For those of you who have followed my blog, you know that I love sardines and I still think they’re one of the best foods for men. That said, I think mussels are equal to if not better than sardines as part of your diet because they check all three boxes for positive lifestyle eating: moral, nutritional, and environmental.
My checkered history with mussels
First up, some short history from my early years – as all things considered, I should be more psychologically scared from my first encounter(s) with this shellfish/molluscs.
Being a native New Zealander my first memories of mussels are the early days at Piha beach in Northland/NZ when I was about 8 or 9 years old. Our parents and their friends used to send all us kids off to the beach with hessian sacks taller than we were to collect mussels off the rocks for their dinner. It was my first introduction to slave labor. We used to literally drag back those sacks packed full of hundreds of mussels to happy and grateful parents who were normally finishing their 10th Steinlager beer. Cost of labor=$0.
Then sometime around that same age I had my first and worst case of food poisoning ever to this day. The culprit? Mussels. And it put me off eating them for decades.
So all things considered, I shouldn’t love them as much as I do now – but I’ve been converted.
The fish and seafood dilemma
We should all strive to select foods that have the least negative impact on the environment (and a positive one whenever possible) as well as fully support and nurture your body, mind, and soul. That means buying locally grown organic fruits and vegetables, avoiding processed and overpackaged foods, choosing organically grown grains, nuts, and seeds, and, when you do consume animal products, purchasing those that have been raised in an ethical, sustainable fashion.
That’s where the dilemma about eating fish comes in. Fish and seafood are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as protein and other nutrients. They can be an essential part of a healthful diet.
Yet according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, about 90 percent of marine fish populations are either fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. You’ll probably recognize most or all of the names on the list, which include Atlantic cod, haddock, Atlantic salmon, whiting, albacore, Atlantic Bluefin tuna, and shrimp (Northeast Pacific), among others.
Is one solution fish farming (aka, aquaculture)? It could be if you don’t mind the fact that many of these fish are administered antibiotics, typically live in overcrowded, polluted, stressful environments, and are fed processed fish pellets that can be contaminated with pesticides and other chemicals. While these conditions are most likely to occur in fish farms that are in marine environments rather than inland ponds and closed aquaculture systems, the latter have their issues as well, including the need to feed their fish.
This raises the problem of feeding farmed fish other fish. That means fish farmers are exploiting wild fish to feed the farmed ones, which is clearly an unsustainable practice. Although there are some efforts being made to change fish food to be plant-based, there’s still a long way to go on that road.
How do you know if the fish or seafood you choose was harvested in a sustainable, humane, responsible manner? Often, you don’t. An Associated Press report from March 2015 revealed that Southeast Asians are often kidnapped and enslaved on fishing boats where they work 20-hour days seven days a week to provide fish for a hungry worldwide market. Tracking down the origin of fish that comes to the United States and other countries can be difficult to do, especially when there are people involved in such illegal circumstances.
Actual harvesting methods also are often questionable. Much of the seafood that ends up in markets and restaurants has been obtained in an unsustainable and earth-damaging manner. One such approach is dredging, which tears up the seabed. Atlantic cod, which is being depleted, is caught using bottom trawling, which destroys the ocean floor.
Other fishing methods are associated with devastating consequences. One such method is pelagic longlines, which are 40-plus miles of floating lines that tend to catch everything, including tens of thousands of sea turtles, seabirds, dolphins, and porpoises every year.
What about seafood that is labeled sustainable or with other wording that suggests it is a responsible product? According to a 2013 study by Oceana, a nonprofit that works to protect the oceans, one-third of the fish on the market in the United States is intentionally mislabeled to increase profits. So what should you do?
Mussels and nutrition
After sifting through all the information about sustainable fish and seafood, I finally decided that mussels are a logical, environmentally responsible, and healthful choice. There are two main types of mussels: green-lipped mussels, which are native to New Zealand; and blue mussels (aka, common mussel), which are native to the North American Atlantic coast but are also found in the Southern Hemisphere, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific.
Generally, mussels are high in protein, low in fat and calories, and are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA), as well as various vitamins and minerals.
Here’s what you’ll get from 100 grams (3.5 oz) of green-lipped mussels vs blue mussels:
Calories: 105 / 172
Protein: 18.8 g / 24 g
Fat: 3.1 g (more than 40% of fat content is omega-3s) / 4 g
Calcium: 173 mg / 33 mg
Omega 3 Fatty Acids: 850-900 mg
Copper: 0.19 mg / 0.1 mg
Iron: 10.9 mg / 6.7 mg
Magnesium: 82.5 mg / 37 mg
Manganese: 898 mcg / 680 mcg
Niacin: 5.6 mg / 3 mg
Phosphorus: 330 mg / 285 mg
Selenium: 75.6 mcg / 89.6 mcg
Zinc: 1.6 mg / 2.7 mg
These nutrients, along with others, illustrate why mussels are a superfood for your health. Here are some more good reasons to count mussels as a superfood for men.
- Magnesium helps maintain normal heart rhythm, and it works with calcium to ensure your heart functions properly.
- Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce triglyceride and cholesterol levels as well as lower blood pressure.
- Selenium plays a key role in maintaining heart health and healthy blood vessels.
- Iron and vitamin B12 assist in the production of red blood cells.
- Phosphorus is an important factor in maintaining a regular heart beat.
- Vitamin B12, along with vitamin B6 and folic acid, help keep levels of homocysteine in check. High homocysteine levels can damage arteries and contribute to atherosclerosis.
- Copper is important for reducing cholesterol and regulating heart rhythm.
- Calcium assists in supporting heart health and maintaining blood pressure.
Muscle and Bone Health
- Green-lipped mussel oil, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, has been shown to be effective in reducing muscle damage and inflammation, as well as increase lean muscle mass and reduce body fat.
- Healthy muscle contractions benefit from the phosphorus and B vitamins in mussels.
- Mussel protein contributes to the building, maintenance, and repair of muscle and connective tissue.
- Calcium from mussels helps support healthy muscle tone and muscle contractions.
- Mussels provide excellent levels of minerals essential for bone health: calcium, magnesium, zinc, manganese, and phosphorus.
- Omega-3 fatty acids play a critical role in protecting the brain and cognitive function.
- Vitamin B12 has a role in the production of melatonin, which in turn affects sleep, and in the manufacture of serotonin, which is associated with feeling calm.
- Adequate magnesium is necessary to maintain healthy serotonin levels, and low serotonin is associated with depression.
- Phosphorus is needed to help maintain cognitive function.
Prostate and Sexual Health
- Omega-3 fatty acids, and especially DHA, have been shown to reduce the risk of prostate cancer and prostate cancer cell growth.
- Omega-3 fatty acids stimulate the release of endothelial nitric oxide, which in turn supports erectile function.
- Vitamin B12 can improve sperm counts and sperm motility.
- Phosphorus is a key factor in maintaining erectile function, libido, and sperm motility.
Mussels and sustainability
It turns out mussels are not only super in the nutrition department; they are a sustainable, environmentally friendly food as well – and are probably also acceptable for vegans. This applies to both wild and cultivated mussels. Why?
- Mussels don’t require feed beyond the nutrients present in the water. That’s because mussels filter their food out of the water, so there’s no need to feed them other fish.
- Mussels are low on the food chain, which means they have a minimal amount of mercury, to the tune of more than 30 times less than large predator fish such as tuna and swordfish.
- Mussels have a rudimentary nervous system, which suggests they do not feel pain. This is an important factor since mussels should be cooked while still alive. So vegans can probably eat them guilt free.
- Farmed mussels are a Seafood Watch Best Choice. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program provides consumers and businesses with recommendations on which seafood items are “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives,” and which ones to “Avoid.” These recommendations are based on information about how seafood has been harvested or farmed in ways that protect marine life and habitats, now and for the future. You can also get the Seafood Watch app for your iPhone to help you make responsible purchasing decisions. It’s a great app.
Strangely though, Wild Pacific sardines are still an environmentally responsible, healthy seafood choice according to Seafood Watch however I’m not sure that’s 100% correct. We are witnessing the depletion of the small fish populations in Europe and also the recent deaths of over 15,000 baby seals along the Californian coast – mainly due to the lack of food supply (Momma goes hunting for small fish and doesn’t come back!). The legal fishing of Pacific sardines is currently on hold in California while the populations replenish – so maybe Seafood Watch is valuing the fact that the sardine populations are being managed to ensure proper replenishment. In the meantime, you can’t beat mussels in my book when you consider nutrition, morality, and sustainability. When it comes to seafood, they are at the top of my guilt-free list.
When shopping for mussels, look for cultured (farmed) mussels with a Seafood Watch logo. Avoid unlabeled seafood. Ask the seafood manager in your store about the origins and harvesting methods of the mussels you want to buy. If the answer is not satisfactory, shop elsewhere. The local Santa Monica Seafood store here in Newport Beach gets overnight deliveries direct from New Zealand, complete with New Zealand ocean water dripping from the shells. They get fresh supplies in every morning early so you need to be quick. And they’re cheap – about USD$12 for around 15 large mussels.
We have an obligation to ourselves, our children, and the planet to eat in a sustainable fashion. Instead, we tend to overconsume, destroy the environment, and overharvest.
According to Andy Sharpless, the CEO of Oceana and the coauthor of The Perfect Protein, we have the ability to reverse the devastation being perpetrated on our oceans and marine life. “A well-managed global ocean could provide the equivalent of a healthy seafood meal for a billion people every day forever,” he says. Let’s hope that days comes. Until then, mussels are my new superfood.
Cleaning and Steaming – http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/how-to-clean-and-steam-mussels-106390 – I use organic chicken stock rather than water to steam them open.
For a natural taste – just steam them open and drizzle with some sherry vinegar and lemon juice, and sprinkle with some chopped parsley.
Mussel Fritters – http://fresh.co.nz/mussel-fritters/ – also add chopped red onion and some curry powder and turmeric to taste. And serve with jalapeno and cilantro hummus.
Thai Curry Mussels – http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bobby-flay/thai-red-curry-mussels-recipe.html – had these first at a sidewalk café on Santorini.
Dyall SC et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 2015 Apr 21; 7:52
Fu YQ et al. Effect of individual omega-3 fatty acids on the risk of prostate cancer: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Journal of Epidemiology 2015; 25(4): 261-74
Meldrum DR. A multifaceted approach to maximize erectile function and vascular health. Fertility and Sterility 2010 Dec; 94(7): 2514-20
Mickleborough TD et al. The effects PCSO-524 a patented marine oil lipid and omega-3 PUFA blend derived from the New Zealand greenlipped mussel (Perna canaliculus) on indirect markers of muscle damage and inflammation after muscle damaging exercise in untrained men: a randomized, placebo controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2015 Feb 19; 12:10
Nutrition Data. Blue Mussels Nutrition Data.
Zimmerman T. The Piscivore’s Dilemma.