Can you eat oysters in summer?

photo of oysters by Larry Hoffman via Flickr

“Only eat oysters in months with an ‘R’ in the name.”

I heard this [ancient wisdom, old wives tale, saying, good advice, myth] while on a trip to a seaside location recently.  Oysters were on a menu; it’s July.  No ‘R’.  No oysters.  It seems sort of heretical, since one of the pleasures of summer seaside vacations is sitting on a deck or patio, enjoying local seafood.

I’m neutral about oysters anyway, but of course it got me thinking about oyster nutrition.  And the most basic question of all — who thought eating oysters was a good idea in the first place?  They’re so weird looking, not to mention almost impossible to pry open.  Even then, they cling to their shell, so you have to scrape them free before slurping them down.  Oh, and you have to eat them while they’re still alive.  Despite all that, people eat them, and are willing to pay a lot of money for the privilege.  What are they getting for their money?

First of all, flavor.  Oysters do have a unique and subtle briny flavor.  Added bonus: no cooking required.  Another added bonus: they fit into lots of different diet plans, including:

  • low fat
  • high protein
  • Paleo
  • gluten-free
  • low calorie

They’d also fit nicely into a Mediterranean diet plan.  6 medium raw oysters (about 3 oz edible) has:

  • about 43 calories
  • 5 grams protein
  • 1.4 gram fat
  • 3.9 mg iron
  • 33 mg zinc

In fact, it’s that whopping high zinc content that gives these mollusks a reputation for improving fertility.  Zinc is essential for both sperm and egg maturation, and is involved in other aspects of the reproductive cycle.  It’s not that excess zinc makes you more fertile, just that adequate zinc is important.  So yes, oysters have significant zinc, but eating them once or twice a year isn’t going to dramatically boost your zinc and fertility status.  And don’t confuse fertility with virility.  Oysters aren’t going to improve your sex life.

Oysters grow in shallow coastal waters, and are increasingly farmed.  In fact, close to 95% of the oysters we consume are farmed now.  Oyster farming doesn’t just benefit oyster lovers.  These shellfish can remove pollutants from water, improving water quality.  Because they don’t need to be fed, excess feed doesn’t drift beyond the farm location.   Plus they don’t swim around like other farmed fish, so don’t escape and impact wild populations.

What could go wrong?  Well oysters can make you sick if they consume toxin-containing algae.  And they can carry pathogenic bacteria.  Public health inspectors are supposed to monitor oyster quality and protect us from these problems, and mostly they do a good job.  What about that saying — only eat raw oysters in a month with ‘R’ in the name?  Months without ‘R’ are summer months, when coastal waters are warmer, and oysters can be more susceptible to contamination with bacteria.  It’s not inevitable that you’d be sickened, but if you want to play it extra safe, you might follow that advice.  And if you cook them, harmful microorganisms should be killed.  The internet is full of famous recipes, including oyster stew, Oysters Rockefeller, fried oysters and many variations on grilled.  It all sounds like a lot of work (and added calories) to me.  Why go to so much trouble when a simple oyster slurped out of the shell is so wonderful?

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