12/08/2009 06:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Before You Throw That Shrimp on the Barbie, a Few Words of Caution

I approach this subject with some slight trepidation... My last seafood post, extolling the virtues of wild-caught salmon, engendered some heated discussion -- not to mention my being mildly vilified on some obscure Alaskan Seafood blog.

Nevertheless, I embarked upon this article determined, and delighted, to rehabilitate the reputation of this popular crustacean, after years of its being much-maligned for its cholesterol content. The good news is, I can absolutely assure you that the shrimp's negative health image, especially with regards to cholesterol, is patently undeserved; the bad news is, there are so many nerve-wracking environmental and societal issues surrounding the procurement of said shrimp that I must temper my praise with any number of hesitations and provisos and cautions.


Always Start With the Good News.

Shrimp is the single most popular seafood in the United States -- the average American consumes over 4 ½ pounds a year. And yes, the cholesterol count is high (about 200 milligrams in 3 ½ ounces), but that is a deceptive figure. Since the fat content of shrimp is so low (barely 1 gram per serving, as opposed to around 20 grams for an equal amount of beef), and saturated fat increases the absorption of cholesterol in the body, the cholesterol in shrimp is not fully absorbed. Studies have shown that shrimp actually improves the ratio of "good" cholesterol to "bad" cholesterol; and the high levels of unsaturated fatty acids may even contribute to lowered cholesterol levels.

And there are numerous other nutritional benefits on offer from this tiny ocean-going critter. It is an excellent source of low-fat, low calorie protein; it provides a whopping dose of Vitamins B-12 and D, a generous amount of omega-3 fatty acids, and a serious helping of the trace mineral selenium. Both the B-12 and omega-3's contribute to cardio-health on several levels, and the omega-3's are known to combat depression and provide protection against age-related cognitive decline. The selenium, on its own and in combination with the omega-3's, has been shown to inhibit the formation of cancer cells.

So I am happy to tell you that, on the basis of health benefits alone, I can heartily recommend that you include shrimp in your diet on a regular basis.

Now the Bad News.

Alas, I must draw your attention to some disturbing facts in the larger scheme of things. That #1 position on the dinner plates of America comes at a high price for the environment and certain cultures. Let me say right off the bat that I will espouse the conviction here that, as with other seafoods, wild-caught is preferable to farmed, in this case infinitely preferable, and domestic must be selected rather than imported.

Wild-caught shrimp carry a few drawbacks, it is true -- mainly the sustainability issue inherent in all commercial fishing, as well as excessive by-catch in the trawling nets. But these negatives are as nothing compared to the various forms of havoc that can be wreaked by shrimp farming, specifically overseas -- so much so that I will have trouble even lightly touching on them all here, but let's give it a shot. And keep in mind that in 30 years, the percentage of farmed shrimp in the marketplace has gone from 1% to over 40%, and worldwide production has ballooned by 12,000%!

From a human health perspective, the dangers are many. All sorts of harmful chemicals are used in the farming process - pesticides, antibiotics, disinfectants and detergents even. Plus, the pollution caused by runoff from, and abandonment of, shrimp farms is a serious health hazard for the local population. And 99% of all farmed shrimp in this country is imported from developing nations (35% from Thailand alone), whose oversight and regulation operate at standards far below what would be demanded domestically.

In terms of the environment, the damage appears to be nearly catastrophic. It takes several pounds of wild-caught fish to provide food for a resulting one pound of shrimp, with a major net loss of protein. Globally, more than a third of the mangrove forests have disappeared over the last 20 years, 38% of these decimated to make way for shrimp farms -- shrimp farms which are often abandoned after 5-8 years, leaving behind a wasteland for decades. "Escapees" from these farms can carry diseases and antibiotics into the wild population, wreaking further havoc. And negative social impacts and human rights abuses have been documented in numerous communities.

So for all these reasons, and many more which constraints of space and time do not allow me to enumerate, I strongly urge you to know the origins of the shrimp you buy, and buy only domestic -- either wild-caught or farmed. Your local market is obliged to inform you of the origin of seafood, check it out. Ask your restaurant server where the shrimp are from. And that chain restaurant that's offering an all-you-can-eat shrimp dinner? Just say no -- those shrimp are without a doubt farmed and foreign.

Now Can I Do Dinner?

So let's get around to enjoying these sweet little denizens of the deep! When selecting, look for firm bodies with no black spots or yellow-ish tinge. Ask to smell them. They should have a slight saltwater aroma; any whiff of ammonia, give 'em back. Keep them cold, and use within 24 hours; they're very perishable. If you're using frozen, check for ice crystals or dark spots indicating freezer burn; defrost in a bowl of cold water and use immediately.

[NOTE: To "de-vein" shrimp, hold them under running cold water, make a slight incision down the center of the back, and remove the black "vein".]

Lemon Shrimp with Orzo Pasta, Wild Mushrooms, Feta & Asparagus

This glamorous and tempting but oh-so-easy feast makes a perfect New Years Eve dinner for two - and pairs beautifully with that vintage Champagne you've been saving!

10 jumbo U.S. wild-caught shrimp, peeled & de-veined
2 1/2 tablespoons lemon olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon organic dried oregano
6 ounces orzo pasta
6 ounces wild mushrooms, sliced (chanterelle, shiitake, oyster are all good)
1 tablespoon good olive oil
1/2 tablespoon organic unsalted butter
2 ounces French feta cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley
1/2 pound pencil asparagus tips
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (meyer lemon if available)
1 teaspoon microplaned lemon zest

Preheat oven to broil (or set your grill to high). In a small bowl, toss the shrimp with 1 tablespoon of the lemon olive oil and the oregano, set aside.

Cook the orzo pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, sauté the mushrooms with the olive oil and butter in a medium skillet until supple, remove and set aside. Add ½ tablespoon of lemon olive oil to the skillet, sauté the asparagus until just past crisp, remove and set aside.

When the pasta is done, drain and put in a large bowl. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of lemon olive oil, the lemon juice & zest, the mushrooms, the feta, and the parsley.

Broil (or grill) the shrimp for a minute or so on each side, until just opaque. Arrange the pasta and the asparagus decoratively on two plates, top with the shrimp. Garnish with a sprig or two of parsley, pour the Champagne, and let the good times roll!

Serves two.

Shrimp Ceviche Dip

Gotta' bring something to a holiday party? Try this fresh and vivid snack studded with Christmas colors for a healthy holiday treat!

1 pound cooked cleaned shrimp, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
2 tablespoons minced red bell pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped jicama
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh jalapeno
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon peanut oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients. Serve chilled w/ organic blue corn tortilla chips.

[NOTE: A version of this post appears in my "Eat Smart" column in the December Issue of Better Nutrition Magazine.]