Whether you love ’em or you’re repulsed by them, oysters are a popular type of shellfish you can eat cooked, raw, or even pickled.
Folks have long considered oysters a delicacy and a natural aphrodisiac, but these libido claims are mostly anecdotal. However, oysters do offer some legit health benefits since they’re extremely nutritious.
Oysters are a good source of protein, zinc, selenium, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids that provide health-boosting nutritional benefits.
So, even if you’re not Casanova, here’s how oysters can actually benefit your health.
There are a few different types of oysters, but Pacific and Eastern oysters are the most common. Technically bivalve mollusks, these little critters hang out in the ocean and bays before you crack open their shells (via shucking) and slurp out their soft, meaty bodies for a snack.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of raw Pacific oysters offers these nutrients:
- Calories: 81
- Protein: 9.45 grams (g)
- Fat: 2.30 g
- Carbohydrates: 4.95 g
- Zinc: 151% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Copper: 176% of the DV
- Manganese: 28% of the DV
- Vitamin B12: 667% of the DV
- Iron: 28% of the DV
- Magnesium: 5% of the DV
- Selenium: 140% of the DV
Oysters bring a boatload of nutrients to the table that can help your overall health. Here’s the lowdown on the most prominent benefits you can get from oysters’ various nutrients.
Oysters are a great source of complete protein, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids your body needs to keep your muscles, bones, and tissues healthy.
According to a 2018 research review, eating enough protein can make you feel fuller and help with weight management. Foods full of protein also boost your levels of hormones like peptide YY, which help you feel full and satisfied.
Including optimal amounts of protein in your diet may also help with blood sugar regulation, which is particularly important if you have diabetes. Studies in folks with type 2 diabetes suggest that high protein diets may help lower high blood triglyceride levels, a significant risk factor for heart disease.
Oysters actually offer more zinc per serving than any other food.
You need zinc for immune system health, wound healing, growth, and development. Zinc deficiency is super uncommon in the United States, but if it happens, it can cause you to lose your appetite, hair, and sense of taste.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s are important for eye and heart health, brain function, growth, and development. They also have anti-inflammatory properties, and research shows that folks who eat a lot of omega-3s have a lower risk of heart disease and cognitive decline.
Not getting enough of this essential mineral can have all sorts of negative health effects, including iron deficiency anemia and problems with growth and hormone production. It’s particularly important to get enough iron if you’re pregnant.
Some folks have trouble getting enough iron. Eating foods high in iron, like oysters, can help you meet your quota (though you’ll want to skip the raw shellfish while preggo). A 3.5-ounce serving of cooked oysters will give you 51 percent of the DV for iron.
Real talk: Oysters aren’t a huge source of magnesium, but every little bit counts when it comes to diet.
You need it to make new protein in your muscles, keep your nerves functioning well, and regulate your blood pressure and blood glucose levels. This mineral also helps support your immune system to protect you from invading nasties.
Selenium is an essential trace mineral critical for maintaining thyroid function and protecting against thyroid disease. In addition, selenium has antioxidant properties that help protect your cells from damage by free radicals.
3,5-Dihydroxy-4-methoxybenzyl alcohol (DHMBA)
Say what? It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but oysters contain a unique antioxidant called DHMBA. Scientists discovered this molecule pretty recently, and it appears to have powerful antioxidant effects.
A 2015 test-tube study found that DHMBA was 15 times more effective at addressing oxidative stress than a synthetic form of vitamin E called Trolox. Another lab study published in 2014 suggests that DHMBA may specifically protect liver cells from oxidative stress damage.
Just note: We still need more research in humans to find out just how DHMBA helps protect us from oxidative stress IRL.
Copper is a pretty forgotten mineral, and deficiencies are super rare. But you’ll get about 176 percent of the DV by slurping down some raw oysters.
Copper works with iron to help your bod form red blood cells. It also supports metabolic processes and the health of your bones, blood vessels, nerves, and immune system.
Manganese deficiency is actually super hard to diagnose, rare, and generally a bit of a mystery. But you can get a good dose of this mineral by snacking on oysters.
Even though oysters have a great nutritional profile, they get a pretty bad rap as a risky food, along with their shellfish siblings. Here’s what to look out for.
Raw oysters may contain Vibrio vulnificus, a type of bacteria that lurk in the waters where oysters are cultivated. As the water gets warmer during the summer months, these bacteria can thrive. So no matter how fresh your oysters are, there’s still a risk. And it’s impossible to tell by sight or smell whether oysters are contaminated.
Heavy metals and viruses
Oysters can carry Norwalk-type viruses and enteroviruses that can make you v. sick. The mollusk can also be contaminated with heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury that are no good for your health.
Along with bacteria concerns, this is why the CDC recommends you stick to eating cooked oysters. And kiddos, pregnant and breastfeeding folks, and those with compromised immune systems should avoid eating raw seafood like oysters.
Shellfish are notorious for being a major (and potentially life threatening) allergen. So if you have a known allergy to other shellfish, like shrimp, skip the oysters.
You can opt to poach your oysters in red wine sauce, fry them in beer batter, coat them in chili pepper and red onion salsa, add them to a broth… the list goes on.
If you’re not looking to live on the wild side (and risk a nasty case of food poisoning ☠️), you can enjoy oysters in so many ways beyond raw and chilled with a side of lemon.
Here are some tips for safely cooking oysters:
- Pick through the oysters first and ditch any with open shells.
- Pop them in a pan of boiling water and continue boiling until the shells open.
- Once they open, boil for another 3–5 minutes or place them in a hot steamer and cook for another 4–9 minutes.
- Discard any oysters that don’t fully open after cooking. If they’re sealed tightly or partially opened, throw them away.
If you’ve opted for shucked — aka already opened — oysters, you can also try the following:
- Fry in oil for at least 3 minutes at 375°F (190°C).
- Broil 3 inches from the heat source for 3 minutes.
- Bake at 450°F (230°C) for 10 minutes.
And if you decide to shuck the oysters yourself, be extremely careful and use a special oyster shucking knife (no one likes a dinnertime urgent care visit!). You’ll also want to wrap the hand holding the oyster in a kitchen towel for grip and protection.
Then, it’s simply a matter of placing the tip of the knife at the base of the oyster’s hinge and twisting it to pry the shell open.
Oysters are a seafood fave that are a great source of nutrients like protein, zinc, selenium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.
But raw or undercooked oysters may contain potentially harmful bacteria that could make you seriously ill. So if you fancy adding oysters to your diet, cook them thoroughly to avoid getting sick.