Organs – Should You Be Eating Them?

I recently came across this article evaluating the health of organ meats. I know Dr. Weil and am a great admirer of his work, but when I read the article I was surprised by his take on the issue.

Whether or not someone finds organ meats appealing really depends on their cultural background. In many countries, heart, liver, kidneys, intestines, and brains are part of a regular diet. The inclusion of organ meats in traditional diets results from an admirable desire to use the entire animal.

But despite its practicality, organ meat isn’t part of a typical American diet. There are a few exceptions like chitlins (mostly enjoyed in the South) and pâté, but these dishes are special-occasion foods for most people who eat them. Historically a delicacy, organ meats (also known as offal) were stigmatized as Americans became able to afford more expensive cuts of meat. During the Second World War, the government even unsuccessfully tried to sway public opinion toward “variety meats” because the army was expected to consume much of the available muscle meat.

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Cultural bias aside, are organ meats healthy, and should they be a regular part of our diets? There’s no doubt that organ meats like liver are loaded with nutrients. Liver is high in folate, B12, B2, and vitamin A. In fact, liver is so high in Vitamin A that Vitamin A toxicity has been raised as concern, but the only known record of possible vitamin A toxicity from liver consumption is of artic explorers who ate polar bear liver. Liver is also a potent source of minerals like iron, folate, calcium, copper, and zinc.

But there are risks as well as benefits. For example, a 3 oz. serving of liver contains 1.2 grams of saturated fat and 302 mg of cholesterol, more than the maximum recommended daily amount for healthy people (300mg) and more than 100 mg over the recommendation for people with diabetes or heart disease (200 mg). While there is new research questioning the role of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat in heart disease, there are still decades of research suggesting that they may be contributing factors. And the American Heart Association hasn’t changed its recommendation that saturated fat be kept at less than 5-6% of daily caloric intake.

Another concern with eating liver and kidney is that they may contain toxins if they come from an animal that was exposed to environmental contaminants. Most sources recommending the regular consumption of liver also recommend that the liver is carefully sourced from a farm that uses organic practices and pastures its animals, but the fact of the matter is that most liver eaten in this country is bought from a local grocery store and lacks labeling that indicates what kind of farm it comes from. And organ meats ordered online from specialty farms may be more expensive per pound than filet mignon after shipping and handling.

Other organ meats may not be as high in toxins but carry other risks. Intestines, if not cleaned and cooked properly (a long process), can carry a variety of dangerous bacteria, and eating brain has been connected to the transmission of rare diseases, including the human form of mad cow disease. If there’s an organ meat that seems to carry high health benefits with relatively low risk (other than being high in cholesterol), it may be the heart. It should be cooked thoroughly, just like any other cut of meat, and is sometimes used in stews or ground in with other meat.

Most organ meats are probably safe as an occasional treat if you enjoy them, but there are certainly downsides to be considered before making them a regular part of your diet. As always, check with your doctor before making any significant dietary changes.