The never-ending debate: to eat oysters raw or cooked?
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
“Believe it or not, the taste of the oyster depends on where the oyster was harvested.” -Tony Le
Oysters are the epitome of the seafood eating experience. They are a luxury and a delicacy for shellfish lovers. In his 1981 album, A Place for My Stuff, the late comedian George Carlin, quipped about oysters: “When I look at an oyster, I think, ‘Hey, somebody lives in there! That’s somebody’s little house.’ I’m not gonna break in on somebody just to eat them, come on! […] Don’t get me wrong, if an oyster slips and falls out of his shell, I’ll eat that motherfucker in a minute!”
According to the simplyoysters website, zoologists believe the very first oyster appeared over 200 million years ago, during the Triassic period when dinosaurs ruled the earth. Fossil records revealed that oysters can be traced as far back as 145 million years ago. Yes, surprisingly, that is older than a Rolling Stones tour jacket!
American historian and academic, Joseph Conlin, states in his 1980 article about oysters, published on the American Heritage website, that oysters are found in the tidal waters of every continent except Antarctica. Oysters are also located on the shores of every sea but the Caspian. As Conlin writes: “It flourishes best in the bays and estuaries where [salt] and freshwater mix, and people build resorts. And despite the saying that it was a bold man who first ate one, the oyster has been consumed by humans since before the oldest certifiable man-made artifact.”
Of course, there is a never-ending debate over whether oysters should be eaten raw or cooked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states on its website that “…eating raw or undercooked oysters and other shellfish can put you at risk for foodborne illness.” Also, the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) website warns, “Eating shellfish with high levels of certain toxins can lead to serious and potentially fatal illnesses such as: Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), Domoic Acid Poisoning (Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning, ASP) and Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP) or Vibrio.”
When it pertains to vibriosis, the CDC says it is caused by infection with certain types of Vibrio bacteria—while also stating a person will not notice the bacteria on the surface: “An oyster that contains harmful bacteria doesn’t look, smell, or even taste different from any other oyster. You can kill Vibrio in oysters and certain other shellfish, such as mussels and clams, by cooking them properly.” In addition, Sarah Klein, in her 2018 article about oysters published on the health website recommends eating oysters cooked. “Just because you’re dining at a fancy establishment, eating your raw oysters with hot sauce, or chasing them with chardonnay, you’re not safe from bacteria, according to the FDA [Food and Drug Administration]. Heat is the only thing that will fully destroy those buggers, so order oysters fully cooked.”
Furthermore, Dr. Ron Harrell, Commodity Director for the Louisiana Farm Bureau, stated in a 2007 television interview that people who have serious health issues should not be eating raw oysters: “For those folks that have say, diabetes or a problem with their immune system… I would recommend, and the industry recommends that you cook the oyster. The organism is killed by heat, and it causes no problem in the cooked product.”
However, a 2020 article published on WebMD states there are health benefits to eating raw oysters: “Raw oysters are also an abundant source of several vitamins and minerals. They’re a particularly good source of vitamin B12, which research has indicated plays a big role in keeping your brain healthy.” Other micronutrients include Iron, Vitamin D, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Copper, Zinc, Selenium, and Manganese.
Nonetheless, oysters also contain high levels of zinc. In her March 2019 article published on the healthline website, Jillian Kubala, a registered dietitian based in Westhampton, New York, says too much zinc can be harmful: “While this mineral is important for health, consuming too much can be harmful. Though zinc toxicity is most often associated with supplements, eating too many oysters too frequently can lead to negative health effects, such as reduced levels of the minerals copper and iron that zinc competes with for absorption. Additionally, those who are allergic to seafood should avoid eating them.”
Tony Le, a Coquitlam resident, is an experienced fisherman and seafood connoisseur. He grew up in Campbell River, BC, the “Salmon Capital of the World”. Le loves eating shellfish, especially oysters. “The unique sweet taste of the oyster is what I enjoy the most,” he said in an email interview with the Other Press. He understands people’s concerns about eating oysters raw but believes that eating them that way is generally safe. He says: “Eating raw oysters [is] generally safe if you know where the oysters were harvested… Oysters served at restaurants are commercially harvested and are safe to consume raw. If you are foraging for oysters, be sure to always check updated marine biotoxin reports [on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) website] for the area you plan on harvesting oysters.”
Le prefers to eat oysters raw; as he states: “The best way to experience oysters is to eat them raw. Believe it or not, the taste of the oyster depends on where the oyster was harvested. Different areas of the BC coast will produce a variety of different-tasting oysters. This is why restaurants will name the beach or area in which the oyster was harvested.” But Le says that if you plan to cook your oysters, do not overcook them: “Just like any shellfish, [if you overcook] the oysters, it will shrink down—become tough and lose its ocean taste.”
Oysters are meant to be enjoyed and savored, and the choice is yours on how you prefer to eat them. But it would be wise to be curious and inquire how fresh the oysters are, and especially where they came from. Heath Hyndman, owner of Cape Harbour Oyster Bar & Grill in Cape Coral, Florida, says the risks of getting sick from eating raw oysters will be decreased by simply using basic common sense. Hyndman recommends not leaving oysters out in the open—especially in hot weather—telling television station Fox 4 in June 2019: “Hey, be clean, wear your gloves. Keep them cold [with ice] and the oysters will be good. You will not get sick [from] them.”