Organ meats used to be a common food in mainstream U.S. diets.
For many people, organ meats are no longer found on the daily menu. However, organ meats remain popular in many cuisines.
If you’ve never eaten these parts of an animal, you might find the thought of doing so disconcerting.
However, organ meats are actually quite nutritious and versatile.
This article takes a detailed look at organ meats and their health effects — both good and bad.
Organ meats, sometimes referred to as “offal,” are the organs of animals that humans prepare and consume as food.
The most commonly consumed organs come from cows, pigs, lambs, goats, chickens and ducks.
Today, most animals are raised for their muscle tissues. Organ meats are often overlooked, with most meat typically consumed as steaks, drumsticks, or ground meat.
However, muscle meat isn’t the only edible part of an animal. Many people eat the organs too, such as the liver, intestines, and tongue.
Organ meats can be a great addition to your diet. They’re packed with nutrients, such as vitamin B12 and folate, and they’re also an excellent source of iron and protein.
Organ meats refer to the organs of animals that are consumed as food. The most common organ meats come from cows, pigs, lambs, goats, chickens and ducks.
The most common types of organ meat include:
- Liver: Liver is the detox organ. It’s also the nutritional powerhouse of organ meats and sometimes referred to as “nature’s multivitamin.”
- Tongue: Tongue is actually more of a muscle. It’s a tender and tasty cut of meat due to its high fat content.
- Heart: The role of the heart is to pump blood around the body. It may not look edible, but it’s actually lean and tasty.
- Kidneys: Like humans, mammals have two kidneys. Their role is to filter waste and toxins out of the blood.
- Brain: Brain is considered a delicacy in many cultures, and it’s a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Sweetbreads: Sweetbreads have a deceiving name, as they are neither sweet nor a type of bread. They are made from the thymus gland and pancreas.
- Tripe: Tripe is the lining of animal stomach. Most tripe is from cattle and can have a very chewy texture.
- Testicles: Testicles are sometimes called Rocky Mountain Oysters or Stones.
- Intestines: Intestines, cleaned and fried or sautéed, is sometimes called Chitterlings or Chitlins.
There are many different types of organ meat, including liver, tongue, heart and kidneys. Most are named according to their organ name, with the exception of sweetbreads and tripe.
The nutrition profile of organ meat varies slightly, depending on the animal source and organ type.
But most organs are extremely nutritious. In fact, most are more nutrient-dense than muscle meat.
They are particularly rich in B-vitamins, such as vitamin B12 and folate. They are also rich in minerals, including iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc, and important fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K.
Furthermore, organ meats are an excellent protein source.
What’s more, animal protein provides all nine essential amino acids that your body needs to function effectively.
- Calories: 191
- Protein: 29 grams
- Vitamin B12: 2715% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Copper: 1588% of the DV
- Vitamin A: 1048% of the DV
- Riboflavin: 263% of the DV
- Niacin: 109% of the DV
- Vitamin B6: 60% of the DV
- Selenium: 66% of the DV
- Zinc: 48% of the DV
- Iron: 36% of the DV
Organ meats are nutrient-dense. They are a good source of iron and protein and packed with vitamin A, B12 and folate, in addition to many other important nutrients.
Eating organ meats has several benefits:
- Excellent source of iron: Meat contains heme iron, which is highly bioavailable, so it’s more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron from plant foods (
- Keeps you fuller for longer: Many studies have shown that high-protein diets can reduce appetite and increase feelings of fullness. They may also promote weight loss by increasing your metabolic rate (
4, 5, 6).
- May help retain muscle mass: Organ meats are a source of high-quality protein, which is important for building and retaining muscle mass (
7, 8, 9).
- Great source of choline: Organ meats such as liver are among the world’s best sources of choline, which is an essential nutrient for brain, muscle and liver health that many people don’t get enough of (
- Less expensive cuts and reduced waste: Organ meats can often be found at a bargain price. Eating these parts of the animal also reduces food waste.
Organ meats have a number of benefits, including better iron absorption and helping control appetite and retain muscle mass. Also, these parts of an animal are often cheaper to buy and can help reduce food waste.
Organ meats are high in cholesterol, regardless of the animal source.
The daily value (DV) for cholesterol is only 300 milligrams total per day (
Many associate cholesterol with clogged arteries, medication and heart disease.
However, most of the cholesterol in your body is produced by your liver. Your body uses the cholesterol it makes to carry out a range of vital processes in your cells and organs (
If your blood cholesterol gets too high, your risk for cardiovascular disease increases (
One analysis looked at 40 prospective studies on dietary cholesterol consumption and health risk. It concluded that dietary cholesterol was not significantly linked to either heart disease or stroke in healthy adults (
However, a recent review of 6 long-term studies in U.S. adults found that as cholesterol intake increases, so does the risk of cardiovascular disease or death (
While the role of dietary cholesterol may be unclear, a diet low in saturated fat is strongly associated with good heart health. If you reduce your intake of foods that are high in saturated fat, you’ll also lower your cholesterol intake (
In some cases, experts advise greater caution. The American Heart Association advises that people with high blood cholesterol may need to limit high-cholesterol foods, especially if you have diabetes or an increased risk of heart failure (
Plus, there seems to be a subgroup of individuals — about 1 in 4 people — that’s sensitive to dietary cholesterol. For these people, consuming cholesterol-rich foods may cause an increase in total cholesterol (
Most organ meats contain a large amount of cholesterol. In healthy adults, it’s unclear whether a cholesterol-rich diet can increase heart health risks. If you have high blood cholesterol, experts recommend eating high-cholesterol foods with caution.
There are not many drawbacks to incorporating organ meats into your diet.
That said, some people may be more vulnerable to high intakes and need to limit their consumption.
People with gout need to moderate intake
Gout is a common type of arthritis.
It’s caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood, which causes joints to become swollen and tender.
Purines in the diet form uric acid in the body. Organ meats are particularly high in purines, so you may find that you have fewer flare-ups of gout if you avoid them (
Vitamin A and pregnancy
Organ meats are rich sources of vitamin A. During pregnancy, vitamin A plays an essential role in fetal growth and development.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends liver as a source of certain important nutrients during pregnancy. In addition to vitamin A, liver is a great source of iron and B vitamins, which are important for your health and the health of the fetus (25).
Vitamin A comes in two forms. Preformed vitamin A — also called retinol and retinyl esters — are naturally found in animal foods including organ meats. Provitamin A carotenoids are naturally found in plant sources (
While getting enough vitamin A is important during pregnancy, too much preformed vitamin A can cause harm.
Research has shown a link between high doses of preformed vitamin A supplements during pregnancy and serious birth defects and abnormalities (
Such birth defects include heart, spinal cord and kidney defects, and abnormalities of the eyes, ears and nose (27).
For adults who are pregnant or lactating, the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board recommends an upper intake level of 10,000 IU or 3,000 mcg retinol activity equivalents (RAE) of preformed vitamin A per day (
This amount includes preformed vitamin A from supplements as well as animal foods, such as organ meats (
Because liver is very high in preformed vitamin A, eating liver regularly could potentially cause you to exceed the recommended intake. One 3-ounce serving of beef liver contains 6,583 mcg RAE of preformed vitamin A (
It’s not known whether food sources of preformed vitamin A carry exactly the same risks as supplements.
However, the the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommmends monitoring your total intake of preformed vitamin A from animal foods and supplements, so that you don’t exceed the recommended daily amount (
Concerns about mad cow disease
Mad cow disease, known officially as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), affects the brain and spinal cord of cattle.
The disease can spread to humans through proteins called prions, which are found in contaminated brains and spinal cords. It causes a rare, fatal brain disease called variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD) (
To help prevent cattle from developing mad cow disease, a feeding ban was introduced in 1997. This ban made it illegal to add any meat and livestock to cattle feed (
According to the FDA, high-risk cow parts such as the brains of cattle over 30 months of age are not allowed to be used for any kind of animal feed, including pet food (
High-risk cow parts are also prohibited from entering the human food supply. Plus, cattle with signs of BSE are not allowed to be used for human food (
These prevention efforts are working well, according to the FDA. Since 2003, a total of six cows with BSE have been detected in the United States (
The World Organization for Animal Health states that the risk for BSE in U.S. cattle is “negligible,” the lowest risk status they assign. However, if you have concerns, beef brains and spinal cords are foods you may wish to avoid (34, 35).
People with gout should eat organ meats in moderation. Liver is very rich in vitamin A, so people who are pregnant or lactating should monitor their intake to avoid birth defects. Mad cow disease or BSE can cause a rare, fatal brain disease in humans, but the risk of BSE in U.S. cows is low according to current monitoring.
Organ meats are already found in many cuisines, but they’re becoming increasingly popular in fine-dining restaurants due to their strong and unique flavors.
If you haven’t tried organ meats before, it can take some time to develop a taste for them. It may be best to start off with the more mildly flavored organs like tongue and heart.
You can also try grinding up liver and kidneys and combining them with ground beef or pork in dishes such as Bolognese.
Alternatively, add them to a slow-cooked stew with other meats such as lamb shank. This can help you gradually develop a taste for these stronger flavors.
Many organ meats have a strong and distinct flavor that may take some getting used to. Combining organs with more familiar muscle meats may help you adjust to the flavor.
Organ meats are a rich source of many vitamins and minerals that can be hard to obtain from other foods.
If you enjoy eating meat, it could be worthwhile to substitute some muscle meat with organ meat.
Not only will it provide you with some additional nutrition, but it’s also easy on the wallet and will benefit the environment.