would be considered a health benefit by many researchers. When looked at from this broader perspective, risks related to the high cholesterol content of shrimp might be overshadowed by its omega-3 and sterol composition—but we will need future studies to help us understand more about the big picture involving shrimp and fat. As always, if you have concerns that you need to be cautious about cholesterol intake, discuss the inclusion of shrimp in your diet with your healthcare practitioner.

This chart graphically details the %DV that a serving of Shrimp provides for each of the nutrients of which it is a good, very good, or excellent source according to our Food Rating System. Additional information on the amount of these nutrients that shrimp provides, can be found in the Food Rating System Chart. A link that takes you to the In-Depth Nutritional Profile for Shrimp, featuring information on over 80 nutrients, can be found under the Food Rating System Chart.

Health Benefits

Anti-Inflammatory and Antioxidant Support

We don’t usually think about seafood as a source of antioxidants, but shrimp features at least two unique antioxidants in its nutrient composition: the xanthophyll carotenoid called astaxanthin, and the mineral selenium.


Astaxanthin is the primary color pigment in many shrimp, and it helps provide their tissue with its red and orange shades. While many reddish-orange foods get their color from other carotenoids (or from flavonoids), shrimp are especially concentrated in this one particular type of carotenoid. (Astaxanthin often accounts for at least two-thirds of all carotenoids in shrimp.) It’s not unusual for a 4-ounce serving of shrimp to contain 4 milligrams of astaxanthin.

Astaxanthin is a carotenoid that is receiving special attention in the latest health research, primarily for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The release of inflammatory messaging molecules (like tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin 1B) is suppressed by astaxanthin as is the unwanted oxidation of fats in immune cells. In animal studies, the risk of colon cancer is lowered by the intake of astaxanthin, and immune-related problems of diabetes are reduced. Since few fish (except for salmon) can provide us with more concentrated amounts of astaxanthin, shrimp is likely to provide us with some unique health benefits in this context.


In the world of antioxidants, few enzymes are more important in our body than glutathione peroxidase (GPO). GPO helps protect most of our body systems from unwanted damage by oxygen-containing molecules. It is critical in body systems like the lungs, where exposure to these molecules is especially high. GPO is an enzyme that cannot function without the mineral selenium.

At 45 micrograms in every 4 ounces, shrimp is an excellent source of this antioxidant mineral. Shrimp is not only rich in selenium; research studies show that the selenium found in shrimp can be well-absorbed into the human body. In one study, we’ve seen an estimate of about 80-85% for total selenium absorption from this shellfish. In addition to the risk of problems involving lung function, selenium deficiency has been shown to increase our risk of heart failure and other forms of cardiovascular disease, as well as for other problems including type 2 diabetes, compromised cognitive function, and depression. If your health history places you at special risk in any of these areas, shrimp may be an especially valuable food in your meal plan due to its selenium content.

Protein and Peptide Support

At 6 grams per ounce, shrimp is an excellent source of protein. In fact, among all WHFoods, shrimp ranks as our 8th best source of high-quality protein! The protein richness of shrimp is one of the reasons this shellfish is relied on in so many different culinary traditions.

When the protein in fish is broken down during digestion, smaller protein fragments called peptides are formed. Recent research studies have shown that many of these peptides have unique properties, including the ability to stimulate the release of the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) from cells that line our intestinal tract. The release of CCK is important for many reasons, including the role of CCK in regulating appetite. Our feeling of satiety (lack of appetite) is partly related to the levels of CCK in our digestive tract. By helping trigger the release of CCK, shrimp peptides may play a role in helping us feel full. In the long run, this feeling of satiety may also be an advantage in helping to decrease our risk of obesity. Research on shrimp peptides and satiety is in its early stage, and largely limited to animal studies at this point. But we expect to see increasing interest in this area of shrimp and health.

Other Health Benefits

At a mere 7 calories per shrimp, we can eat a relatively large amount of shrimp without using up too many of our daily calories. For example, a person eating 1,800 calories per day could consume 20 shrimp and only be “spending” about 8% of his or her daily calories. This very low-calorie cost would not be so remarkable if it were not for the fact that shrimp provides us with significant amounts of so many nutrients. We usually have to eat foods with a far greater calorie content to get the nutrient richness provided by shrimp. For example, those same 20 shrimp that provide us with about 140 calories also provide us with 25 grams of protein, almost 2 mcg of vitamin B12, as well as contributing minerals such as copper, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. In addition to vitamin B12, shrimp also provides us with most other B vitamins—such as niacin, choline, vitamin B6, and pantothenic acid—in significant amounts. The overall nutrient richness of shrimp gives it the ability to help balance out our nutrient intake in a wide variety of areas.

How to Enjoy

A Few Quick Serving Ideas

  • Combine chopped shrimp with chopped scallions, tomatoes, diced chili peppers, garlic, lemon juice, and a little olive oil. Season to taste and serve this fragrant shrimp salad on a bed of romaine lettuce.

  • Serve cold-cooked shrimp with salsa dip.

  • Cut up cooked shrimp and add it to vegetable soups.

  • Make a quick, easy and healthy version of pasta puttanesca. Add cooked shrimp to spicy pasta sauce and serve over whole wheat noodles.

See some of our favorite Recipes:

Health or Other Concerns

Allergic Reactions to Shrimp

In the United States, beginning in 2004 with the passage of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), food labels have been required to identify the presence of any major food allergens. Since 90% of food allergies in the U.S. have been associated with eight food types as reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it is these eight food types that are considered to be major food allergens in the U.S. and require identification on food labels. The eight food types classified as major allergens are as follows: (1) wheat, (2) cow’s milk, (3) hen’s eggs, (4) fish, (5) crustacean shellfish (including shrimp, prawns, lobster, and crab); (6) tree nuts (including cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, and chestnuts); (7) peanuts; and (8) soy foods.

So as you can see, shrimp is included on the CDC’s list of most allergenic foods. Approximately 80% of persons who experience allergic reactions to shrimp are reacting to a protein contained in shrimp called tropomyosin. This reaction appears to be more severe in children than in adults. There is some evidence that cross-reactivity exists between shrimp and dust mites, such that persons who experience allergic reactions to shrimp might also experience allergic reactions to dust mites (or vice-versa).

In the case of shrimp, there is some preliminary evidence that boiling may lower the chances of allergic response—probably by helping to denature the tropomyosin proteins. In at least one study involving participants known to have shrimp allergy, a greater allergic response (as measured by the formation of more IgE antibodies) was seen in extracts from raw versus boiled shrimp.

A food allergy to shrimp can be difficult to determine. Food allergy symptoms may sometimes be immediate and specific, and can include skin rash, hives, itching, and eczema; swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat; tingling in the mouth; wheezing or nasal congestion; trouble breathing; and dizziness or lightheadedness. But food allergy symptoms may also be much more general and delayed and can include fatigue, depression, chronic headache, chronic bowel problems (such as diarrhea or constipation), and insomnia. Because most food allergy symptoms can be caused by a variety of other health problems, it is good practice to seek the help of a healthcare provider when evaluating the role of food allergies in your health. There is some research evidence suggesting that IgE blood testing for shrimp allergy can be helpful.

Health Concerns with Non-Natural Habitats

In addition to environmental concerns related to shrimp farming, some individuals have concerns about the health quality of farmed shrimp. The spread of viruses and parasites has been a special problem for some fish farms. Up to 30-40% of shrimp on some farms have been lost to unwanted diseases, including viruses like Monodon baculovirus or parasites like Hematodinium.

While most forms of pesticides and antibiotics are prohibited in U.S. farming of shrimp, the use of these substances in other fish farming countries has not always been well-regulated. Of special concern here have been residues of the antibiotics chloramphenicol, nitrofurans, quinolones, and oxytetracycline in non-U.S. farmed shrimp. Contamination of shrimp with the heavy metal mercury has also been an area of special concern.

If you want to minimize your risk of exposure to unwanted contaminants in shrimp, we recommend that you follow the guidelines issued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and select the following types of shrimp: British Columbia spot prawns, California coon-stripe shrimp (caught using submerged pots), Oregon pink shrimp, Pacific white shrimp farmed in fully recirculating systems, and any U.S. farmed, freshwater shrimp.

Shrimp and Purines

Shrimp contain purines. Purines are naturally occurring substances found in plants, animals, and humans. In some individuals who are susceptible to purine-related problems, excessive intake of these substances can cause health problems. Since purines can be broken down to form uric acid, excess accumulation of purines in the body can lead to excess accumulation of uric acid. The health condition called “gout” and the formation of kidney stones from uric acid are two examples of uric acid-related problems that can be related to excessive intake of purine-containing foods. For this reason, individuals with kidney problems or gout may want to limit or avoid the intake of purine-containing foods such as shrimp.

Shrimp and Sulfites

Shrimp may be treated with sulfites to prevent discoloration.

The sulfites may cause adverse reactions in an estimated one out of every 100 people, who turn out to be sulfite-sensitive.

Sulfite reactions can be particularly acute in people who suffer from asthma. The Federal Food and Drug Administration estimates that 5 percent of asthmatics may suffer a reaction when exposed to sulfites.

Ask your fishmonger if they know whether or not the shrimp in which you are interested has been treated with sulfites.

Nutritional Profile

Shrimp is an unusual source of the xanthophyll carotenoid called astaxanthin. It’s also an excellent source of protein and selenium. This shellfish is an excellent source of selenium and vitamin B12. It is a very good source of protein, phosphorus, choline, and copper. In addition, it is a good source of niacin, zinc, vitamin E, vitamin B6, omega-3 fatty acids, pantothenic acid, and vitamin A.

For an in-depth nutritional profile click here: Shrimp.

In-Depth Nutritional Profile

In addition to the nutrients highlighted in our rating chart, an in-depth nutritional profile for Shrimp Is also available. This profile includes information on a full array of nutrients, including carbohydrates, sugar, soluble and insoluble fiber, sodium, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, and more.

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

To better help you identify foods that feature a high concentration of nutrients for the calories they contain, we created a Food Rating System. This system allows us to highlight the foods that are especially rich in particular nutrients. The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good, or good source (below the chart you will find a table that explains these qualifications). If a nutrient is not listed in the chart, it does not necessarily mean that the food doesn’t contain it. It simply means that the nutrient is not provided in a sufficient amount or concentration to meet our rating criteria. (To view this food’s in-depth nutritional profile that includes values for dozens of nutrients – not just the ones rated as excellent, very good, or good – please use the link below the chart.) To read this chart accurately, you’ll need to glance up in the top left corner where you will find the name of the food and the serving size we used to calculate the food’s nutrient composition. This serving size will tell you how much of the food you need to eat to obtain the number of nutrients found in the chart. Now, returning to the chart itself, you can look next to the nutrient name to find the nutrient amount it offers, the percent Daily Value (DV%) that this amount represents, the nutrient density that we calculated for this food, and nutrient, and the rating we established in our rating system. For most of our nutrient ratings, we adopted the government standards for food labeling that are found in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “Reference Values for Nutrition Labeling.” Read more background information and details of our rating system.

Shrimp, Cholesterol, and Heart Health

Years ago, shrimp was considered to be taboo for heart patients or people watching their cholesterol numbers. That’s because a small serving of 3.5 ounces supplies about 200 mg of cholesterol. For people at high risk for heart disease, that amounts to a full day’s allotment. (For everyone else, 300 mg is the limit.) However, shrimp is very low in total fat (about 1.5 grams per serving) with almost no saturated fat at all. Saturated fat is known to be particularly harmful to the heart and blood vessels, in part because our bodies can efficiently convert it to LDL (or bad) cholesterol.

Since my patients often ask me about shrimp and cholesterol, I decided to review the medical literature and discovered a fascinating study from Rockefeller University. In 1996, Dr. Elizabeth De Oliveira and colleagues put a shrimp-based diet to the test. Eighteen men and women were fed about 10 ounces of shrimp, supplying nearly 600 mg of cholesterol, every day for three weeks. On a rotating schedule, the subjects were also fed a two-eggs-per-day diet, furnishing about the same amount of cholesterol, for three weeks, as well as a baseline very low cholesterol diet for another three weeks.

Learn How Shrimp And Other Foods Affect Your Cholesterol & What You Can Do To Control It »

After the three weeks were up, the shrimp diet did raise LDL cholesterol by about 7 percent compared to the low cholesterol diet. However, it also increased HDL (good cholesterol) by 12 percent and lowered triglycerides by 13 percent. The egg diet came out looking worse, bumping up LDL by 10 percent while raising HDL by only about 8 percent.

The bottom line? Shrimp can be part of a heart-smart diet as long as it is enjoyed in moderation, eaten boiled, baked, or grilled, and not served fried or drowning in butter. Perhaps just as important, find out where your shrimp comes from. Much of the shrimp now sold in the United States comes from Asia, where farming practices, including the use of pesticides and antibiotics, have been environmentally devastating and may have detrimental effects on human health. Read more about shrimp farming on National Geographic’s website.


Shrimp are crustaceans (just like lobsters and crabs) and they belong to a category of living things called arthropods. Like all arthropods, shrimp have their skeleton on the outside instead of the inside (it’s called an exoskeleton) and this outer skeleton is one of the features that gives shrimp their unusual look – almost like having a head shield that blocks out all of their features except their eyes, mouth opening, and antennae. In the U.S., consumers don’t typically eat the outer skeleton, heads, or tails of shrimp, even though these parts are often rich in nutrients and commonly consumed in other countries. Shrimp accounts for about 25% of all seafood sold in the United States.

The terms “shrimp” and “prawns” can be confusing. Even scientists often use these words inconsistently. In the popular press and many restaurants, larger shrimp—often from freshwater habitats—are referred to as “prawns,” while smaller shrimp—often from saltwater habitats—are called “shrimp.” In terms of size, “large” typically means that you get about 40 or less per cooked pound (in comparison to about 50 for “medium” and 60 for “small”). But from a scientific perspective, both shrimp and prawns can come from saltwater or freshwater, and there is no absolute standard for measuring small, medium, or large. In this article and throughout our website, we’ll be using the word “shrimp” as a general term that includes all species—even those which might be referred to as “prawns” in some research studies or some restaurants.

Many people ask about the way shrimp sizes (small, medium, large, jumbo) are determined. While there is no precise method typically used for shrimp sizing, count per pound is the most common method used. (Count per pound refers to the number of shrimp that you get when you purchase or consume one pound.) With small cooked shrimp, that number is usually around 60. With medium-cooked shrimp, it falls to about 50 (since the shrimp are bigger, and each one weighs more). For large shrimp, the count per pound is about 40. For jumbo shrimp, the count per pound is about 30.

Traditionally, shrimp have been grouped into categories based on their natural habitats. Warm-water shrimp come from tropical waters in southern parts of the world, and cold-water shrimp come from northern climates. Much warm-water shrimp belong to one specific family called Penaeidae. Tiger prawns, tiger shrimp, and Indian prawns are members of this family. Many cold-water shrimp belong to a second family called Pandalidae. Spot shrimp, striped shrimp, dock shrimp, humpback shrimp, Northern shrimp, and Northern prawns are members of this second family. You’ll find white shrimp, pink shrimp, and brown shrimp that come from both water-warm and cold-water regions.

Both warm-water and cold-water shrimp belonging to these two families are saltwater shrimp. They are found in many of the world’s oceans and seas, where they are typically caught by trawling.

Freshwater shrimp is a third category based on habitat. Just like the name implies, freshwater shrimp are not native to oceans and seas but to non-salt waters including lakes, rivers, and streams. Freshwater shrimp belong to a scientific category of living things called Caridea.

Unfortunately, the traditional ways of classifying shrimp listed above are no longer adequate for understanding shrimp in the marketplace due to the quick rise of shrimp farming and globalization of the food supply. It’s become common for shrimp to be removed from their native habitat and raised in farm settings that don’t always resemble their native conditions. Today, the vast majority of shrimp available in U.S. groceries are farmed shrimp, and the quick rise in shrimp farming has raised concerns among many consumers about the health safety and environmental safety of shrimp. For more information about these concerns, please see our Individual Concerns section.

As described above, it’s possible to find white shrimp, pink shrimp, and brown shrimp that are native to warmer southern waters as well as older northern ones. However, the flesh of virtually all shrimp—when cooked—turns a vibrant shade of pink.


Shrimp and other shellfish were enjoyed in the world’s Mediterranean region during the early centuries AD. Classical Greek and Roman texts include shrimp recipes and descriptions of fishing practices. During most of the shrimp’s culinary history, farming was not used as a method of shrimp production. Shrimp were caught in pots or traps—not only by hand but also in relatively small amounts. During certain periods of history, the labor-intensive nature of shrimp fishing turned shrimp into a delicacy that was both rare and costly.

Beginning in the 1400-the 1500s, trawling became a more widespread method for catching shrimp. Trawling refers to the attachment of a large net behind a fishing boat (trawler) that gets dragged through the water as a means of trapping the fish. Shrimp trawlers became a way of catching more shrimp more quickly, and with less manpower. However, large nets ended up trapping other sea creatures, not just shrimp. This problem—which became known as “by-catch”—continues to this day. For example, in 1989, the U.S. Congress passed a law banning the import of wild-caught shrimp from Thailand because Thai shrimp trawlers had failed to install turtle excluder devices (TEDs) that could help prevent sea turtles from getting caught up in the fishing nets.

Beginning in the 1970s, a new trend began to emerge in the shrimp industry. This new trend was shrimp farming. Many factors led to the development of shrimp farming, including depletion of wild shrimp stock, technological developments in aquaculture (the raising of fish in containment facilities), globalization of the food supply, and economic opportunities associated with large-scale shrimp production. In what has been called the “Blue Revolution,” world production of shrimp went from 25,000 metric tons in the 1970s to more than 750,000 metric tons in less than two decades. Today there are more than 25,000 shrimp farms in Thailand alone, and shrimp farms line the coastal areas of many Asian countries, including Vietnam, Indonesia, and China. India, Myanmar (Burma), Bangladesh, Australia, and the Philippines are also important shrimp farming countries, as are the Central American countries of Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras as well as the South American countries of Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru. In North America, Canada, Mexico, and the United States also produce important amounts of farmed shrimp. Many individuals have concerns about the consequences of shrimp farming for the environment as well as for human health. For more information about these concerns, please see our Concerns section.

The smell is a good indicator of freshness; good quality shrimp have a slightly saltwater smell. Since a slightly “off” smell cannot be detected through plastic if you have the option, purchase displayed shrimp as opposed to those that are prepackaged. Once the fishmonger wraps and hands you the shrimp that you have selected, smell them through the paper wrapping and return them if they do not smell right. When fresh shrimp have been left out for too long, some people describe them as having an “ammonia” smell.

Color can also be an indicator of poor fresh shrimp quality. Unless you are purchasing spotted or striped shrimp, you should not see dark spots or rings of any kind. These markings are usually a sign of deterioration.

When storing any type of seafood, including shrimp, it is important to keep it cold since seafood is very sensitive to temperature. Therefore, after purchasing shrimp or other seafood, make sure to return it to a refrigerator as soon as possible. If the shrimp is going to accompany you during a day full of errands, keep a cooler in the car where you can place the shrimp to make sure it stays cold and does not spoil.

The temperature of most refrigerators is slightly warmer than ideal for storing seafood. Therefore, to ensure maximum freshness and quality, it is important to use special storage methods to create the optimal temperature for holding the shrimp.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to place the shrimp in a zip-lock bag in a baking dish layered with ice or ice packs. Place ice or ice packs over the shrimp as well. The baking dish and shrimp should then be placed on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, which is its coolest area. Replenish ice one or two times per day. Shrimp can be refrigerated for up to two days although it should be purchased as close to being served as possible.

You can extend the shelf life of shrimp by freezing it. To do so, wrap it well in plastic and place it in the coldest part of the freezer where it will keep for about one month.

To defrost shrimp, place it in a bowl of cold water or the refrigerator. Do not thaw the shrimp at room temperature or in a microwave since this can lead to a loss of moisture and nutrients, and can increase the risk of contamination.

How to Select and Store Shrimps

Just as with any seafood, it is best to purchase shrimp from a store that has a good reputation for having a fresh supply. Get to know a fishmonger (person who sells the seafood) at the store so that you can have a trusted resource from whom you can purchase your seafood.

When you will be preparing the shrimp should influence your decision as to whether you should buy fresh or frozen shrimp. Frozen shrimp offer the longest shelf life, as they can be kept for several weeks, whereas fresh shrimp will only keep for a day or two. We think about fresh shrimp as a very perishable food, ideally eaten on the same day as they are purchased.

Fresh shrimp should have firm bodies that are still attached to their shells. They should be free of black spots on their shell since this indicates that the flesh has begun to break down. In addition, the shells should not appear yellow or gritty as this may be indicative that sodium bisulfate or another chemical has been used to bleach the shells.