If someone showed you a shelled creature and asked if it was a snail or a turtle, we’re guessing you’d have no trouble answering. Aside from both having a shell, turtles and snails look almost nothing alike. They’re different sizes, different shapes, and although both are notoriously slow, they don’t move alike either.
Other shelled creatures, though, can be harder to tell apart. If someone asked you to tell the difference between a clam and a mussel instead, would you be just as confident?
If you answered “no” to that last question, you’re in good company. Before writing this article, we wouldn’t have been either…
In fact, you might say that telling these sea critters apart would’ve left us “floundering.”
But now that we’ve done a “deep dive” into their differences, we’re pretty “shore” we’ve got it figured out. And now that we’ve “learned the ropes,” it would be “shellfish” not to share our tips.
So, whether it’s on your plate or by the beach, if you need help “seaing” what makes clams and mussels different, we’re here to ““toss you a line!”
Okay, time to get “sea-rious” (okay fine, starting now!). Let’s take a look at why mussels and clams aren’t the same, and what to look for when telling them apart.
Do Mussels and Clams Look Different?
Mussels and clams may not be as easy to tell apart as turtles and snails, but they do have physical differences both inside and outside their shells.
One easy way to tell them apart is by where you find them. While mussels often cling to rocks in clusters, clams usually fly solo (well, actually it’s more like “crawl” solo) and bury themselves in the sand.
Both are bivalves, which means that they have a “hinged” shell that can open and shut. However, whereas mussel shells are typically smooth and elongated, clam shells tend to be stouter with a ridged texture.
When it comes to color, mussel shells tend to be darker than clam shells. Whereas clams are often white, tan, or beige, mussels are usually green, blue or black.
You know what they say about how you shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover?” Well, we figured that since clams and mussels open like books, it’s only fair that we show them the same respect.
So, let’s crack open these shells to see how things look on the inside.
To help us explain, we decided to keep up the book analogy. After all, who doesn’t love a good creative analogy?
Think about it this way: if mussels and clams were library books, mussels would be like childrens’ picture books, and clams would be more like chapter books.
Confused? Allow us to explain.
On the inside, mussels are often shiny and colorful, like the glossy pages of picture books. Clam shells, on the other hand, tend to be simpler and less decorative, like the pages of a normal novel.
And while neither species has a brain, mussels (the simple picture books) also have simpler anatomy than clams (the more complex chapter books), which have more developed organ systems. These developments are part of the reason that clams can grow much larger than mussels.
In fact, some clams can be over four feet wide and weigh in at 500 pounds! (Sticking with the book theme, you might call these the War and Peace of the clams.)
We know the comparisons in this section are kind of a stretch, but you get the point.
Do Mussels and Clams Taste Different?
Okay, now that you can (hopefully) tell these shellfish apart at the beach, it’s time to get down to the “meat” of the issue. How do they compare when served on a plate?
Let’s begin with the obvious: both mussels and clams taste “fishy.” But we’re guessing you already knew that, so we’ll try to be more specific moving forward.
Both shellfish have a dense, chewy texture, with clams being the slightly chewier of the two. Overall, however, they actually have fewer similarities than you may think.
One of the main differences in how they taste is that clams are significantly more flavorful.
Keep in mind that when we say “flavorful,” we mean “strong-tasting,” and not necessarily “delicious.” Whether or not you actually like the flavor is another question…
Part of why we felt the need to make this little disclaimer is that clams are usually described as “pungent,” “salty” or “briny,” like the sea.
Mussels, on the other hand, are often called “bland,” “earthy,” “mellow” and “mild.” Their taste and texture also remind some people of mushrooms.
In fact, mushrooms (especially oyster mushrooms) make a great substitution for plant-based eaters. Despite the “oyster” in their name, these fungi taste like seafood’s long-lost land-dwelling vegan cousin!
While “bland” is rarely a compliment in the food context, the muted flavor of mussels makes them perfect for recipes where the sauce is meant to be the star of the show.
When it comes to recipes, mussels and clams are usually interchangeable, and some recipes mix the two.
Remember, since clams have a more robust flavor than mussels, you might have to adjust a recipe’s ingredients if you decide to use one in place of the other.
As a starting tip, be careful not to oversalt your already-salty clams or under-spice your already bland mussels!
In case you’re feeling adventurous in the kitchen, here are some of the most popular clam and mussel recipes from around the world. (*) Let us know if you try any of these or have a recipe of your own to share!
Are Mussels and Clams Healthy?
Like many types of seafood, mussels and clams are nutrient-powerhouses high in protein and healthy fats and low in calories. Let’s take a look at some of the nutritional highlights of each.
Clams are especially rich in:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B12
While Mussels take the lead in:
- Vitamin B1
Since many of these vitamins and minerals are on the list of most common deficiencies in the Western world, eating these shellfish can be a great way to boost your nutrition.
So, we’ve established that both clams and mussels have many health benefits. But if you’re a “go big or go home” type, you may be wondering which shell to crack…
When it comes to calories, clams and mussels are pretty much on par. Clams tend to have slightly more protein, while mussels contain more fat.
Before you jump to the conclusion that “lower-fat” means healthier, remember that seafood is one of the best sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Since these “healthy fats” are critical for brain and heart health, their fat content shouldn’t be a strike against mussels.
Mussels are also higher in iron, folate and selenium, which can be difficult to find in other food sources, especially if you don’t often eat meat.
Mussels also contain about one third of the sodium that an equivalent portion of clams has. (*) Since too much sodium can have negative health consequences, mussels might be the wiser choice, especially if you have high blood pressure.
As an added bonus, mussels are also much less expensive than clams. (*) We know that healthy eating can get pricey, and mussels are a great way to get the most nutritional bang for your hard-earned buck!
Potential Risks and How to Avoid Them
Properly prepared, seafood is one of the most nutritious protein sources on the planet. (*)
That being said, however, consuming fish that’s raw, undercooked, or fish ha’s been stored incorrectly can make you extremely sick.
While clams are sometimes prepared to be served raw, mussels typically are not, since they filter feed on bacteria that are harmful to humans.
When cheffing up your own clams and mussels, here are some things to consider:
- “When in doubt, cook it out” to avoid the dangers of Salmonella and other types of food poisoning.
- Discard mussels and clams whose shells are open before you start cooking. Open shellfish are often already dead and may have started decaying.
- If a shell has not opened by the end of the cooking process, do not consume the meat, which, again, was probably dead before cooking.
- If you’re watching your sodium intake, keep in mind that clams are naturally high in sodium.
- While mussels have a lower sodium content, their sauces and seasonings are often sodium-heavy to make up for their milder flavor. If you’re watching your sodium, be sure to consider the salt content of the dish overall.
Here are some additional tips to help you stay on the healthy side of seafood. (*)
One last thing we wanted to mention is that shellfish is one of the top five most common allergies in the world. (*) Since allergic reactions can be life-threatening, if you are trying shellfish for the first time, be sure to watch out for these symptoms:
- Itchy, irritated skin
- Swelling on the face or body
- Trouble breathing
- Coughing or choking fits
- Stomach pain
If you or a family member has experienced an allergic reaction to shellfish, talk to your doctor about getting an allergy test. (*)
As many Asian-inspired seasonings and sauces contain seafood, we recommend checking their labels for potential cross-contamination before consuming.
Products that contain or may contain shellfish in the “crustaceans” category, such as lobsters and crabs, are required to have a printed warning. The “mollusks” category of shellfish, however, which includes mussels and clams, does not require the same labeling.
While some people are allergic to all types of shellfish, others may react to some types but not others. When in doubt, always be sure to read the ingredients list on a product’s packaging or ask a server while dining out.
As “bivalves,” both mussels and clams are spineless, brainless creatures whose hinged shells open in the same way as a book or a door. They both live by bodies of water and are used in seafood dishes around the world.
Like most types of fish, both are rich in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and lean protein. Because both have a chewy texture, they are also fairly easy to interchange in recipes.
Apart from these similarities, however, mussels and clams have distinct differences in their appearance, habitats, texture, taste, price and nutritional profiles.
To the untrained eye, these shellfish may look like reprints of the same book, but you know what they say about judging a book by its cover… There’s always more to the story!