Sodium content of shrimp and how to deal with it

What is shrimp?

Shrimp are small decapod crustaceans that can be found in great quantities along the coasts the Earth’s oceans, as well as some fresh water lakes and rivers. It can be assumed that shrimp have been a part of human diet since prehistoric times, however this cannot be easily supported by archeology, becaue shrimp generally do not leave fossil remains. There is evidence from later times that shrimp were a popular delicacy. Images of shrimp can be found in Greco-Roman art.

Eating shrimp has also been subject to prohibitions, most notably in Judaism. Throughout much of history, drying shirmp was most prevalent as a way of preserving them for later use. Canning became popular in the early 20th century, but it was replaced by freezing later on. Commercial bottom trawling made shirmp more popular and accessible around the globe in modern decades. Since the 1970s, shrimp farming has also been on the rise.

Shrimp and nutrition in general

Similarly to other kinds of seafood, shrimp have many great nutritional characteristics. They are often enjoyed by people who consider themselves vegeterians in a not-so-strict sense (and, of course, by pescaterians). Shrimp are a great source of protein, but they are low in calories. These crustaceans also contain healthy fats, as well as a variety of vitamins and minerals (most importantly iodine, critical for thyroid function, zinc, iron and vitamin B12). They are, however, high in cholesterol. The levels of sodium in shrimp are the main subject of this article.

How much salt is there in shrimp and why?

If you look at the data about sodium content in shrimp there is room for some confusion. Wild-caught fresh shrimp can contain under 100mg per serving. However, fresh frozen easy-to-peel farm-raised shrimp can contain as much as 730mg (canned shrimp is even higher in sodium, close to 1000mg per can/serving). What could possibly account for this discrepancy? Well, this is not simply a matter of wild-caught vs. farm-raised. Both kinds of shrimp normally live in salty ocean water, and this is one reason for shrimp being somewhat high in sodium to begin with. But salt can be introduced for various reasons during the journey of shrimp to the dinner table. Fresh-caught shrimp are often placed in cold salty brine immediately after being harvested. This is done to quickly reduce their temperature. It also makes it more diffucult for water ice crystals to form on the surface of the shrimp, which would greatly affect the texture of the final product. Another benefit of adding salt is that shrimp become easier to peel. At a later stage, moisture-retention agents (MRAs) are often added. These are typically phosphate-based used together with salt, adding between 50 to 200mg of sodium per eventual serving.

As you can see, there are plenty of opportunities for extra salt to be introduced. The actual amount varies on the exact process of harvesting, packaging and delivering the shrimp you end up eating. Different manufacturers have different standards set for their products and the end result varies accordingly. Reading labels might not be very helpful, because all you will find out is that shrimp and salt are the main ingredients. Unless you know for sure that the shrimp has been freshly caught and came to the kitchen straight from the sea, assume the following:

Shrimp is quite high in sodium. Eating 4 ounces of shrimp can be compared to eating one ounce of Parmesan cheese (one of the saltiest cheeses around)

How does salt affect the taste of shrimp

The affect of salt on the taste of shrimp has been carefully studied by the industry. The conclusion at which they arrived was not surprising: customers prefer the tast of saltier shrimp. This means that low salt shrimp will not become a viable option any time soon.

How to remove salt from shrimp

As a health-conscious consumer, you may want to try removing extra salt from shrimp. Assuming that you’ve got frozen shrimp (fresh shrimp are hard to come by, as their shelf life is very limited). It is really impossible to remove all the sodium from the little crustaceans, because they come from a salty environment and all the sodium that has been added later on has already penetrated the tissues. But removing excess salt is as easy as rinsing shrimp with cold water. Be sure to only use cold water! Otherwise the shimp will begin to cook or at the very least become tasteless and rubbery. Also keep in mind that despite being frozen, shrimp should have been fresh frozen. Do not use shrimp that is severly discolored and smells fishy. Discard it immediately.

Only defrost shrimp before cooking it. This will not take long. Simply put you frozen catch in a collander and run it under cold water until it is completely thawed out. Laying the shimp out on a surface that will absorb water (lint-free cloth or paper towel) may seal the deal.

How much salt does cocktail sauce contain?

One of the most common ways to enjoy shrimp is with some cocktail sauce. We have already mentioned that the shrimp industry has determined that salt goes well with shrimp (which is unfortunately true for must of common food products). As one would expect, cocktail sauce can easily have 1900mg of sodium per serving (1 cup). If you are conscious about your health, but simply love shrimp, consider finding a low sodium sauce. Lemon juice is a greate alternative.

It does not end with cocktail sauce, of course. Shrimp simply attracts salt in virtually every recipe! Here are some typical shrimp dishes, with the sodium count per serving (source).

Shrimp Scampi 1008
Shrimp Teriyaki 3065
Shrimp Cocktail 1817
Shrimp and Vegetables 629
Shrimp Gumbo 620
Kung Pao Shrimp 786
Shrimp Salad 1076
Shrimp Chow Mein 1274

Conclusion

Shrimp can be a great addition to a healthy diet in a healthy individual. However, especially due to the manufacturing process, this delicacy tends to be very high in sodium. Excessive sodium level are known to raise blood pressure, causing a plethora of health issues. It seems that the best way to eat shrimp is freshly caught or unthawed with as much salt removed as possible. Use lemon juice instead of cocktail sauce and consider grilling shrimp as opposed to cooking with salty sauces (such as Shrimp Teriyaki).