The Ultimate Guide to Eating Better Meat (Part III) – six reasons to eat organ meats
When modern cultures talk about “meat”, they usually mean muscle meat – the tenderloins, roasts, shoulders, strip loins, and T-bones we can all buy in stores. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, as early as only about 100 years ago, the same modern cultures happily consumed organ meats, bone broths and even blood. And although some traditional recipes still make use of these, the concept is generally not very well received. Unless you specifically look for them, organ meats are hard to come by in conventional stores and regular recipe books don’t describe many ways to cook them.
This is very unfortunate, because organ meats are extremely beneficial for your health. Several observational studies of Indigenous people (probably the most widely known is a series of studies by Weston A. Price) have demonstrated that non-industrialized cultures regularly consuming organ meats have significantly lower occurrence of cancer and degenerative diseases, as well as longer life span. This makes sense, given how many nutrients organ meats can pack. If you care about your health – you’d better work those into your diet. Let’s look at what makes them so exceptional, to provide you some encouragement.
It is unlikely that ancient hunter-gatherer tribes – or even our ancestors as recently as 100 years ago, unless you come from a lineage of particularly affluent individuals – would have been able to afford throwing away or otherwise passing on an opportunity to consume whatever nutritious food they could lay their hands on. Abundance of food in the last several decades and animal farming on industrial scale shifted the focus towards muscle meats as “higher-class” food that was now more affordable and available.
The reality is, however, that there are very few parts of an animal that cannot be consumed in some way – in fact across different cultures, most parts have historically been cooked and eaten. Liver, kidneys, heart and, sometimes, “sweetbreads” (pancreas and thymus) can sometimes be found even in conventional meat shops, but almost definitely – in good restaurants. Hooves, skull and bones are used to make gelatinous bone broth by boiling them for hours to dissolve collagen. Haggis – stomachs stuffed with chopped up lungs, liver and heart have been traditionally consumed by the Scots. Chopped up intestines (properly cleaned out with the lining removed) make a few delicious meals traditionally consumed in the Mediterranean region. Brains, bone marrow and even testicles, considered a delicacy, can be ordered in some ambitious urban restaurants – and you don’t even have to travel to some exotic country to try those.
Grossed out yet? You shouldn’t be. If you overcome the “ick” factor, these meats are actually quite delicious. If you search online, you can find many interesting and tasty recipes (my favorite is liver pate with butter core). Better yet – if you are just venturing into the world of organ meats, pick a good restaurant (reviews and research are key in this case) that serves them and try them there. This way you know that they are (usually) cooked properly, using the tested and proven flavor combinations. You can then take note and replicate at home.
But, you may ask – why would you consume organ meats, when muscle meats are so readily available? I would point out at least the following six reasons to eat organ meats:
- They expand your culinary experiences making your meals “un-boring”. When you get bored with the same limited number of foods, you may be under higher pressure to deviate and sabotage your healthy eating with something you shouldn’t eat. Varying the meals while still staying the course helps a lot;
- Vitamins and minerals. Not only organ meats are packed with important nutrients, they are also often the best-quality source for those nutrients. Take vitamin A, for example. Considering differences in the absorption of the two forms of vitamin A – retinol and beta-carotene – an ounce (about 28g.) of beef liver contains as much vitamin A as 500g of carrots, in terms of Retinol Activity Equivalent (RAE). Liver – as most animal sources of this vitamin – contains the most bioavailable form of vitamin A, retinol, which your body doesn’t need to convert and can utilize immediately. Carrots and other vegetables often presented as great sources of vitamin A, contain carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, which first need to be converted by your body into retinol, to be absorbed. This is not a very efficient process and you generally need about 12 times more beta-carotene than retinol to get the same biological benefits. On top of that, liver is a great source for B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, CoQ10 (a powerful antioxidant utilized in every cell of a human body for energy generation by mitochondria and also thought to have protective effect against cancer, heart disease and other disorders) and B vitamins. Another example – heart (technically, muscle meat) – has higher protein content than other organ meats and is a rich source of folate, selenium, thiamin, phosphorus, zinc, CoQ10. In addition, beef heart is rich in amino acids glycine and proline, which are structural components of collagen and elastin proteins, important for connective tissue, skin and joint health). Kidneys are rich sources of phosphorus, selenium, iron, zinc, B vitamins and CoQ10.
- Some organ meats – like tongue, which is a relatively fatty cut – are notably more tender than the usual muscle meat. If you like tender cuts, but can’t afford filet mignon all the time (which is, by the way, quite lean) – you should seriously consider organ meats as an alternative.
- A lot of punch in a small pack. Although, in terms of protein content organ meats are generally similar to muscle meats, in terms of a sheer quantity of trace minerals and vitamins some organs – like heart, with its CoQ10 content of about four times as much as muscle meat – outperform any other cuts. This means you can consume less and benefit more.
- Organ meats are often cheaper than muscle meats. This is probably a product of supply and demand – not too many people are willing to pay pretty penny for livers and kidneys. That’s even better for you – you can snatch them at a bargain price. In fact, the farmer who supplies my grass-fed beef includes the organs free of charge.
- Balancing your diet. If you eat a lot of meat and eggs (being complete and abundant sources of essential amino acids important for a variety of biological functions and muscle building – they are, understandably, at the top of the list of foods to eat) – organ meats would help offset some of the negative effects of eating too much of those. Protein-packed foods, such as meat and eggs, are rich in amino-acid methionine, which your body uses to make another amino acid homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine are associated with free radical oxidation, inflammation of the interior lining of blood and lymphatic vessels, increased risk of thrombosis, cardiovascular disease, strokes, cancers, etc. However, given the presence of certain nutrients – including vitamins B6, B12 choline, betaine and folate and another amino acid glycine –homocysteine is neutralized by conversion into S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) – which helps prevent arthritis, depression, and liver damage – and glutathione, which is a very powerful antioxidant and detoxifying agent that also aids in slowing down aging. Organ meats – such as beef liver – represent rich sources of folate, choline (egg yolks have large amounts, too, though not as much as liver) and betaine. Skin and bones – often used in bone broths – pack a lot of glycine (also, some of the choline mentioned above converts inside your body into trimethylglycine). Both liver and kidneys are excellent sources of B2, B6 and B12 vitamins. In other words, by eating organ meats you would make your diet far more balanced and natural.
In terms of sourcing organ meats – apply the same rules as the ones you would apply to muscle meat (see Part I) – they have to come from an animal that was properly raised and fed the right diet, was free of hormones and antibiotics, etc.
Important word of caution – do not overdose!
Beef liver has a very high concentration of vitamin A – 100gr contains about 17,000IU, which can only be beat by sweet potato with its beta-carotene content (but remember the difference between beta-carotene and retinol absorption). This raises an important point – while vitamin A is involved in immune function, vision, reproduction, and cellular communication and has been shown in studies to lower the risk of certain cancers and is, obviously, important to get in adequate amounts, overdosing on vitamin A (when consumed in excessive amounts and accumulated by the body) may lead to chronic toxicity leading to liver damage, osteoporosis, excessive calcium build-up in the body, resulting kidney damage, etc. This might be especially dangerous during pregnancy, as overdose of vitamin A is known to cause birth defects that may affect the eyes, skull, lungs, and heart of the baby.
Normally, overdosing on vitamin A wouldn’t be a problem, but this might be something to keep in mind if you consume a combination of high-vitamin-A foods on a very regular basis (beef liver, spinach, sweet potato, pumpkin, carrots, cod liver oil supplement). Animal sources of vitamin A containing retinol represent higher-risk of toxicity, as beta-carotene from plant foods is not known to lead to toxicity even in large doses, with the most significant effect of beta-carotene overdose being yellowish-orange skin (carotenodermia) – a harmless condition reversible by discontinuing beta-carotene.
Further, about 100gr. of beef liver contains close to 10mg. of copper – almost 500% of recommended daily value (although highest daily intake allowed before you risk any toxicity is just around that same number – 10mg). While occasional large intakes like this are probably not a huge reason for concern, overeating liver can lead to copper toxicity. Yes, copper is an essential mineral, deficiency in which can lead to anemia, low white blood cell count, osteoporosis, defects in connective tissue leading to skeletal problems – but overdosing on copper may also lead to liver and brain damage.
Bottom line – organ meats are an important and highly nutritious addition to your diet, but do not consume them day and night. Think of ancient tribes that might have only had occasional feasts on a killed animal – after all, there usually was only liver and one set of kidneys to indulge in. Organ meats are supposed to balance out other meat consumption and provide additional nutrients – but they are not meant to be your only meat.
This concludes our three-part series on meat. In future articles we might explore some of the related ideas in greater detail, but, at least, you now possess enough knowledge to make sure that you consume only the right kind of meat for the rest of your life.
Until next time – stay the Alpha course!