(Natalia Lisovskaya/Shutterstock.com)

Are Oysters Vegan? — Bivalves And The Vegan Diet

by | July 27, 2020

“LETS CHAT ABOUT CHANGE.” 

These four words, written by plant-based influencer Loni Jane oncontroversial Instagram post, sparked some serious debate.

In the post, the social media influencer, with nearly 400,000 followers, explained that she had added oysters to an otherwise vegan diet, news that came much to the dismay of a number of her fans. 

After announcing the change to her lifestyle, which had been virtually the same for nearly a decade, Loni went on to explain to her followers why she felt this change was necessary. She explained that she had been dreaming of oysters and had been battling mineral imbalances for years. 

Loni told her followers, “I feel they are an important addition to my life that will have a positive impact. I’m content with the choice and I hope you can choose to keep your judgements to yourself.”

This didn’t keep the judgments from rolling in. From eye rolling emojis to call-out comments, Loni’s request didn’t stop disappointed followers from voicing their complaints surrounding her decision.

A quick google search shows that Loni Jane isn’t alone in adding oysters or other bivalves to an otherwise plant-based diet. More and more vegans are breaking the widely-accepted definition of the lifestyle to eat clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops. So, why are all of these vegans eating bivalves? Is it ethical? Is it healthy? Is it sustainable? Is it vegan, or is it something else?

Here, we’re taking a deep dive into into this issue to explore how some tiny sea creatures are making a big wave in the vegan movement.

A group of clams
Clams or one of many bivalves commonly eaten by humans and other animals (Goh Seok Thuan/Shutterstock.com)

What Are Bivalves?

Oysters fall into a larger category of similar species called bivalves.

Bivalves include “more than 15,000 species of clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, and other members of the phylum Mollusca characterized by a shell that is divided from front to back into left and right valves.” 

Bivalves earn their name from the two-part shell in which they live, and all bivalves are aquatic and live in either saltwater or freshwater.

Hands with a plate of oysters
Oysters are appearing in an increasing number of otherwise plant-based diets (Pisaphotography/Shutterstock.com)

Who Are The Plant-Based People Eating Bivalves?

While the thought of eating bivalves might make some vegans go clammy, there is a growing group of people adding these small sea creatures to their diet. A new term, ostrovegan, has been introduced to define people who are plant-based with the exception of bivalves. “Ostro” comes from the Latin word for oyster, and the term creates a space for people who can’t quite identify as hard line vegans but wouldn’t fit into the definition of vegetarian or pescetarian, either. 

Ostroveganism is more than a bit controversial. Many vegans believe that someone who eats animals, bivalve or not, should not fall into the category of vegan at all. PETA argues that we don’t yet know enough about shellfish to truly determine whether or not they feel pain, and that they should thus stay off of our vegan plates. 

However, ostrovegans have a number of arguments for eating bivalves. Many claim to be following an ethical lifestyle and advocate for the sustainability of their diet, as well as the nutritional benefits of eating bivalves.

Hands shucking an oyster
The verdict is mixed on bivalves capacity for pain (Cody Traxler/Shutterstock.com)

Can Bivalves Feel Pain?

The main ethical argument in the case for eating bivalves is that, just like plants, they have no brain or central nervous system, and are thus largely believed to not feel pain as we know it. For some, that is not enough.

When asked if oysters feel pain, Marine Biologist Helen Scales responded, “I think the answer has to be probably not, but we don’t really know. Oysters have a nervous system; they can respond. They have no brain as such; they have two ganglia — or masses of nerves — around their body, but not a central brain like ours.”

The brainlessness mentioned by scales is what makes most scientists lean toward the assumption that they don’t have the capacity for pain. For some vegans, particularly those whose primary focus is on animal suffering, this can be enough evidence for the inclusion of bivalves in their diet.

Loni Jane acknowledged this as part of her reasoning for adding oysters to her plant-based diet, writing that oysters contribute to our ecosystem “without bloodshed and suffering.”

In his piece “Consider the Oyster,” Christopher Cox makes the confident statement that “even strict vegans should feel comfortable eating oysters by the boatload.”

Cox elaborates by saying that “biologically, oysters are not in the plant kingdom, but when it comes to ethical eating, they are almost indistinguishable from plants.”

Oysters underwater on lines
Oyster farming is a “go” for some, and a “no” for others (Divedog/Shutterstock.com)

Peter Singer, famed philosopher and author of Animal Liberation, originally wrote that he ate bivalves because there was no evidence that they could experience pain.

However, in more recent editions of the book, Singer writes “while one cannot with any confidence say that these creatures do feel pain, so one can equally have little confidence in saying that they do not feel pain… Since it is so easy to avoid eating them, I now think it better to do so.”

Cox rebukes this argument and calls it “unconvincing,” saying, “we also can’t state with complete confidence that plants do, or do not, feel pain — yet so far Singer hasn’t made a stand against alfalfa abuse.”  

The ethical line for eating bivalves, from the perspective of sentience and suffering, is thus a little blurry.

Oysters and clams with vegetables
Mussels are also classed as bivalves (Denio109/Shutterstock.com)

Are Bivalves Good For You?

Over the last few decades, nutrition research has been leaning in favor of a plant-based diet and demonstrating some of the harmful effects of consuming animal products. Where do bivalves fall in all of this?

In Carl Marziali’s piece “The Case for Fish and Oyster Farming,” he writes that “Mother Nature takes oysters seriously,” and that with all of the-good-for-you qualities that oysters boast, “it’s enough to arouse a nutritionist.”

Ostrovegans promote the strong nutritional value of bivalves. In her oyster announcement on Instagram, Loni Jane writes, “Oysters are one of the richest sources of nutrients on this earth. And those nutrients our bodies thrive on.. MINERALS , PROTEIN, DHA, B12, IRON, IODINE, CALCIUM, VITAMIN A, B12, C, E, D and ZINC just to name a few!!!” She’s not wrong.

Bivalves, like oysters, boast high nutritional value. A 3.5 ounce serving of oysters packs seven grams of protein along with loads of vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, selenium, and more.

That said, the nutrients and minerals found in bivalves can also be found elsewhere. Vegans can consume nutritional yeast for b12 and beans, nuts, or leafy greens for iron. A well-planned, balanced plant-based diet will provide you with all of the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that you need, but oysters do provide a big nutritional boost for those who choose to eat them. 

Plastic pollution on a beach
Pollution is a common concern attached to seafood consumption (Lurii Stepanov/Shutterstock.com)

Bivalves And Ocean Pollution

So, bivalves are packing some nutritional advantages — but isn’t the ocean polluted? In his Nutrition Facts video on microplastics in seafood, Dr Michael Greger shares that “it is inevitable that humans eating seafood will ingest at least some microplastics, particularly when the entire creature is consumed, such as mussels, oysters, and small fish.” One study showed that an average serving of mussels contains about 90 plastic particles, while an average serving of oysters contains about 50.

Consuming microplastics can have a negative impact on our health, potentially causing “hormone disruption, cancer risk, and DNA damage.” So, in a unpolluted world, oysters are theoretically good for you. But in our plastic-filled seas, the side effects of eating microplastics may be greater than any nutritional benefits one could receive from eating bivalves.

An oyster farm in France
Many question whether bivalve farming is sustainable (Pack-Shot/Shutterstock?)

Is Eating Bivalves Sustainable?

Many vegans focus primarily on the ethical side or health benefits of their lifestyle, but a growing number of people are ditching animal products for the good of the environment. Plant-based diets have received attention for being more earth-friendly than the Standard American Diet, which includes a large amount of animal products. 

So, can bivalve farming or harvesting be sustainable? In her original oyster post, Loni Jane claimed it can, and that “farming them only improves ocean marine life.”

It’s true that bivalves are good for their marine environments. According to one YouTube video from Science Insider, “they function like natural water filters, making marshes, lakes, and other habitats more liveable.”

Many bivalve farms operate on high standards for making sure that the water in which they work is safe and healthy. Most bivalve farms grow their crops in underwater bags that allow the bivalves to feed and filter from the water that flows through holes. 

Bivalves, dubbed “corn of the sea” by Marziali, may also be an answer to food insecurity in an increasingly populated world, and many argue for untapped potential of sustainable ocean farming.

Even if bivalves can be farmed sustainably, is it really more sustainable than plant farming? It may depend on where you live. Vegans have long cited the lower impact of their diet, and while a plant-based diet is generally better than a typical omnivorous diet for the earth, not all plant foods come with the same environmental costs. 

Many plant-based favorites like avocados, cashews, and almonds — enjoyed by vegans and nonvegans alike — are actually very taxing on the earth, whether that be through high water use or transportation costs and emissions, not to mention effects on the people who farm them. 

Eating local, low-impact foods is a strong choice from a sustianability persepctive. If you happen to live near a coast, bivalves may ultimately be a more sustainable choice than something shipped from the other side of the world, plant-based or not. 

a pile of oysters vegan status doubtful
Oysters aren’t officially vegan, but some may see a case for adding them to a plant-based diet (Alterfalter/Shutterstock.com)

So — Are Oysters Vegan Or Not?

In her oyster reveal post, Loni Jane posed some questions to her followers, asking, “Did you know that oysters are important for the air we breathe? For the DNA trails that make up our own? For the health of our oceans and the eco systems within it? For the evolution of our human race?”

Oysters play a huge role in it all,” she added. 

While there were plenty of negative comments from shocked followers, Loni received many uplifting and understanding comments as well. Over the last few years, a slew of vegan Instagrammers and YouTubers have ousted themselves (or been ousted by others) as having left the vegan lifestyle behind, but many of these influencers continued to act as if nothing had changed online for months. Perhaps bearing this in mind, some of Loni’s followers used the comment space to thank her for being honest with them about her decision and praised her for bravery and authenticity. 

While reactions vary, more and more vegans are stretching past the original framework of the lifestyle to create new spaces.

Some are including honey in their diet because they perceive it as more sustainable and ethical than alternatives like agave. Some are buying second hand leather. Some are eating oysters.

So, are bivalves vegan or not? Right now, the jury is still out on whether eating oysters is ethical from a vegan perspective. Ostroveganism, while similar to traditional veganism, appears to be in largely uncharted territory.

Do you eat oysters? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below.

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