Organ meats were once a cherished and prized food source.
Nowadays, the tradition of eating organ meats has slightly fallen out of favor.
In fact, many people have never eaten these parts of an animal and might find the thought of doing so quite disconcerting.
However, organ meats are actually quite nutritious. 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 born and raised for their muscle tissues. Organ meats are often overlooked, with most meat typically consumed as steaks, drumsticks or ground into mince.
However, hunter-gatherers didn't just eat muscle meat. They ate the organs too, such as brains, intestines and even testicles. In fact, the organs were highly prized (1).
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.
Summary: 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.
Summary: 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.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) portion of cooked beef liver provides (2):
- Calories: 175
- Protein: 27 grams
- Vitamin B12: 1,386% of the RDI
- Copper: 730% of the RDI
- Vitamin A: 522% of the RDI
- Riboflavin: 201% of the RDI
- Niacin: 87% of the RDI
- Vitamin B6: 51% of the RDI
- Selenium: 47% of the RDI
- Zinc: 35% of the RDI
- Iron: 34% of the RDI
Summary: 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 better absorbed by the body than non-heme iron from plant foods (3, 4).
- 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 (5, 6, 7).
- May help retain muscle mass: Organ meats are a source of high-quality protein, which is important for building and retaining muscle mass (8, 9, 10).
- Great source of choline: Organ meats 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 (11, 12).
- Cheaper cuts and reduced waste: Organ meats are not a popular cut of meat, so you can often get them at a cheap price. Eating these parts of the animal also reduces food waste.
Summary: 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 rich in cholesterol, regardless of the animal source.
Many associate cholesterol with clogged arteries, medication and heart disease.
However, cholesterol is produced by your liver, which regulates your body's cholesterol production according to your dietary cholesterol intake (15).
One recent 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 (20).
Nevertheless, there seems to be a subgroup of individuals — about 30% of the population — that's sensitive to dietary cholesterol. For these people, consuming cholesterol-rich foods may cause an increase in total cholesterol (19, 21).
Summary: Most organ meats contain a large amount of cholesterol. However, consuming cholesterol-rich foods is not directly linked to higher blood cholesterol or heart disease risk.
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 it's important to eat these foods in moderation if you have gout (22).
Pregnant Women Should Watch Their Intake
Organ meats are rich sources of vitamin A, especially liver. During pregnancy, vitamin A plays an essential role in fetal growth and development.
However, the National Institutes of Health recommend an upper intake level of 10,000 IU of vitamin A per day, as excessive intakes have been associated with serious birth defects and abnormalities (23, 24).
Such birth defects include heart, spinal cord and neural tube defects, abnormalities of the eyes, ears and nose, and defects within the digestive tract and kidneys (25).
One study reported that pregnant mothers who consume more than 10,000 IU of vitamin A per day from food have an 80% higher risk of having a child with a birth defect, compared to mothers who consume 5,000 IU or less per day (25).
Therefore, it's important to monitor your intake of organ meats during pregnancy, especially if you are taking supplements containing vitamin A.
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 brain disease called new variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD) (26).
Luckily, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of cases of mad cow disease since a feeding ban was introduced in 1996. This ban made it illegal to add any meat and livestock to cattle feed (27).
In the US, brain meat from high-risk cattle and cattle with signs of BSE are not allowed to enter the food supply. Other countries have taken similar actions (28).
In most countries, the risk of developing vCJD from infected cattle is very low. However, if you're worried, you can avoid eating the brains and spinal cords of cattle.
Summary: Pregnant women and people with gout should eat organ meats in moderation. Mad cow disease can cause a rare brain disease in humans, but reported cases have dropped dramatically over the past decade.
Organ meats are becoming increasingly popular in fine-dining restaurants due to their strong and unique flavors.
Because it can take some time to develop a taste for organ meats, 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 beef or pork mince 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.
Summary: 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.