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Oysters

Nutrition, risks, and how to cook them

Oysters are a delicacy enjoyed around the world. They offer many health benefits, but also come with risks. Discover the best ways to prepare them.

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Oysters: Benefits, safety tips, and cooking techniques
Last updated on February 6, 2024, and last reviewed by an expert on January 24, 2024.

Offering benefits to both ecosystems and our health, oysters are a powerhouse of nutrition, low in calories but rich in vital nutrients like vitamin B12, zinc, and distinctive antioxidants.

Oysters: Benefits, safety tips, and cooking techniques

Found in marine habitats like bays and oceans, oysters are saltwater bivalve mollusks crucial for environmental health. They filter out pollutants and provide homes for species like barnacles and mussels.

Globally, the unique, briny taste of various oyster types is cherished, and beyond their famed aphrodisiac properties, these mollusks are nutritional treasures.

This article delves into the significant health advantages—and potential risks—of consuming oysters and offers insights on the best preparation methods.

In this article

Oyster nutrition facts

Encased in a hard, uneven shell, the oyster’s plump, gray interior—its meat—is a nutritional gem.

For instance, a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) portion of cooked wild eastern oysters delivers these nutrients:

Despite being low in calories, oysters are a treasure trove of nutrients, including protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. A 3.5-ounce serving astonishingly provides over 100% of the daily needs for vitamin B12, zinc, and copper, along with substantial amounts of selenium, iron, and manganese.

Moreover, these delightful mollusks are a valuable source of omega-3 fatty acids. These polyunsaturated fats are crucial for regulating inflammation, supporting heart and brain health, and guarding against type 2 diabetes.

Summary: Oysters are nutrient-dense, offering proteins, essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. They’re exceptionally rich in vitamin B12, zinc, and copper.

Oysters contain a lot of essential nutrients

Loaded with key nutrients, oysters stand out particularly for their rich content of certain vitamins and minerals:

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These nutrients are not just fundamental for health; they also provide antioxidant defense.

For instance, selenium is known for its potent antioxidant capacity, safeguarding the body against oxidative stress, a harmful imbalance due to excessive free radicals. This stress is associated with chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and cognitive decline.

Zinc, along with vitamins B12 and D, also contribute to the antioxidant prowess of oysters, amplifying their protective benefits.

Studies indicate that diets rich in antioxidants could reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and overall mortality.

Summary: Oysters are abundant in zinc, iron, selenium, and vitamin B12, offering antioxidant properties that support general health.

Oysters deliver high-quality protein

Oysters are a prime source of high-quality protein, with a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving delivering 9 grams of this essential nutrient.

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They provide a complete protein, encompassing all nine essential amino acids your body requires.

Incorporating protein-rich foods in your diet can enhance satiety, aid in weight management, and stabilize hunger by increasing levels of satiety hormones like cholecystokinin.

Evidence supports that high-protein diets can enhance weight loss, possibly leading to more significant results than low-fat or high-carb diets.

Such diets might also benefit individuals with diabetes. Research reviewing 13 studies suggested that high-protein diets could lower insulin resistance in those with type 2 diabetes, though more research is necessary.

Additionally, high-protein diets might decrease heart disease risk factors in those with type 2 diabetes. An analysis of 18 studies found that these diets notably reduced triglyceride levels, a key risk factor for heart disease.

Summary: Diets rich in high-quality proteins, including oysters, may foster weight loss, enhance insulin sensitivity, and decrease heart disease risk factors in individuals with type 2 diabetes.

Oysters house a distinctive antioxidant

Beyond their rich array of vitamins, oysters are known for a unique antioxidant called 3,5-Dihydroxy-4-methoxybenzyl alcohol (DHMBA).

DHMBA, a phenolic compound, has shown remarkable antioxidant activity. Research in a laboratory setting revealed that its protective capacity against oxidative stress is 15 times stronger than Trolox, a synthetic vitamin E variant.

While human studies are still pending, laboratory research suggests that DHMBA from oysters might particularly benefit liver health.

One study in a laboratory setting showed that DHMBA shielded human liver cells from harm and cell death caused by oxidative stress.

Another study indicated that DHMBA could reduce the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, a process associated with atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in arteries, which is a significant risk factor for heart disease.

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While these findings are promising, further studies are necessary to confirm the effectiveness of DHMBA in combating oxidative stress in humans.

Summary: DHMBA, a potent antioxidant found in oysters, may offer protection against oxidative damage and support liver and heart health, although research is still predominantly in the laboratory phase.

Potential risks of oysters

While oysters are nutritional treasures, they also come with certain risks, particularly when consumed raw.

Bacterial risks in oysters

Raw oysters carry a higher risk of bacterial infection.

Filter-feeding shellfish like oysters can harbor Vibrio bacteria, including strains such as Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus. Consuming these shellfish raw heightens the risk of exposure.

Infections from these bacteria can result in symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and even severe conditions like septicemia—a life-threatening blood infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that out of the 80,000 Vibrio infections in the U.S. each year, around 100 result in death.

Other harmful elements

Besides bacteria, oysters can contain Norwalk-type viruses, enteroviruses, and chemical pollutants like heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury).

Due to these potential health hazards, it’s advisable for children, those with compromised immune systems, pregnant or breastfeeding individuals, to avoid raw seafood.

For those opting for raw oysters, it’s important to recognize these risks. Despite strict monitoring by state and federal agencies, ensuring the safety of raw oysters is challenging.

This is why leading health bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC advocate for consuming oysters only when cooked.

Additional considerations

Oysters are exceptionally high in zinc, which is beneficial in moderation but can be harmful in excess. Overconsumption of oysters can lead to zinc toxicity, potentially disrupting the absorption of other minerals like copper and iron.

People with seafood or shellfish allergies should steer clear of oysters.

Summary: Consuming raw oysters can pose risks due to potential bacterial and viral contamination. Health experts recommend enjoying oysters cooked to mitigate these risks.

How to prepare and cook oysters

While raw oysters can present health risks, proper preparation and cooking significantly reduce these concerns. Ensure you’re sourcing from trustworthy suppliers, although this doesn’t guarantee absolute safety.

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Consuming cooked oysters is a safer choice, as heat eliminates harmful bacteria.

The CDC advises the following cooking methods for shucked oysters:

When buying and preparing oysters, keep these safety guidelines in mind:

Explore these appetizing and simple ways to integrate oysters into your meals:

Summary: To minimize the risk of bacterial contamination, prefer thoroughly cooked oysters over raw. Ensure you’re selecting oysters with closed shells and discard any that don’t open during cooking.

Summary

Oysters, a nutritional gem among shellfish, provide an extensive range of health benefits.

They are a source of high-quality protein, essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, contributing positively to health.

However, it’s crucial to be cautious of the potential risks associated with raw oysters, primarily due to bacteria. To enjoy oysters safely, it’s best to have them cooked.

If you’re keen on seafood, consider incorporating these flavorful, nutrient-rich mollusks into your diet.

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