How To Eat Shellfish Wisely

Jackie Arnett
Shellfish can be an important part of a healthy diet. Shellfish contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. However, shellfish can be one of the more risky types of seafood to eat! This is so because shellfish live on the sea floor where much bacteria and toxins are present. In addition, many shellfish, such as clams and oysters, are filter feeders and have a tendency to accumulate these chemical substances in their bodies by ingesting them. Because they are the bottom feeder of the ocean, they can eat anything really, even the waste of other fish. There are two types of shellfish:
• Mollusks-oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, etc.
• Crustaceans-lobster, crab. Shrimp, crawfish, etc.
Crustacean actually means “insect of the ocean.” Shrimp, in the crustacean family, sometimes has a brown tube line across the back, which is waste and should be removed. Indeed, some religious law prohibits the consumption of shellfish due to its “unclean” status. While it was commonly believed the foods were banned to test faith, the reality is those foods were likely banned because they were commonly associated with food poisoning or public health issues.

But luckily, there are ways to consume shellfish so that shellfish can be a healthier and a safer option to eat. One significant way is that you can opt for cooked shellfish over raw. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that 5-10% of raw mollusks coming to market are contaminated with Vibrio. Although only 0.1 % of all shellfish consumed is eaten raw, that tiny percentage is responsible for a large proportion of reported food-caused illnesses. So by eating mollusks steamed/cooked, you can avoid such risk of poisoning. Generally, poisoning from shellfish primarily comes from bacterial or viral contamination and because adequate cooking eliminates any bacterial or viral contamination, it’s worth turning up the heat in the kitchen. However, poisoning can come from heat stable toxins too though and such toxins cannot be eliminated with cooking. For example, shellfish are notorious for being high in mercury, heavy metals, and industrial contaminants, which are all toxins in the environment. Such toxic contaminants cannot be removed by cooking. In that case, moderation of shellfish is also an ideal choice for your long term health since mercury stays in the body and wreaks havoc in its own way. This is especially so if you are thinking of getting pregnant soon since mercury can stay in the blood stream and can pass through the placenta. So when choosing between cooked or raw shellfish, opt for cooked especially steamed over fried. At least, when shellfish are cooked you can eliminate bacterial and virus contamination risk, although not toxin risk. Toxin risk can only be reduced by moderation and making sure through to your best ability that your ingredients are sourced from credible sources.

Another option for those who love shellfish is to try and incorporate more mock crabmeat and mock shrimp. Hello California roll, which already rocks out the fake crabmeat. For many people this may be an acquired taste, but there can be less health risks when eating mock meat compared to the real thing if you are having trouble with moderation of real shellfish (it is good!). There are a few ingenious mock seafood products available today in some health food stores.. These products are usually soy based, so be careful of how much you eat due to potential issues that can arise from overconsumption of soy.
Also listen to your body when it comes to shellfish. Did you know shellfish allergies often develop for the first time during your adult years? In fact, shellfish allergy is the most common type to develop at a later age. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, seafood allergies affect only 0.6 percent of children but 2.8 percent of adults. So next time you are crunching on crustaceans, consider how you are feeling!

© 2017 Jackie Arnett Elnahar RD.