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All About Shellfish

Maybe you are working to keep your cholesterol level down. If you stopped eating lobster, crab, and the like because you thought shellfish was loaded with cholesterol, then think again. Throw another shrimp on the barbecue and read on, because shellfish, which were once blacklisted by the cholesterol police, have been given a reprieve.

Shellfish and Cholesterol

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 sterols, 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 cholesterol 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.

Bad Company

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.

Types of Shellfish

It is as simple as it sounds—shellfish are sea creatures that have a shell of some kind. There are 2 basic categories:

Crustaceans— They have elongated bodies with a 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 3 categories:

Shellfish Allergies

Shellfish are one of the most common allergens, and the allergy is rarely outgrown. Reactions usually appear within minutes to a few hours after eating shellfish, inhaling cooking vapors, or handling shellfish, but can be delayed as long as 24 hours. Common symptoms include:

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.

Shellfish Poisoning

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 30 minutes after eating and begin with a tingling and numbness around the lips. Staggering, giddiness, and muscular incoordination may appear and speech is often difficult to understand. In severe cases, shellfish poisoning may result in seizures, coma, or death. If you suspect shellfish poisoning, seek medical attention right away.

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.

Mercury Content

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:

Nutritional Info

Shellfish Nutritional Information
Item Serving
size (84g/3 oz)
Clams 12 small
110 1.5 0 80 17 470 95
100 1 0 95 20 300 330
80 0.5 0 60 17 300 320
12 med
100 1 1 80 10 220 300
Scallops 6 large or 14 sm
140 1 0 65 27 430 310
100 1.5 0 170 21 220 240

g = grams; mg = milligrams


Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Food Safety


Dietitians of Canada

Health Canada


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Last reviewed July 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 10/14/2013