Are You Supposed To Eat The Whole Mussel?

Mussels are definitely one of the favorite go-to’s when it is time to decide what to prepare as a quick and cheap meal. It is good to know your food, how to prepare mussels the correct way, and some tips for when you are purchasing mussels. One commonly asked question is, are you supposed to eat the whole mussel? Is a mouth full of shell the way it should be done?

The flesh inside of a mussel is the only edible part. Other parts of the mussel are inedible and shouldn’t be consumed by humans. You can only eat fresh mussels that are alive, and only when the shell of the mussel isn’t damaged. An open shell indicates that the mussel is dead and isn’t safe to eat.

Mussels are a fantastic source of protein and various other nutrients. It contains iron, vitamin C, vitamin A, and calcium. The fact that the mussel has a particular set of nutrients means that there are several health benefits to eating fresh mussels. The shell is not included in this, though. Let’s dive deep and find out why.

Can You Eat The Whole Mussel?

Only the flesh inside of the whole mussel is edible. The shell and any other particles aren’t for consumption. Mussels need a good scrub before you cook them, and if any of the mussels haven’t opened after you’ve finished steaming them, throw them away since this is a sign that the mussel was already dead and isn’t safe to eat.

Mussels can contain toxins and bacteria, which can be extremely harmful if you eat the whole mussel.

Which Parts Of A Mussel Shouldn’t Be Eaten?

There are two main parts of a mussel that you should not eat:

The Stomach Of The Mussel

The stomach is the lump that stays fixed in the mussel’s shell after you have removed the flesh. This should not be eaten at all. It is full of toxins and bacteria and can also be full of sand and toxic algae. People that eat the stomach of a mussel can get food poisoning due to the large number of bacteria contained inside.

The Shell Of The Mussel

A mussel’s shell contains high levels of Cadmium, a toxic substance and a known carcinogen (a chemical proven to cause cancer). Cadmium can target your cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, renal, neurological, respiratory, and reproductive systems when ingested.

The reason why mussel shells have such high Cadmium levels is that the shells filter the seawater passing into the mussel. Any harmful chemicals are kept away from the living mussel by the shell and are often absorbed into the shell in the process. This is most likely one of the primary reasons why mussels are considered “unclean” under Jewish Kosher law.

Eating one mussel shell likely won’t kill you, but in all honesty, who would want a mouthful of shell in the first place?

To understand the reasons why these two parts are inedible, let’s take a closer look at what mussels are and how they function.

Mussels: What Are They?

Mussels can be found in both salt water and fresh water. Mussels belong to the bivalve seafood species since they all have two shells (referred to as the right valve and left valve). These halves completely close in on one another with a hinge that connects the two valves. The species include mussels, oysters, clams, and scallops, to mention a few bivalves that are also popular as seafood.

Mussels are filter feeders. They mostly stay in one place, and because of this, they eat plankton which they filter from the water. In the process, they can consume bacteria that can be fatal to humans and shouldn’t be consumed.

Many people regard the bacteria as unimportant since we all ingest bacteria, but mussels live in areas that drain impurities from the oceans, like the ocean floor and boulders on the beach.

Mussels can be found in fresh and salt water, though the mussels we purchase are the saltwater mussel variety. Freshwater mussels pose a health risk and should be handled as such; home cooks shouldn’t buy freshwater mussels.

Farm-raised mussels are the best ones to choose. They hang on ropes and don’t sit on the ocean floor as wild mussels, which makes these mussels easy to clean. Wild mussels are far dirtier than farmed mussels. However, please note that the bacteria can still be found in farm-raised mussels since farmed mussels still eat the same way.

Are Mussels Good For Me?

Mussels are a good source of vitamins and nutrients and a rich protein source for most people. In fact, according to the FDA, a diet that contains fish and shellfish (including mussels) is tremendously beneficial to your health.

About three ounces of mussels provide 40% of the daily recommended protein and a third of the daily iron value a person needs. And that is not where the nutrients stop, so yes, this reasonably cheap food source is good for you, unless you are one of the unlucky people who are allergic to shellfish; in that case, you should stay far away from mussels.

Another benefit of eating mussels regularly is that they can help you lose weight if you add them to your weight loss eating plan. Mussels give you the nutrients you need to be healthy without adding too many calories.

Mussels Are High In Protein

Mussels are a high source of protein and contain all the essential amino acids. The proteins in mussels are easy on the digestive system. Proteins, especially those found in fish and shellfish like mussels, benefit your body’s immune system, building strong muscles and strengthening your bones.

Mussels Contain Many Vitamins

Mussels are an excellent source of vitamins like vitamin B12, C, and A. Vitamin B12 is beneficial for the production of your red blood cells. Vitamin C is one of the best vitamins you can possibly give your body since it is good for your overall health and immune system. Vitamin A is also good for your immune system while also improving your cell growth and vision.

Mussels Are Rich In Iron

Mussels are high in iron. Iron deficiency is a common problem and is more commonly found in women. The signs of iron deficiency are tiredness, weakness, and lack of concentration. Men can also suffer from iron deficiency, and mussels are an excellent (and delicious) way to provide the much-needed iron in your diet.

Mussels Also Have Omega 3

Omega 3 contains fatty acids, which are very beneficial for your heart health. Omega 3 fatty acids help regulate your heartbeat. They keep your blood vessels healthy to carry blood to your heart as they should, and you probably won’t struggle with high blood pressure if you get enough Omega 3 in your diet, which is just another health benefit of mussels.

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What Are The Risks Of Eating Mussels?

There are groups of people that are at risk if they eat mussels, and it is better if they just steer clear of it. This is over and above the threat of food poisoning, which threatens everyone equally. In particular, the following groups of people should steer clear of mussels:

  • Children under 12 years old
  • Pregnant women
  • Older adults
  • People with a weaker immune system (HIV/Aids, heart transplant patients, cancer, and diabetes).

Eating mussels can cause some people to have an allergic reaction to shellfish, including mussels. It is a genetic trait that is generally incurable and will occur for the rest of their lives. These allergic reactions can either be mild or severe. Some people simply start itching; others may suffer breathing difficulty or even cardiac arrest.

Eating the parts of the mussel that are unsafe to eat, like the stomach, shell, and beard (more on that in a moment), you may not have any problems immediately. However, the high Cadmium content is lethal in the long run.

Mussel shells can contain Cadmium at levels of 14,000 ppb (parts per billion). Food is considered toxic if it has above 100 ppb of Cadmium.

Cadmium is a carcinogenic element, which means that it has been proven to cause cancer. This is not like the “they say everything causes cancer these days” type of statement; it’s been scientifically proven.

And that’s without mentioning the levels of arsenic and other toxins in mussel shells. The bottom line is, don’t eat it, even if you like crunchy tasteless things that get stuck in your teeth. The health risks are simply too high.

What Is A Mussel Beard, And Is It Safe To Eat?

Mussel beards, also known as byssus threads, are the fibers that grow from a mussel’s shell. The mussel uses these fibers to secure itself on its growing surfaces.

Mussel beard fibers are not edible. They can also contain many of the same toxins and bacteria as the mussel’s shell. You can use a paring knife or your fingers to remove the beard from the mussel. Just take a firm hold on the hairs with your fingers and pull the fibers towards the hinges of the shell to remove the hairs. Complete this process until all the threads are removed.

How Can I Clean Mussels?

You mustn’t miss this part. First and foremost, before cooking, mussels need to be thoroughly cleaned. And don’t think that this is just some random advice from chefs and something that home cooks can simply forget about. If you cook with dirty mussels, your dish will taste like the filth of the ocean, not to mention the other risks involved.

Place your uncooked mussels in a colander and run cold water over them. Gently shake them under the water and give the mussels a good wash. Use a sharp paring knife (a knife that is small enough for you to handle safely) or a brush to clean the shell. Be sure to remove all remaining dirt and remove the mussel beard while you’re at it.

The beard should usually be removed from the shell when farm-raised mussels are harvested, but there could be some that aren’t entirely removed, so look out for those.

Another way to clean fresh (living) mussels is to put them inside a bowl with cold water and a lot of salt. This process is called depuration. It could take hours or even a few days. This will let them discard everything that they have eaten. Then give them a wash in this salt water, and remove the beard from any shells containing them.

This is also when you should search for mussel shells that aren’t entirely closed, and if some are slightly open, you should give them a tap with your fingernail. If they close, you know they are alive and safe for consumption. If they do not close, throw them out since this is a definite sign that they are dead and aren’t safe to eat.

At this time, you should also discard any mussels that have a broken, dented, or cracked shell. Any open shells are dead, and the meat of a dead mussel will spoil your whole pot of steamed mussels. Do not let one or two spoil the rest of the delicious meal that you are about to enjoy.

Mussels have a short shelf life, and fresh mussels have a faint smell of their water habitat. If the mussel smells foul, you should discard it immediately. Bacterial growth in seafood happens rapidly, even more so for mussels that have died.

Purchasing Mussels That Are Safe To Eat

The season for fresh mussels is during March and October, but because they are farmed in abundance, they can be found throughout the year. The mussels that you purchase in the grocery store and fish markets are farmed mussels.

However, this is a good thing since mussels are filter feeders, so keeping them out of polluted waters makes it safer for us to enjoy this delicious food. Mussels are always sold live when they are fresh, and you can usually find fresh mussels on the ice at the grocery store or fish market. One indication that they are is that their shells should be wet and shiny.

Avoid shells that are dull-looking, and make absolutely sure that the two halves are closed tightly. Also, the shell should not be cracked, broken, or chipped. This is also a clear sign of the freshness of the mussels that you are about to purchase (or rather, lack thereof).

How To Cook Mussels?

The best way to cook mussels is by steaming them, and the ideal way of steaming mussels is by doing it with wine rather than water. This will add great flavor to your mussels and the final dish. Put your mussels in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Your pot shouldn’t be more than half-full of mussels.

You must give the pot space to steam up. Set the heat on high and ensure your lid is tightly sealed. Once the pot is up to temperature and the steam is building up, give the mussels three to four minutes. Most of the mussels should have opened during the cooking time, and you should throw away the few that didn’t open.


Now you know that only the flesh of the mussel should be eaten, not the whole mussel. You should not eat the plump piece that stays on the shell after you have eaten the mussel since that is the stomach which still contains a lot of bacteria and toxins that are bad for your health. Besides that, mussels are rich in good nutrients and low in fat, so you can happily enjoy them!