Raw Oysters Are Actually Still Alive When You Eat Them — but Here's Why That's a Good Thing
You might love slurping on some oysters on a warm day with a glass of white wine in hand. Or perhaps on a first date (they are apparently an "aphrodisiac," after all!). Yet, did you know that those oysters you're eating are actually alive when you put them in your mouth? Because I certainly didn't. And now I can't seem to shake that thought from my mind. They are ALIVE and I am swallowing them.
Yet, believe it or not, it's actually a good thing. It turns out oysters must be alive when we are eating them in order to avoid getting sick (which would surely ruin the whole sexy aphrodisiac thing).
Why Are Raw Oysters Alive When You Eat Them?
"When you slurp back oysters raw, they are still alive or just freshly killed or shucked prior to serving, which is why you oftentimes see them on ice," says Alex Lewis, RD, LDN, a dietitian for Baze. This ensures they are fresh when eating, so they maintain the right flavor profile, texture and nutrient density. This makes them taste better and be better digested, too.
"It also ensures food safety," she says. "Dead raw oysters run a greater risk of being infected with viruses and bacteria that can have a negative impact on your health—although the overall risk is relatively low," she says. Low or not, that's why they are in fact alive or freshly killed to keep you safe.
Both raw alive and raw dead pose risks though, she says. According to studies, "raw oysters (especially raw dead oysters) can carry some dangerous bacteria (vibrio vulnificus) with side effects such as diarrhea and vomiting," she says. You're at a greater risk of infection when choosing to eat raw oysters, so be extra careful.
There are also viruses and other contaminants and pollutants like heavy metals, which can pose a greater risk when choosing raw over cooked, too. She says, "The risk for this type of contamination remains smaller in prevalence than other foodborne illness risks (like salmonella contamination with chicken)," so don't freak out here.
Oyster Buying and Cooking Tips
First off, don't purchase or use uncooked oysters where the shell is already open or damaged, as this means it's likely dead, she says, which is not what you want, as you can get sick. And "don't overcrowd them in a pot as some may remain undercooked," she says, which can lead to contamination from the uneven cooking.
Always check to open the shell when cooking too. "If the shell does not open while cooking, it's best to discard the oyster," she says.
The Bottom Line
Oysters are a great source of nutrients, like zinc and potassium, and they can be an excellent choice at restaurants or at home. They work well in pasta, soups and stews, marinated on the grill and much more. Yet, don't eat them dead. And don't let the thought of them being alive scare you into not eating them anymore!
"Ideally, choose cooked oysters or be smart about eating raw oysters (making sure they are alive or freshly killed just prior to eating) and understand that there is some risk there," she says.