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Seafood FAQ: Don’t let the cholesterol myth block shrimp sales

Discerning "good" from "bad" cholesterol and promoting shellfish's healthful attributes is critical

By Steven Hedlund
September 01, 2006

Cholesterol, a chief contributor to cardiovascular disease, is top-of-mind for many consumers. Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, killing about 910,000 Americans annually, or one person every 35 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 107 million Americans have high cholesterol levels, reports the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

Shrimp is relatively high in cholesterol. But a study conducted by Rockefeller and Harvard Universities a decade ago debunked the myth that eating shrimp is unhealthy. Since the study, U.S. per-capita shrimp consumption has increased 60 percent, to 4 pounds, and the crustacean has dethroned canned tuna as America's favorite seafood.

Despite the study, some consumers still shun shrimp and other shellfish due to the misperception that the protein is high in cholesterol.

This month's designation as National Cholesterol Education Month is a perfect time to clear up any confusion your customers may have surrounding seafood and cholesterol.

Q. What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a soft, waxy, fat-like substance found in animal cells. Its function is to produce cell membranes and hormones. Cholesterol is manufactured by the human body and obtained through the consumption of animal proteins (cholesterol isn't found in plant products).

Cholesterol is carried to and from the cells by lipoproteins, which assemble in the liver and circulate throughout the bloodstream; cholesterol can't dissolve in the bloodstream. Two common types of lipoproteins are low-density lipo­proteins (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, and high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or "good" cholesterol.

 

Q. What's the difference

between "good" and "bad" cholesterol?

LDL deposits cholesterol in the arterial walls. When too much LDL accumulates, the arteries narrow and eventually clog, impeding the flow of blood to the heart and brain and increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke, reports the American Heart Association.

Conversely, studies show that HDL carries cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it's passed from the body, and removes excess cholesterol from the arteries.

According to the NHLBI's National Cholesterol Education Program, total cholesterol levels of less than 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter) are "desirable," while 200 to 239 mg/dL are "borderline high" and more than 239 mg/dL are "high."

The AHA recommends consuming no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of raw shrimp (mixed species) contain 152 milligrams of cholesterol.

 

Q. Is shrimp unhealthy because it's high in

cholesterol?

It's important to consider not just the overall cholesterol content of shrimp but the ratio of "good" to "bad" cholesterol.

The Rockefeller-Harvard study, which examined the diets of 18 healthy adults over nine weeks in 1996, found that eating shrimp increased the patients' LDL levels slightly but also boosted their HDL levels enough to offset the jump in LDL levels.

What's more, shrimp is relatively low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids. For example, 3.5 ounces of raw shrimp contain 0.3 grams of saturated fat and 0.5 grams of omega-3s, while the same amount of raw ground beef (90 percent lean, 10 percent fat) has 4.1 grams of saturated fat and no omega-3s.

Saturated fat accelerates the production of LDL, raising cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, while omega-3s lower triglyceride levels, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. (High triglyceride levels are associated with numerous ailments, including cardiovascular disease.)

"Most high-cholesterol foods are also high in saturated fat, which most people should restrict in their diets," said Elizabeth De Oliveira e Silva, a Rockefeller research associate, at the time of the study. Steamed shrimp "does not adversely affect the lipoprotein profile in people with normal cholesterol levels. In fact, if shrimp are substituted for beef or other high-fat foods, we predict even more favorable effects."

The belief that eating shrimp raises cholesterol levels is one of nine myths David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., founding director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California Los Angeles, discredits in his 2001 book "What Color Is Your Diet? The Seven Colors of Health."

"The American Heart Association acknowledged a long time ago that shrimp had been wrongly accused," wrote Heber, "but lots of people, including doctors, still believe the myth."

Q. Are other types of seafood high in cholesterol?

Squid, at 233 milligrams per 3.5 ounces, contains more cholesterol than shrimp, according to the USDA. But most shellfish contain less than 115 milligrams of cholesterol, including lobster, crab, crawfish, clams, mussels, scallops and oysters. Canned tuna, salmon, pollock, cod and tilapia all contain less than 75 milligrams.

The cholesterol content of most seafood is in line with other proteins, such as beef, chicken and pork, but less than most dairy products and, especially, organ meats like liver and kidney (see graph). Look at it this way: 4 ounces of shrimp contain about the same amount of cholesterol as an egg yolk, which weighs less than 1 ounce.

Keep in mind, breading and frying seafood and/or drenching it in butter increases the cholesterol. For example, 3.5 ounces of breaded and fried shrimp contain 177 milligrams of cholesterol, while a 4-ounce stick of butter has 243 milligrams.

 

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