When it comes to discussing nutrition and food, organ meat certainly isn’t the most glamorous subject. For some, the very topic evokes a sense of panic and horror!
Perhaps it brings to mind a memory of being served dense, glossy liver and onions. Maybe it reminds you of walking past a city butcher shop with obscure animal parts displayed behind the windows.
Of course, it probably doesn’t help that the culinary term for organ meats—offal—is literally pronounced “awful!”
But hang on… don’t give up on organ meats just yet!
The History of Organ Meats
There’s an interesting history behind why you might feel squeamish or unsure when it comes to organ meats. Understanding this may help to put the issue into context. It starts with the fact that many of us have become completely removed from the sources of our food.
In recent years, food has become increasingly industrialized, standardized, and commercialized.
- Grains of all kinds are highly processed, coated with sugar and put into boxes.
- Heirloom vegetables and unique fruits have been phased out and replaced with generic varieties that are easier to grow, transport, and display.
- Dairy is skimmed, pasteurized, and fortified with synthetic nutrients.
- Every store offers the same cuts of meat—chicken breasts, tenderloins, steaks—all neatly wrapped in plastic and displayed in rows in the refrigerated section.
The Way Food Used to Be…
Our food supply certainly wasn’t always this way. People didn’t just consume muscle meat. Traditional diets from around the world were rich in dishes containing organ meats and other high protein options. From liver to kidney and sweetbreads to tripe, organ meats were often part of everyday meals.
Many of the world’s healthiest indigienous people, as studied by Dr. Weston A. Price, ate organ meats frequently. In hunting cultures, organs like the heart and brain were consumed first. It was believed that they would pass on the strength and intelligence of the animal.
Even after the introduction of modern farming, organ meats were savored as delicacies. Because offal is less plentiful than muscle meat, it was considered a rare and special treat, often reserved for the wealthy.
Organ Meat: Falling Out of Favor
It wasn’t until around the end of the 18th century when industrialized farming began to take hold that there was a significant shift in the consumption of organ meats. With the spread of commercial techniques and a rising number of slaughterhouses, the availability of meat increased dramatically while the price declined.
Offal, being delicate and difficult to store, eventually became too expensive and time consuming for companies to prepare on this mass scale. It was either discarded or ground and sold off for use in pet food.
The Big Problem of Factory Farming
Factory farming has allowed for the production of large quantities of meat at a good price, but there are consequences to this method that can’t be ignored. It has contributed to:
- Substantial pollution
- Decreased biodiversity
- Declining nutrient levels in soils
- Inhumane treatment of livestock
In all of this, we’ve also lost the deep reverence that comes along with understanding where our food comes from and the respect that is shown by using all parts of the animal.
Big Grocery Stores Changed Food, Too
Another issue that has contributed to the disappearance of organ meats in the Standard American Diet is the growth of chain grocery stores. Offal is not easily transported and doesn’t keep well for long periods of time, making it a poor fit for large stores. Supermarkets, which first appeared in America in the early 1900s, have also completely changed how people shop for and learn about meat.
Previously there were specialty butcher shops, which provided carefully selected fresh meat along with advice for cooking it. When large stores were built with convenient in-house delis, many local butchers went out of business.
With the closing of these shops came a loss of knowledge on how to prepare and eat unique cuts like organ meats. As a result, only meat varieties that are quick and easy to cook have stayed popular in the American diet.
Losing Out on Nutrients
This scenario is so unfortunate! From a nutritional perspective, we are missing out on a range of superfood health benefits from organ meats. Offal has concentrated, bioavailable forms of vital nutrients including:
It also has specialty nutrients that are difficult to obtain from other foods:
- Heart, for example, is a great food source of copper, an important mineral that is needed in healthy balance with zinc. Just 4 ounces of beef heart also contains more than 500% daily value of vitamin B12 and every essential amino acid.
- Kidney contains an incredible amount of lean protein, selenium, B2 (riboflavin), and B12.
- Liver provides more nutrients gram for gram than any other food, and is particularly rich in vitamins B12, folate, and vitamin A.
Traditional cultures intuitively recognized these health benefits, which advances in nutritional science have confirmed.
Are Organ Meats Healthy?
I have family members who don’t consume organ meats at all because they consider them filters that remove toxins. They assume that, for this reason, they store the toxins and are unhealthy.
Even those who don’t have a problem with the idea of eating 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. 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.
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.
Organ meats are powerhouses, also high in folate, choline, zinc, and many other essential nutrients.
Food for the Genes
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:
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 eat 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. To get this job done, the liver stores many fat soluble vitamins and nutrients which is why it’s such a nutrient-dense food. Toxins removed by the function of the liver reside in fatty tissues, not the liver itself.
The Weston A. Price Foundation uses the analogy of the liver being a chemical processing plant. It handles receiving shipments and addressing them, but it does not simply engage with the chemicals as a manner of storage. As they say, “The liver is part of the body! If your liver contains large amounts of toxins, so do you!”
The Weston A. Price Foundation provides expert guidance when it comes to organ meat consumption. They suggest that for ultimate nutritional value, organ meat should come from healthy pasture-raised animals that have been raised on a diet of grass and natural grazing. Organic non-pastured options are second-best, followed by non-organic calf liver if that is your only option.
Too Much Vitamin A?
Another concern often heard with eating liver especially is taking in too much vitamin A. It is possible to get too much preformed vitamin A, especially if you eat a lot of liver. As with all health foods, variety is the best way to promote a balanced intake of nutrients.
Ultimately, eating too much preformed vitamin A can have some negative health consequences. Many studies look at synthetic vitamin A and find that it can lead to toxicity and birth defects, particularly in the first 60 days after conception. But natural vitamin A, like the kind found in liver, can cause problems too if you get too much.
While preformed vitamin A, like the kind found in liver and organ meats, is not synthetic, it can harm your bone health. An article from 2006 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that preformed vitamin A intakes of only double the recommended daily amount resulted in osteoporosis and hip fractures.
In the U.S., vitamin A in its retinol form is rarely deficient. A 2019 review from Nutrients found that regular intake of liver where deficiencies in vitamin A are not common often lead to toxicity.
Liver is a superfood, rich in vitamins, but it still needs to be eaten in balance with other nutrients. You can get too much preformed vitamin A, so be sure to balance your liver with other nutrient-dense foods.
Bringing Back Traditional Food
It’s important to recognize that if you are iffy on organ meats, you are not alone—it is a perspective that has been shaped by culture and history. There is a shift happening. People are beginning to push back on the commercial food system. They are fighting to reclaim traditional foods, opting for supporting local farmers, protecting the environment, and eating consciously.
As a Wellness Mama reader, I know you’re a part of this real food movement too, otherwise you wouldn’t have braved reading this unique and potentially controversial post.
If you are interested in reviving the tradition of cooking with organ meats, there are several books available on the topic. Two recent favorites are Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal and The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, both of which approach the subject with a spirit of curiosity and culinary adventure.
When sourcing organ meats, try to find a local farmer that uses sound farming practices who you can purchase from directly. There are also trusted online sources that ship grass-fed beef and other animal organ meats.
Choosing a Healthy Source of Organ Meats
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 other 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 normally purchase organ meats online here when I can’t find a good source locally.
I also try to find quality meats and organ meats from local farmers. Ask if the animal was grass-fed, raised on pasture, and (if possible) not given grains or antibiotics.
Another Option (For Those Who Don’t Love the Taste)
If the idea of eating organ meats still just isn’t appealing, there are other options to turn to.
There are supplements available such as Desiccated Liver and Desiccated Heart, which provide grass-fed, freeze-dried organ meats in capsule or powder form. Perfect Supplements is another brand that I use and recommend for organ supplements. The capsules can be quickly and tastelessly swallowed, while the powders can be conveniently mixed into foods like soups, stews, and chili or patted unknowingly into burgers. This way, all of the nutritional benefits of organ meats can be obtained without extended planning and preparation.
I was recently introduced to Pluck Organ-Based Seasoning that can be added to pretty much any meal that would typically use salt and pepper. It tastes like an all-purpose seasoning with a slightly smoky flavor and I like that it is sourced from humanely-raised, grass-fed and grass-finished New Zealand cattle, and are free of pesticides and hormones.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation, and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you eat liver or other organ meats? How often and how do you prepare them? Share your tips below!