All About Shellfish
by Amy Scholten, MPH
Lobster, crabs, and shrimp, oh my! Should I eat them if my cholesterol is high? Bad poetry aside...there is no reason to clam up about your health concerns. However, shellfish can be part of a healthful diet. Here is a lobster pot full of facts about shellfish. No squidding!
Types of Shellfish
It is as simple as it sounds—shellfish are sea creatures that have a shell. They include:
Shellfish and Cholesterol
Cholesterol levels can raise the risk of heart disease. For this reason, many people stopped eating foods high in cholesterol, such as shellfish. However, cholesterol in food does not appear to affect cholesterol levels. Foods high in saturated (animal-based) fat, however, can. The good news is that shellfish is low in saturated fat.
The Secret is in the Sauce or Batter
How you prepare shellfish, however, makes the difference. Shellfish are often served with melted butter or a mayonnaise-based tartar sauce. And shellfish are frequently battered and deep fried. Both actions can turn a low-fat dish into a high-fat bomb. Instead, try steaming shellfish and serving with lemon and spices.
Shellfish allergies are common. Reactions usually appear within minutes to a few hours—or even as long as 24 hours. Reactions can happen after eating shellfish. They can also appear after inhaling cooking vapors or handling shellfish. Common symptoms are:
If you have a shellfish allergy, do not eat any foods or products that contain shellfish. Make sure you read a product's label. Shellfish may be a minor ingredient.
Food poisoning can happen after eating tainted shellfish. This is more common with clams and mussels. Symptoms may begin as soon as 30 minutes after eating. They may include:
In severe cases, shellfish poisoning may lead to seizures, coma, or death. If you suspect shellfish poisoning, get medical help right away.
The sickness is most often caused by a toxin that the shellfish has eaten. These toxins cannot be destroyed through cooking. To protect yourself, buy seafood from good quality sellers.
Like certain types of fish, some shellfish have high levels of mercury. Mercury is a heavy metal. If eaten too often, it can build up in the body. A buildup of too much mercury can affect the nervous system. The level of mercury in shellfish varies. Lobster is moderately high in mercury. Clams, scallops, crabs, crayfish and squid have lower amounts. Shrimp and oysters have little to no mercury content. Mussels vary in mercury content.
Guidelines for Cooking Shellfish
Seafood should be cooked so that the inner temperature is 145°F (63ºC). Here is how shellfish should appear when properly cooked:
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Dietitians of Canada
Food poisoning from marine toxins. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2020/preparing-international-travelers/food-poisoning-from-marine-toxins. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Fresh and frozen seafood: selecting and serving it safely. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/selecting-and-serving-fresh-and-frozen-seafood-safely. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/food/metals-and-your-food/mercury-levels-commercial-fish-and-shellfish-1990-2012. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Safe minimum cooking temperatures. FoodSafety.gov website. Available at: https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/safe-minimum-cooking-temperature. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Shellfish allergy. Cleveland Clinic website. Available at:https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/11319-allergies-shellfish. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 10/21/2021
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