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Why Eat Offal? The hidden health benefits of organ meats

Posted by Christina Boyes on

There are certain parts of the animals we butcher for food that most people are afraid to touch. We even call them “offal” (pronounced “awful”). But they really aren’t that bad. In fact, where nutrition is concerned, these cast-off cuts of meat often offer more nutrition than their muscle-meat counterparts.

We’re talking about organ meats – not all offal is created equal.

In his cookbook The Whole Beast: Nose to tail eating , a coveted culinary classic among chefs and foodies, Fergus Henderson states “It would seem disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast: there is a set of delights, textural and flavorsome, which lie beyond the filet.”

Offal can be spectacular. Take a look at fine dining menus in your area – you’ll find everything from sweetbreads to tripe on the menu these days, and with good reason. The flavor found in even the simplest dishes of organ meat and offal can be exquisite.

There’s more to organ meat than flavor, however. Consider the health benefits for a moment. As a kid, your mom may have force-fed you liver and onions, saying “It’s good for you, so come on. Just take a bite.” If you’re like me, that moment was pure torture.

Luckily, we’re not talking about Mom’s liver here. And she was right about one thing. Organ meat offers some delectable health benefits.

Why You Should Eat Liver

Liverwurst is a delicious way to enjoy liver organ meat without remembering that you are eating offal.

The liver is king of organ meats – it is the most concentrated source of vitamin A (retinol), and is also loaded with bioavailable iron. One ounce of liver contains roughly the same amount of choline as an egg, and liver meat is also high in copper, folic acid, purines, and cholesterol. 

Liver is also easy to hide. The photo above is of a liverwurst served with dark beer and mustard. It doesn't look like offal, and it doesn't taste awful, either. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation1,

“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.”

Not bad for organ meat.

As a kid, I loved the stuff. Not liver cooked like steak and served with onions – that was punishment. I loved liverwurst. One of my favorite memories is unwrapping liverwurst from a yellow, blue, and red package that my parents had bought at the corner store. It was sour but tasty, perfect on crackers, and as a three-year-old kid, there was nothing else I loved as much. Except (maybe) ice cream.

If you are afraid to try liver, for fear of vitamin A toxicity or contamination from chemicals the liver you eat pulled out of the blood of the animal it came from, chill out. Liver is one of the oldest, most traditional and prized dishes in human history. It’s an entirely safe dish – unless you’re eating bear liver or seal liver, which can be extremely high in vitamin A and do pose a potential health risk. But how many of us are snacking on bear liver, anyways?

The liver doesn’t retain toxins, so you don’t need to worry about that, either. It flushes them out of the blood stream, breaks them down chemically, and eliminates them from the body.

Children can eat liver, too. Generations of humanity have eaten it without complaint. Many cultures even enjoy it raw. It makes sense that organ meats like liver would be a big part of man’s natural diet – after all, in the wild, most predators will eat the organs first, and then the muscle meat. Only the industrialization of meat packing and butchering increased our preference for muscle meats like steak and chicken breast.

Take a look at your grandmother’s cookbook. You’ll find all forms of offal, and among the most common and delectable, you’ll see liver.

Heart’s Health Benefits

When I was in the 4 th grade, my teacher, Ms. Betty Lewis, brought a cow’s heart to class. It was massive, fascinating, and provided a hands-on look at the inner workings of mammal circulatory systems. No one in the class thought of it as food.

But what is the heart?

Heart meat is muscle meat. It’s lean by nature, and contains significant amounts of essential nutrients. Over on Mark’s Daily Apple, here’s what Worker Bee had to say about heart meat:

“Because it is a muscle meat, heart is very similar to steak, roasts and ground beef, but is typically less expensive (we blame the “ick” factor for that!) and actually has a higher protein content. In addition, heart is an excellent source of a number of nutrients, including thiamin, folate, selenium, phosphorus, zinc, CoQ10 and several of the B vitamins. In addition, beef heart contains amino acids that are thought to improve metabolism and compounds that promote the production of collagen and elastin (thin and wrinkle free? Sign us up!)”

Like all organ meats, heart can be easy to spoil. You need to cook it with care, and aim for a good medium rare. Overcooked heart isn’t a fun dish.

If you aren’t an experienced offal eater, heart might be a meat that it takes your head some time to get around – it just doesn’t sound as appealing as filet mignon, right? But the price does.

I recommend stepping away from the kitchen for your first taste of heart. Look into local restaurants that serve offal and organ meats, and see what hearts they have on the menu. For home cooks who don’t know how cooked offal should taste or look, testing the foods in a restaurant first can give you a good idea of what you should be aiming for. If you’re really interested in offal, call the chef. You’d be surprised how many culinary pros love organ meat and offal, and enjoy the opportunity to share that passion with home cooks and other chefs.

Beef heart contains roughly 127 calories per 4-ounce serving. Those four ounces also yield 20 grams of protein and 4 grams of fat, not to mention the nutrients that the Mark’s Daily Apple post mentioned.

Beef hearts are by far the easiest to find, but you’re likely to find chicken hearts, lamb hearts, and calf hearts if you look carefully or ask your local butcher to save a few for you.

The Benefits of Kidneys on Your Plate

Kidneys don’t sound appetizing to me. They just don’t. Not kidney beans, not kidney meat. But when I think about the nutritional value the offer and I take a moment to consider my personal ethics regarding the need to eat the whole beast, I realize I’m already defeated.

I have to try kidneys. You do, too.

If you’re put off by offal, we can give it a go together. The health benefits are worth it. Kidneys are loaded with vitamin B12, iron, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, and niacin. Yum.

You’ll find beef, lamb, and pork kidneys at most butcher shops, but rumor has it that the mildest flavor is found in beef kidneys. One consistent recommendation I’ve found? Remove the outer membranes and refrigerate and soak the kidneys in salted water for a few hours before cooking them. It makes the flavor less intense, but won’t lower the nutrient content. The Whole Beast cookbook I mentioned earlier offers two great recipes for lamb’s kidneys. They sound so good, in fact, that despite my feelings about eating kidneys in general, just reading the recipes made me hungry.

Grass-fed, Not Grain-fed

Offal is a beautiful thing, but like all meat, you need to be careful where and who you get it from. Don’t just buy anyone’s organ meats. Factory-farmed organ meats are likely to be higher in bad fats, lower in the good fats, and less nutritious in general. You’re probably already aware that grain-fed beef doesn’t contain omega-3 fats, although it does contain omega-6 fats. Uh oh.

Grass-fed beef is loaded with the good stuff, too. Not just the right fat ratios. It contains more B vitamins, beta-carotene, vitamin E, vitamin K, and numerous trace minerals than its grain-fed counterparts. Organ meat is no exception to the rule. If you consider the fact that we eat organ meat as a meaty vitamin, then you need to choose the most effective option. That, without doubt, is grass-fed organ meat.

The other benefit? Taste. This might just be my own palate talking, but from experience (and from the comments of friends, loved ones, and random acquaintances), grass-fed meats taste better. When you buy food, you want two things: nutrition and flavor. Grass-fed offers both.

What’s on our plate tonight? Tell me what you’ve been eating lately, what your favorite organ meats are, and if you’re going to try anything new in the kitchen soon. I’d love to hear from you!

If you know someone who’d get a kick out of organ meats, an athlete who could use the extra energy they offer, or a family member who is curious but nervous about them, share this post. Organ meats and offal are a beautiful thing. It’s about time to embrace them in the kitchen again, and spreading the word about their benefits is one way to get that to happen.

Learn More

Check out these resources to learn more about offal and your health, as well as how to use organ meats like liver, heart, and kidneys in your kitchen.

General Information (from primarily Paleo/Primal sources):

  1. http://chriskresser.com/natures-most-potent-superfood
  2. http://www.marksdailyapple.com/organ-meats/#ixzz3S3766LRe
  3. http://www.mensfitness.com/nutrition/what-to-eat/7-nutrient-packed-animal-organs
  4. http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-differences-between-grass-fed-beef-and-grain-fed-beef/#axzz3S33JSvYA
  5. http://wellnessmama.com/12579/organ-meats-healthy/
  6. http://dailyhealthpost.com/the-many-health-benefits-of-eating-organ-meats/

Cookbooks and cooking tips (not necessarily Paleo or Primal, but with some great tips and easily adaptable recipes for offal):

  1. Offal: A global history by Nina Edwards, published in 2013.
  2. Odd Bits: How to cook the rest of the animal by Jennifer McLagan, published in 2011.
  3. The Fifth Quarter: An official cookbook by Anissa Helou, published in 2004.
  4. The Offal Good Blog by Chris Consentino http://offalgood.com/

Image Credit: cheeseslave on Flickr


References:

1. http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/the-liver-files/

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