Unless you’re within driving distance to the Gulf of Mexico, odds are the shrimp you’re eating were frozen at one point. Unfortunately, that means they’re hiding a seriously salty secret.
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Boiled Shrimp with Cocktail Sauce
Credit: Jamie Vespa, MS, RD, LD/N

Shrimp are a classic weeknight meal ingredient—they’re incredibly easy, fast, and family-friendly. But there’s one element of cooking with shrimp that often flies under the radar: the sodium.

All shrimp contain some sodium (they live in a salty environment, after all). However, what you buy in the grocery store is likely much saltier than when it first came out of the water. Fresh-caught shrimp are typically soaked in a salty brine within minutes of being harvested from the ocean. The salt solution helps bring the shrimp’s temperature down faster and prevents ice crystals from forming in the shellfish during the freezing process. That’s great for texture. It’s not great for your sodium intake.

The shrimp soak up salt from the brine. Plus, shrimp are often frozen in a salt solution, which adds even more sodium to your overall numbers. Easy-peel shrimp are serious culprits for sodium, too. Another salt solution is used to help the petite crustacean slip right out of the shell without a great deal of effort.

So, let’s review. Salt is added to shrimp:

1) when harvested

2) in processing
3) to make peels easier to remove

Without knowing it, you’re taking in a great deal of sodium from one single ingredient in your meal. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the numbers.

The shocking salt numbers

According to Cooking Light, wild-caught, never-frozen fresh Gulf shrimp had 97 milligrams of sodium in a 4-ounce serving in their tests. This is shrimp that, at most, has only had salt added to it after harvesting. It’s the closest to all-natural you can get.

Previously-frozen, farm-raised fresh shrimp has 159 milligrams of sodium in a 4-ounce serving, their tests showed.

The real sticker shock comes in the quick-frozen, easy-to-peel shrimp varieties. In their tests, Cooking Light found these shrimp had between 245 and 730 milligrams of sodium per 4-ounce serving. That’s 2.5 to 7.5 times more sodium in a single serving of easy-peel shrimp than fresh-caught, never-frozen shrimp.

Shrimp labels are not going to help your confusion either. Cooking Light sent their individual tests to a food laboratory so they could discover the actual sodium levels of each type of shrimp. What you see on nutrition labels is often an industry-standard number for the type and size of shrimp you’re buying.

We found that retailers list sodium levels for almost all shrimp in the 530 to 640 milligrams per serving range, whether they’re easy-peel or not.

Whole Foods, however, promises that their shrimp are frozen without preservatives. Their frozen shrimp options show that to be true: Whole Catch’s cooked white shrimp have about 227 milligrams of sodium per 4-ounce serving.

How do you get shrimp with the least amount of salt?

For once, reading the labels won’t help you much here. Yes, you can see what the brand reports as the sodium level (look for the lowest option), but the ingredient list for most frozen shrimp is simple: shrimp and salt. How much salt exactly, who knows?

Instead, focus on what you can control: where the shrimp comes from and how you cook with it. Buy shrimp as close to straight-out-of-the-water as possible. Talk with your fishmonger about getting your hands on the freshest options available if you plan to cook with them frequently.

And if the only thing you can find is the high-sodium variety in the freezer aisle, don’t fret. Unless you’re watching sodium for health reasons, shrimp can still be a healthy part of your diet. Just keep this salty insight in mind, and adjust how much salt you use in your recipe to offset the shrimp’s natural sodium levels.

By Kimberly Holland and Kimberly Holland