April 4, 2011

Short Story on Shrimp

There are a few things we just inherently trust:

  • parents (excluding years 13 to 22)
  • the pythagorean theorem
  • weather predications made by groundhogs
  • and when it comes to low sodium cooking, nutrition labels

To live a successful (and almost effortless) low sodium lifestyle, one has to be educated. You’ve got to know your stuff.

By reading blogs and books and searching the internet,  you will be able to confidently approximate how much sodium is in that piece of celery, that muffin, or that plate of pasta on the menu. Which will enable you to make smart eating decisions quickly, without a pen and paper. And a calculator. And a low sodium food thesaurus. Cause that stuff is a pain to carry around.

But what happens when the information you depend upon, the information you trust, suddenly isn’t so trustworthy?

A few weeks ago, a short post on shrimp-less curry ignited quite an exciting discussion.

Referencing my go-to site for nutritional information – the USDA’s National Nutrient Database – I wrote that shrimp contains 480mg of sodium for 3 ounces. A number which actually surprised me as one of my older reference books, the Pocket Guide to Low Sodium Foods, edited in 2003 and based on the USDA’s numbers, listed shrimp as only containing 144mg of sodium for 3 ounces.

Curious. A bit disconcerting. Definitely a subject that needed further investigating. Especially if readers were going to alter their diet because of it.

Instead of panicking or crying – things that I am trying to do less of these days, along with not eating chocolate for breakfast – I decided to go straight to the source. I wrote the good fellows and ladies of the USDA and asked for an explanation.

Dear USDA staff:

I have to keep a very strict, low sodium diet and I rely on your site for nutritional information. In all the books and sites I’ve ever read, it has said that shrimp contains around 120-140 mg of sodium per 3 oz serving. But on your site, it says raw shrimp (mixed crustacean) has 480 mg of sodium per 3 oz serving. Can you please help clear up this discrepancy?

Thank you so much for your help.

After I sent this letter out into the airwaves, I thought I may never hear back. Does anyone ever answer those general queries?

And then, only a few hours later, the airwaves boomeranged right back, and a little note in my inbox from Jacob proved me wrong.

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the sodium content of shrimp in the NDL database.  We recently conducted a nationwide sampling and analysis of about 20 species of finfish and shellfish, including shrimp.  The samples were all obtained from retail supermarkets, and they represent what consumers would likely purchase.

The new sodium value is based on this sampling.  We are told by the National Fisheries Institute that seafood may come in contact with sodium solutions during their processing.  It is likely that this is the reason for the higher sodium values.  Our older data were mainly from the scientific literature and would not necessarily represent what is in the marketplace.

I hope this answers your question.

You know what, Jacob? It did. Quickly.

So here are the lessons that I learned:

FIRST, When buying shrimp from your grocery store fish counter, it is hard to know the exact sodium content. Like with poultry – which can be plumped with salt water in order to make it juicier and heavier – the pre-treatment and sodium content will depend on the manufacturer. The only thing you can do to avoid the “salted” versions is to know where your food came from and how it was processed before it reached the store. Or buy it frozen, in a box, with a label. Again, good eating comes down to education and information. And talking to your grocer or fishmonger, a lot. Or learning how to catch shrimp yourself. Which could be a fun, slightly wet, adventure.

And SECOND, simply put, even when you feel you have reached an impasse, there is always a way around it. At the start of this shrimp query, I thought my go-to resource had been proven ineffectual. Which was a real downer. But quickly, my spirits rose and my confidence grew when I found out that, not only was my resource still valuable, but I actually had a direct line to a real person. With answers.

So I hope this helps bring our short story on shrimp to a somewhat satisfying conclusion. It seems that yes, shrimp can be as low as 140mg of sodium per 3 ounce serving – if it isn’t treated with salt water before it reaches the store. Just keep your eyes open, your brains alert, and your mouths talking to pick that right shellfish for your diet.

And if you have any other questions, now you know you can always just ask.

Chow on. Wisely.

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