The clues have been there all along. All you had to do was connect the nutritional dots. That's what science writer Mary Roach did in her book, Gulp.
Her first clue popped up in an obscure report done in 1973 by the Center for Science and Public Interest (CSPI). The CSPI had taken 36 protein-rich foods and ranked them according to nutritional value. There, ranked above such foods as shrimp and sirloin steak, was Alpo – the dog food.
The CSPI put it on their list because they'd heard widespread reports that poor people ate a lot of Alpo because of it's low cost. But Alpo, a nutritional super star for humans? What was going on?
All you had to do was look at the top of the nutritional list to get the answer. There, ranked number one by a hefty margin was beef liver, followed closely by chicken liver.
Clearly, liver had something going on, nutritionally, and if you read the list of ingredients on Alpo, you see that it contains beef liver, hence the dog food's relatively high standing on the CSPI's list.
Roach needed to go up north, way up north, to Inuit Eskimo country for the next set of clues. Inuit health workers use something called "The Northern Food Tradition and Health Resource Kit" to teach nutrition to the Inuit's. Included in the kit are pictures of 48 foods common to the Inuit diet. Most of the foods are from animals because, well, they live in a place where split peas and avocados don't exactly thrive.
Oddly enough, none of the foods pictured in the kit were steaks. Instead, it included pictures of seal hearts, caribou brains and eyes, caribou and seal liver, and even weirder foods (if that's possible) like stomach membranes.
How does the kit get by without pushing a variety of fruits and vegetables, even if, by necessity, they'd come in popsicle form? Organs, it turns out, are so rich in nutrients, that they're classified as both meats and fruits and vegetables in the Inuit diet. As an example, one serving from the fruits and vegetables is 1/2 cup of berries or greens, or 60 to 90 grams of organ meats.
But there was one other notable thing about the list – it included no steaks.
Why? Because muscle meat is considered nutritionally inferior.
And this notion isn't just unique to the Inuit. In fact, their brethren in the Western United States were said to have fed muscle meat to their dogs while the tribe feasted on all the nutritionally rich organs.
The Inuit aren't just suffering from some polar bear fever that's iced up their judgment. Take a look at the facts: A serving of lamb spleen has as much Vitamin C as a tangerine. And a beef lung has 50% more Vitamin C than a tangerine.
But let's stick with liver since it's something all of us are familiar with.
Look at this comparison between the Vitamin C content of 100 grams of apple, 100 grams of carrots, 100 grams of red meat, and 100 grams of beef liver.
The apple has 7.0 grams of Vitamin C, the carrots have 6.0 grams, the red meat has 0 grams, and the beef liver has 27.0 grams.
Let's do the same thing with Vitamin B12.
The apple has no measurable B12 and neither do the carrots. The red meat has 1.84 mcg., but the beef liver has 111.3 mcg.
It's no contest.
And it's not much different when you look at other nutrients like phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, copper, Vitamins A, D, and E, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folic acid, biotin, and Vitamin B6 – beef liver beats them all almost every time.
We really should have known something was going on with organ meats. Anyone who's ever watched a four-legged carnivore in the wild knows that it first eats the liver and stomach of its prey (the liver it eats instinctually because of the nutrients, the stomach because it often contains pre-digested, nutrient-rich vegetation).
Even the flesh-eating Zombies on The Walking Dead seem to know that organ meat is where it's at.
What's eating at me, though, is that all these years I've been fooling myself that my vegetable, fruit, and muscle meat diet is the most technologically advanced and complete diet possible. Now, I'm realizing that I've been wrong, or worse yet, delusional.
So why don't we see organ meat anywhere? Where does all this organ meat go? It certainly isn't lined up in the meat section of the grocery store.
Roach's research found that we ship it to other countries that seem to be a lot less squeamish and a whole lot more nutritionally savvy. In 2009, we shipped 438,000 tons of frozen organs to other countries. Mexico is big on brains and lips. Russia and Egypt love livers. The Philippines heart hearts.
When you're honest about it, we know that we don't eat organ meats simply because we find the prospect disgusting. And for many of you adventurous Anthony Bourdain types who've tried organ meats, we simply don't like the taste.
But it's an inescapable fact that food tastes are culturally driven, and these culturally driven tastes seem to start in the womb and early infancy.
Studies have shown that babies are more accepting of foods that mom ate, since amniotic fluid (some of which the fetus invariably ingests) and breast milk contain flavors of stuff mom had for dinner.
(To test this, researchers conducted an orphanage experiment where babies were given a Las Vegas style buffet of thirty-four foods ranging from eggs, milk, vegetables, and chicken to various organ meats. True, the babies didn't like liver or kidney (along with vegetables and pineapples), but they liked brain and sweetbreads (tissue from endocrine glands) and they loved bone marrow.)
This American preference for muscle meats proved to be a problem of national significance during WWII. Soldiers wanted meat, lots of it, and we shipped tons of it overseas to feed the troops. This of course left scant pickings for civilians who were forced to accept meat rationing.
The Government figured that it would help resources a great deal if they could only get Americans to start eating organ meats, so it hired the soon-to-be-famous anthropologist Margaret Mead to study the problem and perhaps change perceptions.
The best she could come up with was to call organ meats some other name to make them more mentally palatable. Hence was born the terms, "tidbits" and "variety meats," neither of which made a difference. Americans weren't buying it, figuratively or literally.
So we hobbled on, meatless and surly until the war ended.
Still, it's been proven time and time again in studies, and you probably even have some personal experiential evidence to support it, but it you eat a food often enough, you'll grow to like it.
Am I suggesting you start eating endocrine meats? Supping on spleen, or noshing on 'nads*? No, but I am urging you to incorporate beef liver into your diet.
*According to Roach, a woman named Deanna Pucciarelli is researching methods on how to make pig testicles more palatable to humans. She's doing her research at Ball State. No lie.
Look, I'm no Paleo fundamentalist. Hell, I feel like bashing most of them over the head with a Bam-Bam like cudgel because they've turned a method of eating into a quasi-religion, but I feel some kinship to them on this issue.
Beef liver – or liver in general – could well be the most nutritionally complete food in existence, and the dearth of it and other organ meat might well be the cause of a lot of the degenerative diseases in society.
But let's try to dispel some of the reasons for wrinkling up your nose in disgust at the very idea of sampling it.
First, the taste.
You can soak it in lemon juice to mitigate the characteristic liver flavor.
If that doesn't work, you can opt for lamb liver, which is milder than beef liver, or turkey liver, which is better tasting than chicken liver.
If you're a total taste pussy, you can freeze liver and then grate it into other recipes like meatloaf or stews, where other flavors will mask its taste.
There is, of course, the option of emulating the old-time Muscle Beach bodybuilders by eating desiccated liver tablets. There's probably nothing wrong with doing this. The only drawback I can see is that, by my calculations, you'd have to swallow about six average capsules to equal about one ounce of raw liver, but that of course wouldn't be a big deal if you just took a few every day rather than eating a handful a couple of times a week.
The second major objection to liver is the widely held notion that the liver is the body's garbage dump. I've been guilty of spreading this same notion. However, it turns out that while it's true the liver neutralizes drugs and chemicals, the residue of these chemical reactions are primarily stored in fatty tissue.
Regardless, it's my recommendation to opt for organic livers, just to be safe.
There may yet be another reason to consider making liver a part of your diet.
A recent compelling and make-your-palms-sweaty study recently suggested that it's not the fat in meat that could make your heart congeal into a hockey puck, but the carnitine found in the meat.
It seems that intestinal bacteria metabolize ingested carnitine into a chemical called TMAO and this TMAO is released into the bloodstream. The chemical then enables cholesterol to get into artery walls and also prevents the body from excreting excess cholesterol, thereby playing a huge role in heart disease.
This study, as elegant as it was, can't yet be accepted as gospel. However, it was compelling enough to make me reconsider my stance on red meat and make me more appreciative of chicken, fish, and coincidentally, liver, all of which are relatively poor or at least poorer sources of carnitine than red muscle meat.
Whether you choose to eat like an Inuit, a four-legged carnivore, or a zombie and start incorporating organ meat, or at least liver, into your diet probably comes down to one question:
Do you, like most Americans, just eat what you want – which turns you into an unhealthy and likely overweight medical liability – or do you make the conscious choice to eat what you need?
Those who fall into the latter category will want to try liver.
- Kesser C. Liver: Nature's Most Potent Superfood. Food and Nutrition. April 11th, 2008.
- Kolata G. Culprit in Heart Disease Goes Beyond Meat's Fat. New York Times. Monday, April 8th, 2013, section A, page 14.
- Luoma TC. Luoma's Big Damn Book of Knowledge. Oxford University Press. Oxford, England, 2011.
- McEvoy, M. Organ Meats: The Departure From Nutrient-Dense Foods, Impacts and Implications. Metabolic Healing. April 5th, 2012.
- Roach M. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. W.W. Norton and Company. 2013.