Why Everyone Should Eat Oysters

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Like plants, oysters have no central nervous system, meaning they do not feel pain.

It makes sense to prevent the suffering of other living organisms whenever possible, which carries over to our food choices. Most vegans, vegetarians, and plant-based eaters draw the line at plants versus animals. In other words, from an ethical standpoint, plants are okay to eat, but animals are not.

The reason? As far as we know, other animals can suffer just like humans because they too have nervous systems, whereas plants do not have nervous systems and therefore presumably lack the ability to suffer. Oysters also lack nervous systems, making it unlikely that they feel pain [1].

One ethical argument against eating oysters is that they take action when they sense danger or feel threatened, but so do plants, in a variety of ways. It’s possible that organisms without nervous systems, like oysters and plants, can indeed feel pain, but if that’s the case, then oysters do not feel any more pain than spinach, corn, or peas.

Unlike most farmed food, oysters actually have a BENEFICIAL impact on the environment.

Two tanks filled with the same water, but one has oysters in it [2]. Eating oysters promotes sustainable oyster farming, which helps clean our oceans.

While the sustainability of much fish is dubious, oyster farming is a regenerative farming practice, actually improving the environment, not just lessening the burden.

Unlike farmed fish, pigs, and chickens, oysters do not require agricultural feed. Oyster farmers simply run sea water through bags or tanks of oysters, and the oysters feed on phytoplankton or small bits of algae naturally present in the water. As a result, oysters are one of the most sustainable foods on the planet.

What’s better than zero carbon footprint? A negative carbon footprint. Oysters are like little carbon capture tools, purifying the water they’re in and capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. Ninety-five percent of oysters we eat are sustainably farmed in a way that benefits the environment, removing any concern of overfishing (the other five percent are typically wild caught) [3].

Our oceans are becoming over-carbonized, and oysters are a great way to remove that carbon from the ocean and turn it into pure human nutrition.

Gram for gram, oysters are literally the most micronutrient-dense food on the planet, second only to liver.

Think of oysters as organic whole food multivitamins served on a half shell. Not only are oysters nutrient-dense, they are full of some of the vitamins and minerals in which Americans are most deficient, namely Zinc, Iron, and Vitamin D.

The above chart shows the average % weekly value of the ten most important micronutrients for different foods. A 3.5-ounce (100 gram) serving of oysters also contains the following daily values:

  • Vitamin D: 80% of the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI)
  • Zinc: 605% of the RDI
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1): 7% of the RDI
  • Niacin (vitamin B3): 7% of the RDI
  • Vitamin B12: 324% of the RDI
  • Iron: 37% of the RDI
  • Magnesium: 12% of the RDI
  • Phosphorus: 14% of the RDI
  • Copper: 223% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 18% of the RDI
  • Selenium: 91% of the RDI

Just a few oysters, about 68 calories worth, gives you a week’s worth of immune-boosting Zinc and one to three days’ worth of Vitamin D, Selenium, Copper, and Vitamin B12 [6].

Oysters are high in omega-3s and low in mercury, a common concern in seafood.

Oysters fall within the top-ten most omega-3-rich sources of popular seafood, with about as much omega-3 as swordfish and bass, but with significantly less mercury.

In fact, oysters contain all three major classes of omega-3s: ALA, DHA, and EPA.

Among many other roles, EPA helps to reduce inflammation, while DHA is important for brain development in kids and brain function in adults. The form of omega-3 typically found in plants, ALA, must first be converted into EPA and DHA before it can be used by the body. Unfortunately, this conversion process is inefficient; only 1–10% of ALA is converted into the bioavailable forms EPA and DHA.

Getting enough EPA and DHA is important for health and typically requires consuming seafood like salmon and sardines. As an alternative, oysters offer a way to get more bioavailable omega-3s without eating fish [7].

While mercury is a somewhat controversial topic, it’s advisable to avoid regular consumption of high-mercury seafood such as shark and swordfish. Among all seafood, only scallops, shrimp, and clams have a lower mercury content than oysters.

Oysters contain a recently discovered, natural antioxidant called DHMBA that exhibits powerful antioxidant effects.

In test tube studies, DHMBA (3,5-Dihydroxy-4-methoxybenzyl alcohol) is shown to be 15x more effective in reducing oxidative stress than Vitamin E [8]. In mice, supplementing with DHMBA-rich oysters also reduces markers of oxidative stress, including inflammation [9].

Test tube and animal studies can’t be used to predict outcomes in human studies, so more research is needed to determine whether DHMBA is effective at fighting free radicals in humans, but the early research looks promising.

Oysters come in all shapes and sizes.

Today most consumers prefer smaller, more petite oysters, which are harvested between eight months to two years in the U.S., depending on where they’re grown. But, like plants, oysters continue to grow if not cultivated, and if left to grow for four or five years, oysters can grow to over seven inches in length, as chef Dan Barber shows in the photo above, and describes below:

During the 1918 influenza epidemic, oysters were the hoarder equivalent of today’s toilet paper — stockpiling was ubiquitous, prices skyrocketed, black markets developed. Poachers raided oyster beds — you can often still see the remnants of single-room guard houses built in the middle of the bay where guards with shotguns stood lookout.
Why the hysteria? Legend had it that oysters could fend off the flu, especially the rich, briny broth locked inside. As legends go, it was fairly sound science. Zinc has been proven to be an immunity booster, and oysters are zinc powerhouses — pound for pound, these bivalves might be the best possible source of zinc.
Back then, oysters weren’t raised as cocktail-sized delicacies. Before steaks and chicken breasts, oysters were harvested at full size, providing a major source of protein for communities close to the shore. (Think: oyster stew for dinner.) Full-sized oysters — 4 or 5 years old, like the oyster on the right (versus the typical 1 year olds on the left) — are a relic, as out of fashion as shoulder pads[…]

Oysters can be eaten fresh or smoked (canned).

Oysters aren’t only for fine dining or eating raw. Smoked and canned oysters make a great (occasional) afternoon snack, once every week or two. While oysters are extremely nutritious, eating a can every day would likely be too much of a good thing.

I’m partial to the Crown Prince smoked oysters with red chili pepper.

Once you get used to them, oysters are a delicious treat, and a good investment.

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Like wine, chocolate, and coffee, oysters can be an acquired–and expensive–taste, but once that taste is acquired, they make a delicious snack or appetizer. Trying different oysters and noting the subtle differences between Kumamoto, Miyagi, and Fanny Bay, as well as experimenting with lemon juice, tabasco, vinegar, and horseradish toppings, makes for a fun culinary experience.

Oysters at a high-end restaurant can be expensive, but learn to shuck and prepare your own oysters and you can get them for much cheaper, sometimes $0.75 per oyster or less.

A half dozen oysters would cost less than five bucks, and provide more nutrition for that price than nearly any other food. Plus, those six oysters would have filtered and cleaned over 50,000 gallons of sea water during their 1–2 years of life [10].

For a country that’s overfed and undernourished, and a world that’s experiencing a crisis in ocean health and marine pollution, oysters are one of the best investments you can make.

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