You may have seen them, clusters of hard black shells, on the side of a pier, or jetty. These creatures are good sea citizens, asking for nothing but a firm perch from which they filter out tiny organisms for food. They are easy to farm sustainably and highly nutritious.
In fact, humans and mussels appear to go way back. Eating mussels and other smash-open-with-a-rock shellfish may have helped make us into Homo sapiens. The nutrient-rich little shellfish, some research suggests, allowed proto-humans to grow large brains, leaving the other primates behind (Was Seafood Brain Food in Human Evolution? 2010).
A pound of mussels in the shell makes a dinner entree, about four ounces of meat, for one person or an appetizer for two to share (PEImussels, 2020). That’s about 28 grams of protein and 200 calories packed with omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, selenium, and manganese.
Here are some of the reasons you might shell out to put mussels on your menu.
You prefer Belgian food to French
There’s no contest, as far as I’m concerned. Any small spot in Belgium serves outstanding meals, while in Paris you have to spend big money to get the same quality. You can’t miss mussels in Belgium.
Abundant along the coasts of the North Sea, mussels have arrived daily in Antwerp and Brussels by canal for centuries. Considered a poor family’s meat, they provided protein during the winter when other fish was less available.
The classic moules frites are a pot of mussels in white wine sauce with shallots and parsley, accompanied by crispy thin fries for dipping. Moules à la crème thickens the stock and in moules à la bière beer replaces wine. Moules a la mariniere are served on half shells with a vinegar sauce.
If you’re feeling brave while strolling through Brussels’ restaurant-intensive European District, try the eel in green sauce. I love that, too.
You love Dublin
The city’s unofficial anthem, “Cockles and Mussels,” aka “Molly Malone,” tells the story of a young Molly who wandered the streets selling her wares until she dies of fever and haunts the city. A cockle has a round, slightly ribbed heart-shaped shell—order them in Dublin, or when you’re in Portugal, where they are just as beloved!
The mussels you’ll see in the United States are blue mussels, native to New England waters but also found along the Pacific coast. Another kind, green-lipped mussels, comes from New Zealand.
Blue mussels are a top “eco-friendly” choice by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF Seafood Selector, 2020). Fishers capture blue mussels with hand rakes or dredges. If they’re using rakes they return any unneeded extra fish, called bycatch, to the habitat unharmed. Some fishers use dredges that can pick up other species but most states limit the damage, the Monterey Bay Aquarium reports.
However, farmed blue mussels are rated a “Best Choice,” by the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch (Seafood Watch Marine Mussels Worldwide, 2020). Mussel-farming is a form of aquaculture that’s catching on in the United States as a sustainable option. One reason is that you don’t need to feed other fish to mussels, a common practice in aquaculture that causes untold environmental damage.
To produce rope-grown mussels, the kind Vital Choice sells, farmers first collect baby mussel seed on ropes near the shore. Then they put the seed into a long fabric pouch called a “sock,” many of which are attached to a long rope. The sock-rope is then attached to buoys, dropped into the water, and left in the ocean for a year or more. When the farmers return, they find bulging socks with mussels bursting out. They collect the mussels, pack them on ice, and return to the shore.
With 12 long ropes, a small farm can harvest up to 180,000 pounds of mussels each year, with minimal damage to the ocean ecosystem (Ocean Today, 2020).
It’s also possible to farm mussels on rafts, or on installations at the bottom of the ocean.
You’re nervous about mercury
Mussels are low on the food chain. Unlike big predator fish, they don’t pick up and accumulate mercury from smaller fish, making them among the lowest seafood sources of mercury (EDF Seafood Selector, 2020).
You’re semi-vegan for fear of causing animals pain
Mussels have a limited nervous system. You’ll need to cook them while they’re still alive, but, without a central nervous system, it’s unlikely they feel pain.
You’re trying to build muscle
If you want big muscles, what should you eat? Mussels! (Yes, I need more time with small children.)
Seriously, mussels are a super-protein and much evidence suggests that eating protein helps us build muscle if we’re also working out (Pasiakos et al., 2015). Twenty to 30 grams of protein, just what you’d get from a pound of mussels, at every meal will help you to maximize muscle mass, notes nutritionist Andrea D’Ambrosio, who adds that beyond 30 grams, your body tends to stop absorbing protein (Dietetic Directions, 2020).
You’re trying to trim fat
Slimming down is famously tricky. One of the most promising strategies, for example, is intermittent fasting, when you don’t eat for 12 hours or more at a stretch, often overnight. But new research suggests that you could lose more muscle than fat, possibly because you end up eating less protein (Lowe et al., 2020).
Among the many diets available, low-carb/high-protein diets currently seem most effective for weight loss (Ge et al., 2020). Mussels are perfect, as they pack a nutritious wallop. The frites on the side …not so much. You could have fun scooping up your sauce with a shell – kids love mussels for precisely this reason, and why should they have all the fun?
In short, there are few kinds of seafood – or foods of any kind - that concentrate as many nutrition, flavor, and environmental advantages into each bite-sized morsel.
Dietetic Directions https://dieteticdirections.com/power-protein/
EDF Seafood Selector http://seafood.edf.org/guide/best
Erlandson, J. M. (2010). Food for Thought: The Role of Coastlines and Aquatic Resources in Human Evolution. Human Brain Evolution, 125-136. doi:10.1002/9780470609880.ch7
Ge L, Sadeghirad B, Ball GDC, et al. Comparison of dietary macronutrient patterns of 14 popular named dietary programmes for weight and cardiovascular risk factor reduction in adults: systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised trials MJ. 2020;369:m696. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7190064/ Published April 1 2020.
Lowe DA, Wu N, Rohdin-Bibby L, et al. Effects of Time-Restricted Eating on Weight Loss and Other Metabolic Parameters in Women and Men With Overweight and Obesity: The TREAT Randomized Clinical Trial JAMA Intern Med. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32986097/ Published September 28, 2020.
OceanToday, National Ocean Service. https://oceantoday.noaa.gov/buildinggoodmussels/#:~:text=First%2C%20they%20collect%20baby%20mussel,are%20bursting%20through%20the%20socks.
Pasiakos SM, McLellan TM, Lieberman HR. The effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic and anaerobic power in healthy adults: a systematic review. Sports Med. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25169440/ Published January, 2015.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/
Seafood Watch Blue Mussel Report. https://www.seafoodwatch.org/-/m/sfw/pdf/reports/m/mba_seafoodwatch_bluemussel_report.pdf Published January 9, 2017, Reviewed November 20, 2019
Seafood Watch Marine Mussels Worldwide, On and Off-Bottom Culture. https://www.seafoodwatch.org/-/m/sfw/pdf/reports/m/mba_seafoodwatch_farmedmussels.pdf Published August 3, 2020
Was Seafood Brain Food in Human Evolution? (2010, January 21). Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lives-the-brain/201001/was-seafood-brain-food-in-human-evolution