What is it? Shrimp get their name from centuries-old words meaning "puny person" and "to contract" or "to shrink." Perhaps that's because shrimp have that scrimped, shrivelled way of curling up on themselves. And even jumbo shrimp aren't that big; shrimp range around 3 to 12 inches in length.

Unlike lobsters, which crawl and scurry, these crustaceans swim. Shrimp use their tail and five pairs of legs to move forward, to backtrack, and to filter feed as they cut through the deep realms of the world's waters. A translucent skin shields firm flesh coloured pink, yellow, or silvery grey that turns creamy white when cooked.

Why is it good for you? Shrimp don't receive as much healthy buzz as fish. But their nutritional profile is impressive. Contrary to the name, shrimp pack energy power: Four ounces meet nearly half of your day's needs for protein and about 20% of your recommended iron intake. All that for only 112 calories and less than one gram of fat!

Plus, shrimp are a good catch for heart and brain health. The vitamin B12 abundant in shrimp helps protect blood vessels from damage that can lead to stroke, a benefit boosted by shrimp's omega-3 fatty acids, the super-nutrient that can help lower cholesterol.

Speaking of cholesterol, some worry that shrimp is a high-cholesterol food. Actually, shrimp does increase LDL (bad) cholesterol - but it raises levels of HDL (good) cholesterol even more in people who have normal cholesterol levels! So for people who do not have high cholesterol, eating shrimp in moderation will not affect their overall cholesterol level profile. Plus, shrimp lowers levels of triglycerides, which are fats associated with increased heart disease risk.

What does it taste like? How shrimp tastes will, of course, depend upon how fresh it is and how it is prepared and cooked. In general, shrimp has a mild, delicate flavour, one that might be described as buttery, slightly sweet, and not all that fishy. Bite into shrimp, and you'll note dense texture similar to medium-to-firm tofu and a bit of a briny scent.

Because of its flavour and texture, shrimp blends well into many recipes, its succulent consistency spotlighting spices, herbs, and an endless variety of rubs and marinades. Shrimp cook up nicely on the grill, but they can also be fried, baked, boiled, tossed into a curry. It's so versatile that we should just quote Bubba Blue from Forrest Gump: "Shrimp is the fruit of the sea."

How to handle and store: Whichever type you choose, remember that seafood must always be handled with care. Get the shrimp home and in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible. If refrigerating, place the shrimp in a baking dish or bowl filled with ice and store at the coolest spot in the fridge. If freezing, wrap the shrimp in plastic and place in the coolest part of the freezer. Refrigerated shrimp can keep for a couple of days; in the freezer, they can last about one month.

Thaw frozen shrimp in a bowl of cold water or in the refrigerator. When ready to handle, rinse the shrimp under cool, running water and pat dry. Keep shrimp apart from other foods, using a separate cutting board and utensils. Thoroughly cleanse and rinse any utensils after use. Fresh shrimp may benefit from a de-veining, since leaving veins in could sully the shrimp's otherwise clean flavour.

Safety warnings:
Seafood is one of the nine most common food allergens, and people who are allergic to one type of fish are often allergic to other types. Signs of a reaction include hives, red and itchy skin, swelling of the face, eyes, lips, tongue, and throat, trouble breathing, and even loss of consciousness.

Purines: People with gout or kidney problems should limit or avoid shrimp, since it contains a large amount of purines. Purines are organic matter found in all living things, but certain foods we eat have much greater amounts. When broken down, purines can form uric acid, which aggravates these conditions.

Mercury: Almost every type of seafood contains mercury, a naturally occurring metal. When consumed in high enough quantities, mercury can impair nervous system functioning. Since the nutritional benefits of eating fish and other seafood outweigh the risks, Health Canada advises that most people can eat up to 150 g of certain fish per week (fresh/frozen tuna, shark, swordfish, escolar, marlin, orange roughy). Children and women who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or are breast-feeding are advised to reduce consumption:

  • Children 1 to 4 years old: no more than 75 g per month
  • Children 5 to 11 years old: up to 125 g per month
  • Women who are or may become pregnant or who are breast-feeding: up to 150 g per month

Luckily for shrimp lovers, this shellfish contains very low levels of mercury and carries no special recommendations. Health Canada's advice on mercury in fish doesn't apply to shrimp - only to fresh/frozen tuna, shark, swordfish, escolar, marlin, orange roughy, and canned albacore tuna.

Amy Toffelmire