by: Beverly James, UF/IFAS, firstname.lastname@example.org
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, you might be thinking about revving things up by eating a few oysters. We’ve all heard that oysters are aphrodisiacs, but researchers with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences say there’s more to the story.
“Oysters might be perceived as an aphrodisiac because they have a high proportion of glycogen, a form of stored carbohydrate that can give you energy,” said Peter Frederick, a research professor with the UF/IFAS department of wildlife ecology and conservation.
Leslie Sturmer, a regional UF/IFAS Extension agent specializing in molluscan shellfish aquaculture, says the high nutritional content of oysters helps people feel good, hence the reputation for being an aphrodisiac. “Oysters have a high zinc content, have very little fat and are full of essential vitamins and minerals,” she said. “So, consumers who eat oysters regularly may attribute extra energy to the oysters.”
While scientists are not sure that oysters are an aphrodisiac, they are sure that more and more people are falling in love with the creatures. Oyster bars are popping up across the country, and prices have never been higher, Sturmer said. “Branding is focusing on the different taste of oysters from different bodies of water,” she said.
The French use the word “terroir” to describe the characteristics of a vineyard or cropland – soil composition, slope of the land, climate – that gives unique local flavor to food. The word “merroir” (from the French word for the sea mer) has now come to be applied to the taste of seafood, and particularly oysters, Frederick said. Consumers say that oysters from Apalachicola taste different from those in Cedar Key, and oysters from individual rivers in the northeastern U.S. have their own, well-defined merroir, he said.
“Consumers request oysters based on location, which reflects brininess, saltiness and mineral flavors,” Frederick explained. “They know what they want, and the depth of flavor appreciation has exploded.”
While shellfish farmers welcome a renewed interest in oysters, scientists worry about the survival of wild oyster communities. According to Frederick, oyster reefs may be the most endangered marine habitat globally. “Their populations are no longer functional, and they are no longer harvestable in about 80 percent of their range,” he said.
In Florida, 90 percent of oyster production comes from Apalachicola. Yet, drought and overfishing are blamed for a massive recent reduction in the Apalachicola fishery, Frederick said. In the Big Bend Coast, there has been a 66 percent decline over 30 years, he said. “Many of the most important offshore bars have declined by 88 percent,” Frederick said.
Now, thanks to an award of up to $8.3 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, a UF/IFAS research team are working to restore these shrinking oyster reefs and help coastal ecosystems — and economies — become more resilient in the face of climate change and rising tides.
“Hopefully, we can get the numbers back up to help ecosystems, economies and consumers enjoy a mollusk that is soaring in popularity,” Frederick said.
For more information on oysters, click here.