By Dr. Mercola
The consumption of organ meats has fallen out of favor in the West, which may be a mixed blessing. Liver, kidney, heart and other animal organs from organically raised, grass-fed animals are some of the most nutrient-rich foods you can eat.
Unfortunately, that's not how most food animals are raised these days. In today's world of high calorie/high carbohydrate but low nutrient foods, most people would benefit greatly from adding these superfoods back into their diet.
However, I advise against eating organ meats from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The diets, veterinary drugs and living conditions of such animals are not likely to result in healthy organs, so be sure to find out where the organs came from, should you decide to pick some up at your local grocer.
Many traditional cultures and their medicine men—including Native Americans—believe that eating the organs from a healthy animal supports the organs of the eater.
For example, a traditional way of treating a person with a weak heart was to feed the person the heart of a healthy animal. Similarly, eating the brains of a healthy animal was believed to support clear thinking, and animal kidneys were fed to people suffering from urinary maladies.
There are countless reports about the success of these types of traditional practices. We can thank Dr. Weston A. Price for an enormous body of research about the health benefits of traditional diets.1
The 'Isaac Newton of Nutrition'
Dr. Weston A. Price2 was a Cleveland dentist who has been called the "Isaac Newton of Nutrition." Dr. Price traveled all over the world studying the dietary practices of healthy people from traditional cultures.
What he found was that nearly every culture placed a high value on consuming animals in their entirety, making use of the organs, blood, bones, and everything else—a far cry from Western culinary snobbery, which pretty much limits animal foods to muscle tissue and nothing else.
Traditional preparations involve a good deal of work in terms of cleaning, trimming, soaking, pounding and so on because membranes, blood vessels and other inedible parts must be removed from animal organs before they can be consumed, requiring significant time and labor. Why did they bother with all of this work?
They knew that eating these organs would support the natural functioning of their bodies. And they were right—the nutritional benefits of organ meats are now being confirmed by modern science.
Organ meat is a nutritional powerhouse, loaded with vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other compounds vital to your health. Liver in particular is packed with nutrients, which is why predatory animals eat it first and why it has been so highly prized throughout history.
Unfortunately, organ meats have been unfairly demonized in the West thanks to some persistent dietary myths, including beliefs that animal fat and cholesterol are bad for your health. Nothing could be farther from the truth!
Dr. Price, who studied this extensively, found that native cultures who maintained traditional diets—whole foods from plants and animals—had excellent teeth and were free of the chronic diseases plaguing society today. They experienced very little cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, or even birth defects.3 But why? What accounts for such drastic health differences?
Traditional versus Contemporary Diets
When Dr. Price analyzed and compared the nutrient value of foods eaten by traditional versus modern cultures, he found that a traditional diet provided at least four times the water-soluble vitamins, calcium and other minerals, and at least 10 times the fat-soluble vitamins, such as A and D.
These fat-soluble vitamins are present only in animal fats—butter, lard, egg yolks, fish oils, and foods with fat-rich cellular membranes such as liver and other organ meats. Of course, these are the foods now shunned by Westerners as unhealthful. Is it any wonder that adopting a modern diet spells disaster for your health?
The Offal Truth
The consumable parts of an animal that are not skeletal muscle are called offal, which literally means "off fall," or the pieces that fall off a carcass when it's butchered. This includes the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, pancreas and all other abdominal organs, as well as the tails, feet, brains, tongue, and yes, even the testicles.4
In the US, the term "organ meats" is more commonly used, and when these parts come from birds, they are usually referred to as giblets.5 Sweetbreads refer to the thymus gland or pancreas of a young cow, lamb or pig.
In nature, most animals go straight for the organs of their prey, saving the muscle meats for later. This is because animals instinctively know that organ meats are the densest source of nutrition. In fact, organs are the superfoods of the animal kingdom. This is why "glandulars,"6 supplements made from dried tissues of animal organs and glands, pack some powerful therapeutic punches when taken under the guidance of a skilled medical practitioner.
Organ Meats: The Superfoods of the Animal World
Organ meats offer a rich mélange of nutrients your body needs for optimal function, in concentrations hard to find anywhere else. The most significant ones are outlined in the following table.7
High-quality protein B complex, including B12 and folate (folic acid) Minerals, including a highly bioavailable form of iron Fats (especially omega-3 fats8) Choline (another B vitamin, important for cell membranes, brain and nerve function, heart health, and prevention of birth defects)9 Trace minerals such as copper, zinc and chromium Cholesterol10 CoQ10 (essential for energy production and cardiac function; potent antioxidant; animal hearts offer the highest levels of coQ10) Vitamin D Vitamin E (circulation, tissue repair, healing, deactivation of free radicals, slowing aging) Pre-formed vitamin A (retinol) An unidentified "anti-fatigue factor" Purines11 (nitrogen containing compounds serving as precursors to DNA and RNA) Vitamin K2 Amino acids
The Discovery of 'Fat-Soluble Activators'
One of Dr. Price's most significant contributions to nutrition science was the concept of fat-soluble activators, which serve as potent catalysts for mineral absorption. Without them, minerals cannot by used by your body, no matter how plentiful they may be in your diet. Dr. Price was quite ahead of his time—modern research has since validated most of his findings.
Dr. Price identified three primary fat-soluble activators: vitamins A and D, and one he called "Activator X," because he didn't know exactly what it was, only that it was present in certain fatty parts of animals (especially the organ meats) that fed on young green growing plants or microorganisms, as well as in oily fish and shellfish. This powerful nutrient is now believed to be vitamin K2, a nutrient that is far more important than most people realize.12, 13
Vitamin D, is required for mineral metabolism, healthy bones, optimal nervous system function, muscle tone, reproductive health, insulin production, and protection from depression14 and every type of chronic illness, from cancer to heart disease. Vitamin D's list of benefits keeps growing with each passing year. However, it's important to realize that these nutrients are dependent on the animal having been raised and fed in a natural manner. As stated by the Weston A. Price Foundation:15
"The vital roles of these fat-soluble vitamins and the high levels found in the diets of healthy traditional peoples confirm the importance of pasture-feeding livestock. If domestic animals are not consuming green grass, vitamins A and K will be largely missing from their fat, organ meats, butterfat and egg yolks; if the animals are not raised in the sunlight, vitamin D will be largely missing from these foods."
Vitamin A Myth-Busting
Impressively abundant in organ meats from pastured animals, Vitamin A is a catalyst for multiple biochemical processes. Vitamin A is vital for prevention of birth defects, prevention of infection, hormone production, optimal thyroid function, good digestion, good vision, and healthy bones and blood. Without it, your body cannot utilize protein, minerals and water-soluble vitamins. Vitamin A is also an antioxidant that helps protect you from pollutants, free radicals, and cancer.
Contrary to what many vegetarians believe, the type of vitamin A obtained from plants (carotene) is much different than the animal-derived form. Carotenes from vibrantly colored fruits and vegetable are a great antioxidant and can be converted into true vitamin A in your upper intestine, but many people are unable to convert it, especially if their diets contain insufficient fat.
Dr. Price discovered that the diets of traditional peoples contained at least 10 times more vitamin A from animal sources than found in the American diet of his day. That difference may be even starker now, as his research was done decades ago.
When people began taking synthetic vitamin A supplements, we began to see vitamin A toxicity. But this does not happen with natural vitamin A from real, whole foods. Therefore, the advice to refrain from organ meats during pregnancy is unfounded. It is best to obtain your vitamin A from natural sources like yellow butter, egg yolks, and organ meats.
Please realize that antibiotics, laxatives, fat substitutes and cholesterol-lowering drugs interfere with vitamin-A absorption. Another common myth is that organ meats cause gout. This is a warped, oversimplified misinterpretation of the biochemical processes that lead to gout.16 Gout results from a buildup of uric acid, which is more a function of insulin resistance related to overconsumption of refined carbohydrates and sugar. Uric acid is a byproduct of your body's metabolism of dietary sugar—especially fructose.
Excess dietary protein with insufficient dietary fat may also raise your risk for gout. This is why lean meats should not be consumed without adding a healthful fat, and the leaner organ meats (such as the heart and liver) are no exception. The one nutrient which is most effective in preventing gout is vitamin A, because it helps protect your kidneys—healthy kidneys prevent the buildup of uric acid by excreting it in your urine. Therefore, organ meats actually protect you from gout, rather than cause it.
Liver—Nature's Most Concentrated Source of Vitamin A
Liver is the most commonly consumed organ meat in the US—and for good reason: it's one of the most nutrient-dense foods in existence. Liver is held sacred by many African tribes, and practically every cuisine has liver specialties. It simply contains more nutrients, gram for gram, than any other food:17
- Liver is nature's most concentrated source of vitamin A (retinol)
- It contains an abundant, highly usable form of iron
- Three ounces of beef liver contains almost three times as much choline as one egg
- Liver is one of the best sources of copper, folic acid, cholesterol, and purines
- It also contains a mysterious "anti-fatigue factor," making it a favorite among athletes
The liver is often described as an organ that "filters" your blood of toxins, which may seem concerning in terms of eating it. In reality, laboratory analysis has proven that liver is actually completely safe for consumption and has no higher concentration of toxins than the rest of the body. This is due to the fact that your liver is not really a "filter," but more of a chemical processing plant, rendering toxins inert and shuttling them out of your body. If your liver contains large amounts of toxins, so do you! And the same goes for the animals you consume. What this means is, the cleaner the animal whose organs you are consuming, the cleaner your food will be, whether it's a steak or an organ.18
IMPORTANT: Know Where Your Meat Comes From
In another article19 written by a meat processor, Bob Martin explains the differences between products derived from grain-fed animals versus from grass-fed animals. He reports that many grain-finished livers are "condemned," whereas this does not happen with grass-finished livers. He is very straight in his recommendation to avoid meat and organs coming from animals that are grain-fed or grain-finished, such as those produced by CAFOs.
As stated earlier, it is safest to restrict all of your meats to pastured, or at the very least, grass-finished animals. In the wake of mad cow disease, it is particularly important to consume animals raised on pasture and fed a biologically appropriate diet, which virtually eliminates their risk of mad cow disease, as well as many other dangerous contaminants.20
Recipes and Other Offal Resources
If you haven't been eating organ meats lately, perhaps you abandoned them because they were thrust upon you as a child, or maybe you've never been able to get past their appearance. They look like entrails because they ARE entrails, which are difficult to disguise. You just may have to get over it... for the sake of your health! Fortunately, organ meats don't have to be the tough, dried out, overcooked liver-and-onions of yesteryear that were more like shoe leather than meat.
Finding good organ meat recipes can be somewhat of a challenge, as they are more of a niche specialty today—but they are out there. In order to make your journey a bit easier, I've assimilated a list of resources to perhaps inspire you into trying some new things. The following are merely a starting point—I'm sure you can find others. Paleo recipe websites often have interesting and unique organ meat recipes, and there are an abundance of those. Happy hunting!
- An article called "The Liver Files" on the Weston Price website has great nutrition information about liver, as well as liver recipes from around the world17
- Sally Fallon gives a big thumbs up to a cookbook devoted to organ meats, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, by Fergus Henderson.21
- Chris Kresser's article "How to Eat More Organ Meats" contains nutritional information as well as links to a number of recipes, by organ type.22
- Chef Chris Cosentino's website Offal Good is completely devoted to "everything offal" and is an interesting read, including recipes, videos, and offal photos NOT for the faint of heart—but perfect for the culinarily curious! (Chef Cosentino is featured in the video at the top of this article.)
- Huffington Post offers a few select recipes for offal food.23
- Food & Wine gives some tips for "Nose to Tail Cooking."
- For the nutritional composition of organ meats, I found a couple of resources. The Self Nutrition Data site is a good resource for comparing nutrient levels of many foods, including organ meats. And an online publication called "Nutritional Composition of Red Meat" from the University of Wollongong (Australia) has charts with all sorts of nutritional data for red meats, including organ meats and wild game.