The standard American diet often emphasizes muscle meats like chicken breasts, beef steaks, and pork chops, but there’s a whole other category of meat that’s often overlooked: offal. Offal refers to the organs of animals used for food, and it’s a powerhouse of nutrition. These meats are dense with essential nutrients, including protein, iron, and vitamin B12, which are crucial for maintaining health. Research, such as that by Biel, Czerniawska-Piątkowska, and Kowalczyk (2019), has highlighted the impressive chemical composition of offal from various animals raised in organic systems.
Moreover, the consumption of offal can contribute to sustainability by reducing waste. Instead of discarding these parts, incorporating them into meals can make a positive environmental impact.
Globally, organ meats are a staple in many cuisines. In Southeast Asia and Africa, as well as parts of Europe and the Southern United States, dishes featuring heart, kidneys, liver, and more are not only traditional but celebrated. A variety of organ meats are available for culinary exploration, including:
Understanding the nutritional value of organ meats can offer new perspectives on diet and health. Each organ meat comes with its own set of nutrients and potential health benefits, making them a worthy addition to a balanced diet.
Table of Contents
Proteins: Building Blocks Sourced from Organ Meats
Organ meats are a potent source of protein, which is vital for the maintenance and repair of the body’s tissues and organs. This macronutrient is not only structural but also plays a key role in various physiological processes, including the immune response and hormone regulation.
Moreover, combining a protein-rich diet with strength training can enhance muscle strength and mass, which is particularly beneficial in combating sarcopenia, the age-related decline in muscle mass.
Health experts suggest that protein should constitute 10% to 35% of an adult’s daily caloric intake. Organ meats serve as an excellent source for fulfilling this dietary need.
Among these, the liver stands out for its protein content. For instance, a 100-gram serving of beef or lamb liver contains 20.4 grams of protein. Chicken liver provides a slightly lower amount at 16.9 grams per 100 grams. Tongue, whether from veal or pork, also contributes a significant protein count with 17.2 grams per 100-gram serving.
Organ Meats as a Source of B Vitamins
Organ meats are a rich source of B vitamins, which are essential for various bodily functions. Notably, Vitamin B12, crucial for the health of blood and nerve cells and for synthesizing DNA, is abundant in these meats. Adults are advised to consume 2.4 micrograms of Vitamin B12 daily, and beef liver is particularly high in this vitamin, with a 100-gram serving providing 59.3 micrograms.
Another key nutrient, Vitamin B6, plays a significant role in protein metabolism and other critical body processes. The recommended intake of Vitamin B6 for adults is 1.6 milligrams. Beef liver is nearly a complete source for this vitamin, delivering 1.08 milligrams per 100 grams. Additionally, beef kidney is a notable provider of Vitamin B6, with a 100-gram serving offering 0.665 milligrams, which is approximately 62% of the recommended daily value.
Rich in essential minerals, organ meats provide key nutrients such as iron, crucial for oxygen transport in the body, and zinc, integral for immune system support and the healing process of wounds. The daily recommended intake for these minerals stands at 18 milligrams for iron and 11 milligrams for zinc.
Consuming a 100-gram portion of liver from various animals can contribute approximately 5-9 milligrams of iron, satisfying roughly 28% to 50% of the daily iron requirement. The liver is also a beneficial source of zinc, similar to other organ meats like the kidney, tongue, and heart, which all offer upwards of 15% of the daily zinc requirement in a comparable serving.
Choline is a critical nutrient for cognitive functions, such as mood and memory, and for the regulation of muscle control. It is also involved in the development of the brain and metabolic processes. Although the human body can produce choline in limited quantities, dietary intake is necessary to meet the body’s needs.
The daily recommendation for choline intake is 550 milligrams. Despite its presence in various foods and supplements, many Americans fall short of this target, as reported by the National Institutes of Health. Choline is prevalent in animal-derived foods, with beef liver being particularly rich in this nutrient. A 100-gram serving of beef liver contains 333 milligrams of choline, which accounts for 60% of the daily recommended intake.
Comparing Organ and Muscle Meats
Both organ and muscle meats are valuable sources of nutrition, yet organ meats tend to be more concentrated with vitamins and minerals, studies suggest. Organ meats include animal parts like the liver, kidneys, and tongue, while muscle meats are the standard cuts such as chicken breasts, beef steaks, and pork loins that are more commonly consumed in Western diets.
Here is a nutritional breakdown comparing two types of beef meat:
Nutrient Profile: Beef Eye of Round Roast (100g) vs. Beef Liver (100g)
- Calories: 116 in roast vs. 135 in liver
- Protein: 23.4g in roast vs. 20.4g in liver
- Iron: 1.37mg (8% DV) in roast vs. 4.9mg (27% DV) in liver
- Phosphorus: 222mg (18% DV) in roast vs. 387mg (31% DV) in liver
- Zinc: 3.38mg (31% DV) in roast vs. 4mg (36% DV) in liver
- Copper: 0.035mg (4% DV) in roast vs. 9.76mg (1084% DV) in liver
- Selenium: 22.2µg (40% DV) in roast vs. 39.7µg (72% DV) in liver
- Vitamin A (RAE): Not applicable in roast vs. 4970µg (552% DV) in liver
- Vitamin B6: 0.638mg (38% DV) in roast vs. 1.08mg (64% DV) in liver
- Vitamin B12: 2.06µg (86% DV) in roast vs. 59.3µg (2471% DV) in liver
Concerns with Organ Meats
Despite their high nutrient content, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks associated with consuming organ meats.
Gout Considerations and Organ Meats
For those managing gout, organ meats are often on the “avoid” list due to their high purine content. Purines are substances found in certain foods that can exacerbate gout symptoms. When the body breaks down purines, uric acid is produced, and elevated uric acid levels can trigger gout flare-ups.
Vitamin A Content in Organ Meats
Organ meats are also known for their high vitamin A concentration. Being a fat-soluble vitamin, any excess is not flushed out in urine but stored in the body, particularly in the liver. Overconsumption of vitamin A can lead to undesirable effects such as headaches, nausea, and dizziness. It poses a significant risk during pregnancy, where an excess could result in birth defects.
Adults, including pregnant women, are recommended to keep their vitamin A intake below the tolerable upper intake level of 3,000 micrograms per day to prevent potential adverse health effects. This level is considered the maximum safe daily intake unlikely to cause side effects.
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Concerns
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, is a deadly disease that causes degeneration in cattle’s nervous systems. It poses a risk to humans who consume beef products from affected cows.
To protect the food supply, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces regulations that ban the use of cattle brain and spinal cord tissue in feed for other cattle, significantly reducing BSE risks in the U.S. food supply.
For those traveling abroad, it is advised to exercise caution when consuming organ meats, particularly in regions where BSE incidences are higher. Opting to refrain from eating organ meats in these areas can help minimize the risk of BSE exposure.
Organ Meats Linked to Liver Health Concerns
In a sizable study with more than 15,000 individuals, there was an observed association between the intake of organ meats and an increased risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
While further research is necessary to confirm these results, individuals who are at a heightened risk for NAFLD, including those with diabetes or insulin resistance, should consider moderating their consumption of organ meats or avoiding them as a precautionary measure.
Incorporating Organ Meats into a Nutritious Diet
Inclusion of organ meats in your diet can be beneficial, provided they are eaten sparingly and are part of a diverse intake of proteins, which should also include lean meats, fish, and plant-based options. When selecting organ meats, opt for those that are fresh and minimally processed, sourced from trusted suppliers. Balance your meals by pairing organ meats with a variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains for a well-rounded diet.
Proper cooking of organ meats is crucial to ensure safety. Beef, lamb, veal, and pork organ meats should be cooked to a safe internal temperature of 160°F, while poultry organ meats require a temperature of 165°F.
Here are creative ways to enjoy organ meats while maintaining a balanced diet:
- Mix minced liver into meatballs or burger patties.
- Stir-fry liver or kidneys with aromatic vegetables such as onions and peppers.
- Prepare a smooth chicken liver paté as a spread for whole-grain bread.
- Grill or oven-roast delicacies like lamb heart or beef tongue, accompanied by a medley of roasted veggies and grains.
- Create a comforting soup with beef tripe and a variety of vegetables.
A Brief Overview
Organ meats offer a wealth of nutrients, including high-quality protein and a range of vitamins and minerals. Their use in meals contributes to a reduction in food waste by utilizing more parts of the animal. When opting for organ meats, prioritize those that are unprocessed and obtained from reliable providers, and ensure they are well-cooked. If considering adding organ meats to your diet, consulting with a healthcare professional is advisable, particularly if you have health considerations that could be impacted by their consumption.
- Offal chemical composition from veal, beef, and lamb maintained in organic production systems
- Consumer attitudes toward consumption of meat products containing offal and offal extracts
- Nutritional value of cooked offal derived from free-range rams reared in South Africa
- What are proteins and what do they do?
- Dietary protein and muscle mass: Translating science to application and health benefit
- Protein in diet
- Beef, variety meats and by-products, liver, raw
- Lamb, variety meats and by-products, liver, raw
- Chicken, liver, all classes, raw
- Pork, fresh, variety meats and by-products, tongue, raw
- Veal, variety meats and by-products, tongue, raw
- Vitamin B12
- Daily value on the nutrition and supplement facts labels
- Vitamin B6
- Beef, variety meats and by-products, kidneys, raw
- Beef, round, eye of round roast, boneless, separable lean only, trimmed to 0″ fat, select, raw
- Vitamin A and carotenoids
- All about BSE (mad cow disease)
- Li H, Zheng X, Sabina R, et al. Organ meat consumption and risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: The Tianjin Chronic Low-grade Systemic Inflammation and Health cohort study. British Journal of Nutrition. 2023;130(2):276-283. doi: 10.1017/S0007114522000629
- What is the safe temperature to cook organ meat?