Doesn't Shellfish Have a Ton of Cholesterol?
| Not Much Fat, Though
| Bad Company
| What Makes a Fish a Shellfish?
| Shellfish Allergies
| Shellfish Poisoning
| What About Mercury?
| Guidelines for Cooking Shellfish
| Nutritional Info
Are you working to keep your cholesterol level down? Have you stopped eating lobster, crab, and the like because you thought shellfish was loaded with cholesterol? Well, think again. Throw another shrimp on the barbecue and read on because shellfish once blacklisted by the cholesterol police have been given a reprieve.
Doesn't Shellfish Have a Ton of Cholesterol?
Actually, no. Shellfish's cholesterol level is not as health threatening as once believed.
There are a few reasons why shellfish may have a bad reputation when it comes to cholesterol. First, shellfish contain a variety of
a group of chemical compounds that includes cholesterol. Previously, scientists could not distinguish among the different sterols and all were labeled as cholesterol. As a result, the amount of cholesterol in shellfish was overestimated. In reality, shellfish contain less cholesterol than meat or poultry.
Not Much Fat, Though
Another factor that worked against shellfish was the thought that dietary
raised blood cholesterol levels. Because shellfish does contain cholesterol, it was considered "bad" for you. Now we know that dietary cholesterol is only a minor contributor to blood cholesterol levels: total calorie intake and the quantity and type of fat, such as trans fat and saturated fat, in the diet are far more important. Fortunately, the fats in shellfish are in the “healthy” category.
The company that shellfish keep, however, can be a problem. 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 by increasing the total fat and the saturated fat. Instead, try steaming shellfish and serving with lemon and spices.
What Makes a Fish a Shellfish?
It is as simple as it sounds—shellfish are sea creatures that have a shell of some kind. There are two basic categories:
Crustaceans—They have elongated bodies with jointed, soft shell. These include crabs, crayfish, lobster, and shrimp.
Mollusks—These have soft bodies covered by a shell of one or more pieces. Mollusks are divided into three categories:
- Univalves—a single shell and a single muscle; includes abalone and snail
- Bivalves—two shells hinged together by a strong muscle; includes clam, scallop, mussel, and oyster
- Cephalopods—tentacles attached to the head and an ink sac; includes octopus and squid
Shellfish are one of the most common allergens, and the allergy is rarely outgrown. Reactions usually appear within two hours after ingesting shellfish, inhaling cooking vapors, or handling shellfish, but can be delayed as long as 24 hours. Common symptoms include:
- Nasal congestion
- Shortness of breath
- Upset stomach
- Swelling around mouth
The key to living with a shellfish allergy is to avoid all foods or products that contain shellfish. Make sure you read a product's label because shellfish may be a minor ingredient.
Food poisoning can occur after eating tainted shellfish; clams and mussels are the types most frequently at fault. Symptoms can occur in as little as 10 minutes after ingestion and begin with a tingling and numbness around the lips. Staggering, giddiness, and muscular incoordination may appear and speech is often incoherent. In severe cases, shellfish poisoning may result in seizures, coma, or death. If you suspect shellfish poisoning, seek medical attention immediately.
The sickness is most often caused by a toxin that shellfish ingest along with the plankton they eat during certain times of the year. Unlike bacteria that can cause food poisoning, these toxins cannot be destroyed through cooking. To protect yourself, always buy from reputable seafood sellers.
What About Mercury?
Considerable concern has grown about mercury levels in fish. This is a problem with some shellfish too. Although shellfish do not usually approach the mercury levels of the worst fish offenders (such as swordfish and shark), lobster has as much mercury as canned white tuna, and scallops and crab have about a sixth as much. Mussels vary in mercury content depending on their origin. Shrimp and oysters have little to no mercury content.
Guidelines for Cooking Shellfish
Seafood should be cooked so that the internal temperature is 145°F (63ºC). You will also know when seafood is cooked by doing the following:
- Fish—Cut through the side of the fish and open it up to expose the flesh. The inside should be opaque and separate easily.
- Shrimp and lobster—When cooked, the flesh should be pearly-opaque.
- Scallops—The flesh should look milky white/opaque and firm.
- Clams, mussels, oysters—When the shells open, they are done. Throw out any ones that do not open.
Shellfish Nutritional Information
g = grams; mg = milligrams
Fresh and frozen seafood: selecting and serving it safely. United States Food and Drug Administration website.
Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm077331.htm#preparing. Updated April 6, 2011. Accessed September 28, 2011.
Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition website. Available at:
Questions and answers on seafood. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition website. Available at:
Last reviewed September 2011 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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