6 Surprising Things You Should Know About Eating Oysters

When you eat oysters the right way, they can be good for you (and your garden)!

June 20, 2017
oysters and lemon
John Harper/getty

Whether you love them raw, fried, or on the half shell, oysters can provide you with a host of health benefits, among them, high levels of heart- and brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and enough zinc (the aphrodisiac mineral) to keep your mojo flowing all night. (Here's an unbelievable recipe for grilled oysters with tarragon and miso.) Though farmed oysters are one of the most sustainable seafood options out there, more than 85 percent of the world's wild oyster reefs have been lost. (Here are 12 fish you should never eat.) 

(On just a quarter-acre of land, you can produce fresh, organic food for a family of four—year-round. Rodale's The Backyard Homestead shows you how; get your copy today.)

Invasive species such as Atlantic coast crabs and snails are decimating oyster reefs off the California coast, and farm runoff from the Midwest is harming wild oyster beds in the Gulf of Mexico. Topping it off, climate change has increased the acidification of ocean waters, which in turn weakens oysters' shells causing them to die off. Luckily, more than more than 95% of oysters consumed worldwide are farmed, so you can feel good about what you're eating as long as it comes from a sustainable oyster farm. Here are six things you should know about oysters before you dine.

Related: 4 Canned Fish You Should Avoid At All Costs

oysters served
Kelvin Kam / EyeEm/getty
Farmed oysters are a better choice than wild

Unlike some fish-farming operations, which can allow non-native species to escape into surrounding ecosystems and spread disease, oyster farms can actually improve the quality of oceans and bays. That's because the oysters in offshore farms will feed on particulate matter and nutrients that might otherwise pollute waterways. So favor farmed oysters when shopping and dining; you'll also avoid depleting wild populations at risk from by those invasive crabs and snails.

Read More: 12 Fish You Should Never Eat


It's OK to eat oysters in "non-R" months

In his book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, Mark Kurlansky writes that the "don't eat oysters in months without R's in them" rule was true for a while, in part because it was hard to keep them from spoiling in hot weather before modern refrigeration was invented. But, he adds, oyster-lovers also noticed that oysters tasted best in cooler months because spawning, which takes place in May, June, July, and August, makes oysters translucent, thin, and less tasty. That still holds true today, although modern oyster-farming techniques are starting to work around flavor issues.

Bottom line: you can still feel good about digging into some oysters this summer, but expect peak flavor outside of the warmer months. If you're enjoying oysters at home, here are the tools you'll need:

Buy it:
King Kooker 5500 Stainless Steel Oyster Opener and Knife, from $52, Amazon.com 
Oyster Knife and Opener, from $14, Amazon.com

mint in garden
Oysters are good for your garden

Oyster shells are high in calcium, which benefits your garden soil. (To keep your soil healthy and your garden thriving, here are 26 plants you should always grow side-by-side.) Calcium not only balances the soil's pH, it's also a vital nutrient that strengthens cell walls, leading to stronger, healthier plants. You can buy ground oyster shell lime from garden stores, or you can just crush the shells left over from your next oyster bake and add them to your compost pile.

Buy it: Oyster Shell Flour, from $11, Amazon.com

woman eating oyster
Hero Images/getty
Oysters really can be an aphrodisiac

Sometimes. Maybe. Very few scientific studies have shown that oysters can actually raise your sexual desire, but they still could help spur it on. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food; zinc is a key mineral for sexual health in men, and severe cases of zinc deficiency can lead to impotence. However, it's more likely that oysters could raise your libido by the power of suggestion, much like peaches, alcohol, chocolate, or any other food with a desire-boosting rep.

Related: 7 Vegan Aphrodisiacs

oyster mushrooms
You can grow "oysters" in your backyard, or inside your apartment

Love the flavor of oysters but hate the slimy texture? Can't find a good fishmonger in your neighborhood? There are a number of plants that taste like oysters, including oyster mushrooms and black salsify, also called "vegetable oyster." (Check out: I Tried To Grow Oyster Mushrooms In My Apartment, And This Is What Happened). Salsify is a root vegetable that's similar to parsnips or carrots, and it grows from late fall to early spring. If you want to grow your own, gardeners recommend planting salsify about three months before cold weather really sets in.

Read More: How to Grow Mushrooms in Under 10 Days

oysters near water
Jean Marc Galia / EyeEm/Getty
Saving oysters could save your house—or at least your dinner

One of the many environmental benefits of wild oyster reefs is increased protection against soil erosion. Reefs stabilize ocean shorelines, making them less susceptible to damage by hurricanes and strong storms. Being filter feeders, wild oysters also remove bacteria, sediments, and even oil spills from waterways, making oyster reefs cleaner habitats for shrimp, clams, snails, and crabs, and the improved water quality encourages seagrass growth, which creates better habitats for fish.

Groups like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the North Carolina Oyster Blueprint are thankfully working hard to restore wild oyster reefs for their many ecological benefits.