Shrimps: Cost, Selection, and Handling

ShrimpShrimps have been in the news lately because of a disease called EMS (early mortality syndrome).  It's a killer disease, but, thankfully, the pathogen that causes it (just recently identified) rarely affects humans.  Still, the whole matter is significant because, among other reasons, Americans love shrimp.  We eat more of it than any other seafood, about 4.2 lbs. per capita annually, about twice the amount we were eating in the 1990s. Therefore, we need answers to these questions: 1) Are shrimps good, healthful food?  2) Are retail prices for shrimp going to zoom up because our supply of imported shrimp is down?  and 3) What should shoppers know about selecting shrimps in the grocery store?  4) How should consumers handle these fragile creatures?


Are shrimps healthful?


Mostly yes if you cook them without a lot of fat. Tufts points out these benefits as well as a few deficits.


Here's the good news:


  • ŸShrimps are low in calories and high in protein.  (A 3-ounce portion contains 12 grams of protein but only 60 calories.)
  • ŸA 3-ounce serving also has 20% of DV (the recommended daily amount) of phosphorus and 15% of vitamin B12.
  • ŸShrimps are low in saturated fat and have just about no mercury contamination.


Here's the not-so-good news:


  • ŸCompared to many other types of seafood, shrimps are low in omega-3 fatty acids, which have many health benefits.  For more information on omega-3 fatty acids, go to WebMd, Omega -3 Fatty Acids: Fact Sheet.
  • ŸShrimps are high in cholesterol, having 107 milligrams in 3 ounces, more than half the amount in a large egg (187). Therefore, the American Heart Association recommends that people with high LDL levels should keep their cholesterol consumption below 200 milligrams a day.  However, in defense of the shrimp, this delicious food also raises good (HDL) cholesterol. 


What's the significance of EMS?


EMS has been getting more attention from the news media recently because the disease  is causing U.S. shrimp imports to go down and prices for restaurants and stores to rise.  Also, the source of the disease--the bacteria vibrio parahaemolyticus, was finally identified in June, 2013, a good piece of news. 


Although this pathogen is not considered a significant health risk for humans (according to a yahoo.comarticle) during Hurricane Katrina, there were 22 cases of wounds infected from it and 2 deaths.  The bacteria thrive in warm, salty water and can infect the eyes, ears, and open wounds of swimmers.


Here's the Wall Street Journal description of its effect on shrimp: "The disease appeared in Thailand, the world's largest shrimp exporter, late last year after ravaging shrimp stocks in China in 2009 and then in Vietnam."  With production plunging, shrimp prices for U.S. grocery stores and restaurant chains have jumped 20% in recent months.  This could lead to a rise in prices for consumers.  The disease is deadly to shrimp (and other crustaceans); it kills them before they reach maturity and can reproduce. However, now that the cause of the shrimp deaths is known, dealing with the problem may be possible--by improving hygiene and developing heartier shrimp that have better resistance to the disease.


Meanwhile, a number of countries--including the Philippines and Mexico--have banned the importation of shrimp from countries where EMS has been detected. Louisiana senators have been trying to get the U.S. to do the same.  This is, says the Thai Trade Centre, a move to protect the Louisiana shrimp industry because businesses in the state rely heavily on imported shrimp from Thailand, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, and Ecuador.  U.S. imports from Thailand have recently declined dramatically (27% last year and another 23% from January to April this year). India (which has not been affected by EMS) has become the largest shrimp supplier to the U.S. 


But EMS has implications far beyond possibly having to pay more for shrimp.  The Wall Street Journal makes this point:  EMS is "a powerful reminder about how animal diseases can threaten food security and prices."  The Yahoo article relates the EMS problem to global warming, which is changing the oceans and causing an increase in heat and salt content. "We've often used the smallest of animals [such as the canary in the coal mine] as an alarm for unseen dangers around us.  This is more of a 'shrimp in the ocean brine' situation, but the dangerous gases remain the same--methane and carbon dioxide.  It's about time we took the warning seriously."


What are some good tips for selecting shrimp in the store?


If you shop in a hurry (as I do), you may just grab (or ask for)  whatever amount of shrimp you need without much thought to the size of the individual shrimp, the country of origin, or whether the shrimp are "fresh" or frozen.  The following shopping tips can educate you to be a better shrimp shopper.


Fresh or frozen?  Believe it or not, unless you live in a coastal area, the "fresh" shrimp your supermarket has on display are actually frozen and then defrosted.  Since shrimp deteriorates within a day after being defrosted, you'll get better quality by skipping the ones at the fish counter and buying a package that's solidly frozen.


Extra-large or jumbo?  There is no official standard for identifying shrimp size by labels such as "large," "extra-large," or "jumbo."  The large shrimp of one brand may be the same size as some other company's extra-large or medium.  So forget the adjectives; look for the count information (how many shrimp per pound).  This information is generally indicated by a range, for example, 16/20 or 21/25.  Obviously, if it takes only 16/20 to make a pound, these are larger shrimp than the 21/25.  The 21/25 label often corresponds to "extra large" and is a good size for most purposes.  However, if your recipe recommends a particular size, use that. 


Eco-friendly or not?  If you're interested in purchasing shrimp that has been caught wild or farmed in an eco-friendly way, check out this Huffington Post article:  "How to Buy the Right Shrimp (and Why It Matters)." The article mentions various certifications that assure purchasers that a particular product was caught or farmed using sustainable and safe processes.  Some names to look for are these: Wild American Shrimp, the Marine Stewardship Council, and the Aquaculture Certification Council. 


Imported or domestic? The Huffington Post article also says: "Avoid imported fish," presumably because they may not have come from safe, sustainable environments. The Shrimp Buying Guide explains how and why you can find out the source of the shrimp you're considering purchasing:  Look for Country of Origin Labeling (COOL).  The article says, "Since April 2005, seafood sold in stores and markets in the United States has had to be identified with COOL." The same law also requires that the label say whether the contents were caught in the wild or farmed. 


How should I handle shrimps at home?


Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen says that shrimps are designed for a much cooler temperature than land animals. When removed from their natural environment, they decompose quickly.  Even at 40°F (the usual refrigerator temperature), they deteriorate within a day.  "It's best to keep refrigerated shrimp on ice and as close as possible to 30°F," says Allen.


Raw shrimps should be cooked within 24 hours after being defrosted. Frozen shrimps can be defrosted in the refrigerator within a day. They can also be defrosted a few minutes before cooking them by putting them in a colander under cool running water. 





Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences "Can You Get Jumbo Benefits from Eating Shrimp?" "Disease Kills Shrimp Output, Pushes U.S. Prices Higher" "Shrimp-killing disease, Early Mortality Syndrome, highlights dangers of warming oceans" "How to Buy the Right Shrimp (and Why It Matters)" "Shrimp Buying Guide" "Rep warns of US bid to ban EMS shrimp"


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