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.
Zinc also plays a critical role in reproductive health, including sperm production — which may be why oysters gained their aphrodisiac reputation. (The more you know 💫)
There’s a whole range of B vitamins, but you specifically need B12 for nervous system function, DNA synthesis, and red blood cell production.
Lucky for you, a 3.5-ounce serving of raw oysters gives you more than 6 times the DV for B12.
Omega-3 fatty acids
If you’re not a fan of other omega-3-rich foods, like salmon, you can get a good dose of omega-3 fatty acids from oysters.
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.
Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin (a part of your red blood cells that helps transport oxygen throughout your body).
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.
Magnesium is important for more than 300 different enzyme reactions in your body.
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.
Oysters are one of the foods highest in selenium, with a raw spread boasting 140 percent of the DV (Brazil nuts are still the king, though 👑).
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.
DHMBA may also help with heart disease — a 2012 test-tube study suggests it could reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind).
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.
You need manganese to help enzymes function and to keep your bones, reproductive processes, and immune response in tip-top shape. It also works with vitamin K to help with blood clotting.
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.
Symptoms can include fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and even a potentially life threatening blood infection.
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.
Although it’s more common for folks to be allergic to crustaceans like prawns and crabs, you can absolutely be allergic to oysters too.
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.