Organ meats can be a controversial topic these days. Many people have unfavorable reactions to the idea of consuming organs, and for different reasons.
While organ meats (offal)were once a common part of many cultures’ traditional diets, they seem to have largely fallen out of favor these days.
Are Organ Meats Healthy?
I have family members who don’t consume organ meats because they don’t think that they are healthy since they filter toxins from the animal’s body.
Even those who don’t have a problem with the idea of consuming organs often have somewhat of an aversion to the taste.
What many people don’t realize is that organ meats (especially liver) are nature’s multivitamins. Liver is an excellent source of many nutrients. Chris Kresser has a great post on the topic where he explains:
“Liver is an important source of retinol, which is pre-formed vitamin A. Just three ounces of beef liver contains 26,973 IU of vitamin A, while pork liver and chicken liver contain 15,306 IU and 11,335 IU, respectively. (3) If you aren’t supplementing with cod liver oil, you’ll probably want to eat liver a couple times a week to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin A, especially if you have skin problems.
Folate, choline, and vitamin B12 are three more nutrients that are found abundantly in liver, and they can be especially important in the context of a Paleo diet. Two Paleo staples – muscle meat and eggs – contain a high proportion of the amino acid methionine, and higher intakes of methionine increase homocysteine production. This increases the need for vitamins B6, B12, folate, betaine, and choline, which recycle homocysteine. (4, 5)
Although all meats contain some amount of vitamin B12, liver (especially beef liver) blows everything else out of the water, with almost three times as much B12 as kidney, seven times as much as heart, and about 17 times as much as tongue or ground beef. (6) Choline is concentrated mainly in egg yolks and liver, so if you aren’t eating egg yolks it’s important to get some liver into your diet. And as Chris Masterjohn points out, it can be difficult to get enoughfolate on a Paleo diet without including liver, because other than liver, beans are actually one of the best sources of folate. This is especially true if you eat lots of muscle meat and not enough folate-rich greens.
One of the main nutritional differences among the livers of different animals is copper content. Beef liver contains 14.3mg of copper per 100g, while chicken and pork livers contain less than 1mg. (7) Thus, beef liver is a great choice if you tend towards copper deficiency, but as I mentioned in this podcast, copper excess can also be a problem. Luckily the choline, zinc, and B vitamins in liver significantly reduce the risk of copper toxicity, but if you need to limit copper in your diet, you can always opt for chicken or pork liver instead.”
Organ meats are also one of the four foods recommended in Deep Nutrition for optimal gene function. (I highly recommend Deep Nutrition if you haven’t already read it!)
Dr. Shanahan compares liver to other foods for nutrient content:
“So what makes liver so wonderful? Quite simply, it contains more nutrients, gram for gram, than any other food. In summary, liver provides:
- An excellent source of high-quality protein
- Nature’s most concentrated source of vitamin A
- All the B vitamins in abundance, particularly vitamin B12
- One of our best sources of folic acid
- A highly usable form of iron
- Trace elements such as copper, zinc and chromium; liver is our best source of copper
- An unidentified anti-fatigue factor
- CoQ10, a nutrient that is especially important for cardio-vascular function
- A good source of purines, nitrogen-containing compounds that serve as precursors for DNA and RNA.”
Organs, especially liver (from healthy sources) can be an important part of a pregnancy diet due to its high folate content. As I’ve explained before, liver consumption is encouraged during pregnancy by the Weston A. Price foundation, which recommends:
“3-4 ounces fresh liver, once or twice per week (If you have been told to avoid liver for fear of getting “too much Vitamin A,” be sure to read Vitamin A Saga)”
Do Organ Meats Store Toxins?
This is the most common objection (besides the taste) to consuming organ meats, especially liver. Organs like heart and brain obviously don’t store toxins, but many people are afraid to consume liver or kidney because these organs filter toxins in the body.
While organ meats do function as filters in the body, they don’t store the toxins. The job of organs like the liver is to remove toxins from the body, and as such, they store many fat soluble vitamins and nutrients needed to accomplish this task.
As this article explains:
“One of the roles of the liver is to neutralize toxins (such as drugs, chemical agents and poisons); but the liver does not store toxins. Poisonous compounds that the body cannot neutralize and eliminate are likely to lodge in the fatty tissues and the nervous system. The liver is not a storage organ for toxins but it is a storage organ for many important nutrients (vitamins A, D, E, K, B12 and folic acid, and minerals such as copper and iron). These nutrients provide the body with some of the tools it needs to get rid of toxins.
Of course, we should consume liver from healthy animals–cattle, lamb, buffalo, hogs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. The best choice is liver from animals that spend their lives outdoors and on pasture. If such a premier food is not available, the next choice is organic chicken, beef and calves liver. If supermarket liver is your only option, the best choice is calves liver, as in the U.S. beef cattle do spend their first months on pasture. Beef liver is more problematical as beef cattle are finished in feed lots. Livers from conventionally raised chicken and hogs are not recommended.”
In other words:
“To call the liver a simple filter is incorrect. If we want to maintain the metaphor, it’s more like a chemical processing plant. The liver receives shipments, determines what they contain, and reacts accordingly. It converts protein to glucose, converts glucose to glycogen, manufactures triglycerides, among many other tasks, but its best-known responsibility is to render toxins inert and shuttle them out to be expelled – usually in the urine via the kidney. It doesn’t just hang on to toxins, as if the liver is somehow separate from the body and immune to contamination. The liver is part of the body! If your liver contains large amounts of toxins, so do you!” (source)
What About Vitamin A?
Another concern often heard with liver consumption especially is the presence of too much Vitamin A. I recommend these two articles for more on the topic:
But in short:
“As for concerns about vitamin A, these stem from studies in which moderate doses of synthetic vitamin A were found to cause problems and even contribute to birth defects. But natural vitamin A found in liver is an extremely important nutrient for human health and does not cause problems except in extremely large amounts.
According to the authoritative Merck Manual, acute vitamin A poisoning can occur in children after taking a single dose of synthetic vitamin A in the range of 300,000 IU or a daily dosage of 60,000 IU for a few weeks. The Manual cites two fatalities from acute vitamin A poisoning in children, which manifests as increased intracranial pressure and vomiting. For the vast majority, however, recovery after discontinuation is “spontaneous, with no residual damage.”
In adults, according to the Merck Manual, vitamin A toxicity has been reported in Arctic explorers who developed drowsiness, irritability, headaches and vomiting, with subsequent peeling of the skin, within a few hours of ingesting several million units of vitamin A from polar bear or seal liver. Again, these symptoms clear up with discontinuation of the vitamin A-rich food. Other than this unusual example, however, only vitamin A from megavitamin tablets containing vitamin A when taken for a long time has induced acute toxicity, that is, 100,000 IU synthetic vitamin A per day taken for many months.
Thus, unless you are an Arctic explorer, it is very difficult to develop vitamin A toxicity from liver. The putative toxic dose of 100,000 IU per day is contained in two-and-one-half 100-gram servings of duck liver or about three 100-gram servings of beef liver. From the work of Weston Price, we can assume that the amount in primitive diets was about 50,000 IU per day.
As for liver for pregnant women, a study carried out in Rome, Italy, found no congenital malformations among 120 infants exposed to more than 50,000 IU of vitamin A per day (Teratology, Jan 1999 59(1):1-2). A study from Switzerland looked at blood levels of vitamin A in pregnant women and found that a dose of 30,000 IU per day resulted in blood levels that had no association with birth defects (International Journal of Vitamin and Nutrition Research 1998 68(6):411-6). Textbooks on nutrition written before the Second World War recommended that pregnant women eat liver frequently, yet today pregnant women are told to avoid this extremely nutritious food. Don’t eat beef liver, cautions Organic Style magazine in a February 2005 article on diets for pregnant women, “. . . it has high levels of retinol, a vitamin-A derivative that can cause birth defects.”” (source)
Choosing a Healthy Source
One fact that is well established is that the health of an animal largely affects the health of its organs. For this reason, just as with any meat, it is very important to choose healthy sources.
Personally, I strive to eat organ meats, especially liver, once a week or more, especially when pregnant or nursing. I get my organ meats from these two sources when I can’t find a good source locally:
Often, I can find quality meats and organ meats from local farmers and just make sure that the animal was grassfed, raised on pasture and (if possible) not given grains or antibiotics.
Do you eat liver or other organ meats? How often and how do you prepare them? Share your tips below!