Recently, I had the chance to catch up with an old friend of mine from college. We agreed to go out for a couple of drinks and she sent me the location for one of her favorite oceanside dive bars.
After asking if I wanted to partake in her plate of oysters, I kindly told her, “No, I’m vegan now.” She replied, “I thought oysters were vegan, though.” So, are oysters vegan?
Traditionally, oysters are NOT considered vegan. Oysters are categorized as shellfish; living organisms that cling to rocky outcrops and live in brackish saltwater environments.
Vegans are typically against eating any living organism, and as such, are not comfortable eating any oysters, clams, crabs, lobsters, or any other type of shellfish.
Despite this fact, though, there are some vegans who do eat oysters. They argue that oysters are biologically similar to plants and have no central nervous system, meaning that they don’t feel pain. So, what’s the verdict?
Below, I’ll do a deep dive on the subject and explain why some vegans are against eating oysters and why others are firmly against it. Then, I’ll answer a few related questions and give you my top vegan substitutes for shellfish and seafood, for anybody who’s on the fence. Let’s dive in!
When I first started my vegan journey, I did it for several different reasons. After learning about the atrocities of the meat industry, I knew that I no longer wanted to support the cruel exploitation of animals for humans’ selfish desires.
Secondly, I knew from research that a plant-based diet was far healthier for the body in the long term.
The core principle of veganism is fairly simple:
As vegans, we don’t consume or use any animal-based or animal-derived products.
On the surface, this means that we don’t eat meat or products that are “stolen” from animals, such as:
- Sheep’s wool
- Animal-derived vitamins (such as Vitamin D3)
- …and more
So, when my friend first asked me if oysters were vegan or not, I thought the answer was pretty cut-and-dry. In my mind, oysters are living creatures and shouldn’t be consumed as animals.
However, my friend opened my mind to an interesting debate that I’d never considered…
Firstly, she pointed out that oysters do not have a central nervous system. This means that they do not possess the ability to feel pain and suffering, the way that most sea creatures do.
Secondly, she pointed out that oysters are biologically more similar to plants than they are to animals.
Because of these two facts, some vegans have no problem eating oysters. In their minds, it’s no different from eating kelp or other oceanic plants.
In light of this knowledge, I believe that the decision to eat oysters is completely dependent on the person’s belief. If you’ve done your research and believe that oysters are a vegan-friendly protein source, then go ahead and eat them!
Personally, I choose to abstain from oysters. For me, eating oysters could be the start of a slippery slope of “gray areas” that I’d rather avoid. To each their own, though, and I don’t judge any vegans who do choose to consume oysters.
Oysters are unique in the fact that they’re one of the only shellfish that don’t have a developed nervous system. This means that they can’t feel pain or suffering the way that most fish can.
However, the same does not apply to all shellfish. In fact, most shellfish have evolved a central nervous system and do feel pain.
For reference purposes, here’s a simple table outlining which shellfish do and don’t have a central nervous system:
|Evolved Central Nervous System||No Central Nervous System|
Disclaimer: Scientists have only just begun to study the nervous systems of shells and invertebrates. Although we have a fairly strong understanding of mammals (given that we ourselves are mammals), we still have a lot to learn about shellfish.
Just because scientists haven’t been able to observe certain shellfish experiencing pain in the traditional manner doesn’t mean that they don’t feel.
It could be that our perception of how individual nervous systems experience pain is the problem. Scientists are looking for mammalian symbols of pain, which may not be the same in shellfish.
The current science claims that certain shellfish like oysters, mussels, and sea urchins don’t feel pain. They could very well be correct. However, there’s always the chance that this science could be turned on its head in the near future.
Here begins the slippery slope that I mentioned…
After learning that oysters might, in fact, be okay for vegans to consume, the next question I usually get is, “What about fish?”
Here’s where I can wholeheartedly say that fish are NOT, in any circumstance, vegan.
This is because every species of fish on the planet has a central nervous system. While many fish may only have short-term memories, their evolved nervous system means that they can feel pain and suffering, the same as animals.
They feel every hook, knife, and net; therefore, killing and consuming fish or fish-based products is directly contributing to animal cruelty.
That being said, there are some vegetarians who choose to consume fish from time to time. They are referred to as pescatarians. Vegetarians are similar to vegans but tend to draw the line at not eating meat.
Many vegetarians consume animal-derived products like butter, yogurt, and honey; items which strict vegans are firmly against.
Nutritionally, there are a lot of benefits to pescatarian diets. It’s certainly healthier than consuming a red meat-dominant or poultry-dominant diet. That doesn’t answer the question of ethics, though.
As I mentioned above, most species of fish have highly evolved central nervous systems that are connected to their brains. This means that they experience pain very similarly to mammals like cows, dogs, and of course humans.
So, while a pescatarian diet may be far healthier than your typical carnivorous diet, it’s still far from ethical.
Now that you’ve had a chance to look at some of the arguments on whether or not oysters are vegan, it’s time to take a step back into more familiar territory. Namely – 100% vegan food!
As far as I’m concerned, I try to stay away from “could be’s” and “might be’s,” in favor of eating foods that are proven to be vegan-friendly, without the shadow of a doubt. So, without further ado, here are my top three vegan alternatives to shellfish and seafood.
Before going vegan, I admittedly ate my fair share of steamed shrimp. I recently found out about Wave Shrimp, a plant-based substitute for shrimp that tastes almost identical!
These “vegan crustaceans” are made from a combination of mung beans, seaweed, and other plant-based proteins. They’re delicious when paired with a spicy cocktail sauce!
Most vegan crab cakes are made from a combination of ground chickpeas, zucchini, and palm hearts. To get that delicious Maryland-style flavor, they’re often coated with lemon pepper and Old Bay seasoning.
Vegan fishless sticks are very similar to tofu nuggets. In fact, most fishless sticks are tofu-based.
To provide that “fishy” flavor, manufacturers may add nutritional yeast, a common vegan food additive known to provide a slightly fishy, umami flavor to food.
Ultimately, oysters represent a bit of a gray area when it comes to eating a vegan diet. The current science says that oysters are similar to plants and don’t feel pain.
However, the amount of research that’s been performed on oysters is fairly limited and could easily change in the future.
Thankfully, there are plenty of vegan alternatives to shellfish and seafood if you’re craving a bit of ocean flavor. To learn more about great vegan alternatives, be sure to check out my vegan food blog on Vegan Calm!