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