For those who grew up eating traditional Western diets, the thought of eating kidneys or intestines can be cringe inducing. But organ meats have always been the preferred animal protein source for hunters across a wide range of cultures. In fact, even in the animal kingdom most predators go after organs first (namely the liver) before eating the more muscular cuts. What is it that these predators know about organ meats that most people don't?
The Secret is Nutrient Density
Organ meats are some of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. They're quality protein sources that are also rich in essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. When classifying the nutrient density of food (nutrients per serving divided by weight), organ meats top the list.
Compare 4 ounces of beef liver with 4 ounces of chicken breast (without skin). While the liver and chicken have pretty similar levels of protein and essential amino acids, the liver blows chicken breast out of the water when you look at the vitamin and mineral content.
The Best Bits
This can be eaten raw or cooked and can be prepared in a variety of ways: jerky, part of a pate, or ground up with other meat in burgers or meatballs. Liver is also a good source of vitamin A, all of the B vitamins, vitamin C, iron, phosphorous, selenium, copper, manganese, and zinc.
Vitamin A plays a role in immune function through the development of both t-cells and b-cells. Manganese plays a role in the metabolism of carbs, amino acids, and cholesterol. Zinc supplementation has been shown to augment the effects that exhaustive exercise has of decreasing thyroid and testosterone levels. In studies, the participants that supplemented with zinc had higher hormone values after four weeks.
Common sources: Beef, lamb, buffalo, chicken, turkey, duck, geese.
Since the heart is a tough muscle, it eats more like a steak or a roast. Heart can be grilled, charbroiled, or marinated. It's a good source of B vitamins, iron, selenium, phosphorus, copper, and CoQ10.
B vitamins play a role in cellular energy production, red blood cell formation, and the metabolism of amino acids, glycogen, and fatty acid synthesis. Copper helps with iron absorption and thyroid function. Iron is necessary for oxygen transport and plays a role in cellular energy production.
CoQ10 is an antioxidant that can reduce lipid perioxidation, lower blood pressure, and increase blood flow. Another additional benefit is that when used by the body, CoQ10 becomes reduced to a compound known as ubiquinol. Studies have shown that ubiquinol can significantly improve maximum power output.
Common sources: Lamb, pork, beef, chicken.
Grill them or mix them with sauces or as part of a stir fry. Kidneys are a good source of B vitamins, iron, phosphorus, copper, selenium, zinc, and vitamin C.
Phosphorus deficiencies have been linked to muscular fatigue. Selenium offers neuroprotective benefits, is required for the synthesis and metabolism of thyroid hormones, and has been shown in studies to increase testosterone levels with as little as 200 mcg.
Common sources: Beef, lamb, pig, goat.
One of the most tender cuts of meat because of its fat content, it can be stewed, pickled, slow-cooked, or poached. Tongue is a good source of zinc, potassium, B vitamins, choline, and monounsaturated fatty acids.
Choline plays a variety of roles in the body including cell structure and neurotransmitter synthesis. Potassium regulates fluid balance and plays a role in controlling the electrical activity of the heart and muscles.
Common sources: Beef, pork, goat, lamb.
Wait! But What About...
High cholesterol and saturated fat content?
For years, nutritionists, doctors, and other health experts have hammered away about the dangers of cholesterol. Well, in a 15 year study researchers followed over 12,000 adults and discovered that the groups with total cholesterol levels below 160 mg/dl and above 240 mg/dl were most at risk for cardiovascular diseases. The distribution of hazard ratios followed a U-shaped curve. Consumed in moderation, saturated fats and cholesterol are beneficial for the roles they play in regulating hormonal balance, production of vitamin D3, neural signaling, and immune function.
Yes, the liver and kidneys act as filters. But it's important to remember that while these organs function as filters, their jobs are to excrete toxins from the body, not store it. If it's still a concern, just choose younger animals that have less exposure to pesticides and other toxins (like veal over beef) or opt for grass-fed animal products.
It's subjective. Our tastes are shaped by a combination of personal preference and sensitivities to certain flavors, and exposure to these foods. Some people rave about the unique flavor of organ meats; others say they're acquired tastes, and others flat-out dislike them. Ease your way in by starting out with muscular cuts (heart, tongue) that are closer in flavor and texture to typically consumed cuts of meat, then transition to choices like liver and kidneys that have more distinctive flavors.
Where to Get Organ Meat
Another name for organ meat is offal. It's become easier to find at most grocery stores due to the popularity of "nose to tail" eating. If your local chain isn't up to speed, check out the specialty ethnic stores in your area.
- Kilic, M. (2007). Effect of fatiguing bicycle exercise on thyroid hormone and testosterone levels in sedentary males supplemented with oral zinc. Neuro Endocrinology Letters, 28(5), 681-685.
- Kil, M., Baltaci, A., Gunay, M., Okudan, N., & Cicioglu, I. (2006). The effect of exhaustion exercise on thyroid hormones and testosterone levels of elite athletes receiving oral zinc. Neuro Endocrinology Letters, 27(1), 2nd ser., 247-252.
- Alf, D., Schmidt, M. E., & Siebrecht, S. C. (2013). Ubiquinol supplementation enhances peak power production in trained athletes: A double-blind, placebo controlled study. J Int Soc Sports Nutr Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 24.
- Safarinejad, M. R., & Safarinejad, S. (2009). Efficacy of Selenium and/or N-Acetyl-Cysteine for Improving Semen Parameters in Infertile Men: A Double-Blind, Placebo Controlled, Randomized Study. The Journal of Urology, 181(2), 741-751.
- Bae, J., Yang, Y., Li, Z., & Ahn, Y. (2012). Low Cholesterol is Associated with Mortality from Cardiovascular Diseases: A Dynamic Cohort Study in Korean Adults. Journal of Korean Medical Science J Korean Med Sci, 27(1), 58.