Prawns and shrimp are often confused. In fact, the terms are used interchangeably in fishing, farming and culinary contexts.
You may have even heard that prawns and shrimp are one and the same.
Yet though they’re closely related, the two can be distinguished in several ways.
This article explores the key similarities and differences between prawns and shrimp.
Both prawns and shrimp are caught, farmed, sold and served all around the world.
However, where you live likely determines what term you use or see more frequently.
In the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, “prawn” is the general term used to describe both true prawns and shrimp.
In North America, the term “shrimp” is used much more frequently, while the word “prawn” is most often used to describe larger species or those fished from fresh water.
However, “shrimp” and “prawn” are not used in the same context consistently, making it difficult to know which crustacean you are truly purchasing.
Summary In North America, “shrimp” is used more commonly, while “prawn” refers to species that are larger or found in fresh water. Commonwealth countries and Ireland tend to use “prawn” more frequently.
Though there’s no consistent definition for prawns and shrimp in fishing, farming and culinary contexts, they are scientifically distinct because they come from different branches of the crustacean family tree.
Both prawns and shrimp are members of the decapod order. The term “decapod” literally means “10-footed.” Thereby, both prawns and shrimp have 10 legs. However, the two types of crustaceans come from different suborders of decapods.
Shrimp belong to the pleocyemata suborder, which also includes crayfish, lobsters and crabs. On the other hand, prawns belong to the dendrobranchiata suborder.
However, in common usage, the terms “prawn” and “shrimp” are used interchangeably for many species of dendrobranchiata and pleocyemata.
Both prawns and shrimp have a thin exoskeleton and their bodies are divided into three main segments: the head, thorax and abdomen (1).
The main anatomical difference between prawns and shrimp is their body form.
In shrimp, the thorax overlaps the head and the abdomen. But in prawns, each segment overlaps the segment below it. That is, the head overlaps the thorax and the thorax overlaps the abdomen.
Because of this, prawns are unable to bend their bodies sharply the way shrimp can.
Their legs are also slightly different. Prawns have three pairs of claw-like legs, while shrimp have only one pair. Prawns also have longer legs than shrimp.
Another main difference between prawns and shrimp is the way they reproduce.
Shrimp carry their fertilized eggs in the undersides of their bodies, but prawns release their eggs into the water and leave them to grow on their own.
Summary Prawns and shrimp come from different branches of the crustacean family tree. Shrimp are members of the pleocyemata suborder, while prawns are part of the dendrobranchiata suborder. They have various differences in anatomy.
Both prawns and shrimp are found in bodies of water from all around the world.
Depending on the species, shrimp can be found in both warm and cold water, from the tropics to the poles, and in either fresh or salt water.
However, only about 23% of shrimp are freshwater species (2).
Most shrimp can be found near the bottom of the body of water they inhabit. Some species can be found resting on plant leaves, while others use their small legs and claws to perch on the seafloor.
Prawns can also be found in both fresh and salt water, but unlike shrimp, most varieties are found in fresh water.
Most varieties of prawn prefer warmer waters. However, various species can also be found in colder waters in the Northern Hemisphere.
Prawns often reside in calm waters where they can perch on plants or rocks and comfortably lay their eggs.
Summary Prawns and shrimp reside in both fresh and salt water. However, the majority of shrimp are found in salt water while most prawns live in fresh water.
Prawns and shrimp are often distinguished by their size, as prawns tend to be larger than shrimp.
However, there is no standard size limit that sets the two apart. Most commonly, people classify these crustaceans by count per pound.
Generally speaking, “large” means you usually get 40 or fewer cooked shrimp or prawns per pound (about 88 per kg). “Medium” refers to about 50 per pound (110 per kg), and “small” refers to about 60 per pound (132 per kg).
However, the fact of the matter is that size is not always an indicator of a true shrimp or a true prawn, since each kind comes in a wide variety of sizes, depending on the species.
Summary Prawns are typically larger than shrimp. However, there are exceptions to the rule — large varieties of shrimp and small varieties of prawns. Therefore, it’s hard to differentiate between the two by size alone.
There are no major documented differences between prawns and shrimp when it comes to their nutritional value.
Each is a good source of protein, while also being relatively low in calories.
Three ounces (85 grams) of shrimp or prawns contain approximately 18 grams of protein and only about 85 calories (3).
Prawns and shrimp are sometimes criticized for their high cholesterol content. However, each actually provides a very desirable fat profile, including a good amount of healthy omega-3 fatty acids (3).
Three ounces of shrimp or prawns provide 166 mg of cholesterol, but also about 295 mg of omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition to providing lean protein and healthy fats, these crustaceans are very good sources of selenium, an important antioxidant. You can get nearly 50% of the daily value of selenium in only 3 ounces (85 grams) (3).
Moreover, the type of selenium found in shellfish is very well absorbed by the human body.
Lastly, prawns and shrimp are very good sources of vitamin B12, iron and phosphorus.
Summary There are no documented differences between the nutritional profiles of prawns and shrimp. They both provide a good source of protein, healthy fats and many vitamins and minerals, yet are low in calories.
There is no conclusive flavor that distinguishes a shrimp from a prawn. They’re very similar in taste and texture.
Some say prawns are a bit sweeter and meatier than shrimp, while shrimp are more delicate. However, the species’ diet and habitat have a much greater influence on taste and texture.
Therefore, prawns and shrimp are often used interchangeably in recipes.
There are various ways to prepare these shellfish. Each can be fried, grilled or steamed. They can be cooked with the shell on or off.
Both prawns and shrimp are known for their ability to cook fast, which makes them a perfect ingredient in a quick and easy meal.
Summary For all intents and purposes, prawns and shrimp taste the same, with a flavor profile indicative of the species’ habitat and diet. From a culinary standpoint, there is very little difference between the two.
Around the world, the terms “shrimp” and “prawns” are often used interchangeably. They may be categorized by their size, shape or the type of water they live in.
However, prawns and shrimp are scientifically distinct. They come from different branches of the crustacean family tree and are anatomically different.
Nevertheless, their nutrition profiles are very similar. Each is a good source of protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.
So while they may be slightly different, both are nutritious additions to your diet and you’ll likely have no problem substituting one for the other in most recipes.