You’ve all heard of “superfoods,” and while nuts, yogurt and acai are certainly healthy, like the overachievers in high school, you’re probably tired of hearing about them. There must be power-packed foods we can eat when we want something meaty that doesn’t look like it belongs on a spa menu, right?
|You’re going to eat my what?|
If you’re looking for animal-based wonder foods, look no further than the organs. In nature, most animals go straight for the liver and kidneys after a kill, plunging into the muscle and meats after. While the idea of eating guts might seem vile, it’s ultimately no different than eating an animal’s outer muscles. The organs offer some of the densest sources of nutrients like B vitamins, iron, phosphorus, copper and magnesium, and are rich with the most important fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K. Consider yourself on the cutting edge of healthy nutrition (not Hannibal Lector) for digging into foods like heart, brains and tongue. Prepared right, they’ll make you feel more like a guest at a four-star restaurant than a contestant on Fear Factor.
Per 4-oz. serving of beef heart (approximately one 4-inch by 4-inch slice)
Since it’s a muscle, heart shares many similarities with steak, roasts and ground beef, is less expensive (probably because people won’t eat it), and has a higher amount of protein, thiamine, folate, selenium, phosphorus, zinc, CoQ10 and several B vitamins. It’s a great way to rack up amino acids that can improve metabolism and compounds that aid the production of collagen and elastin, which fight wrinkles and aging. This mixture of unique nutrients helps build muscle, store energy and boost stamina and endurance.
Beef, lamb and chicken.
Beef heart should be a deep reddish brown, with a layer of fat near its top. Like most organs, heart is delicate and should be cooked slowly and served medium rare. Cut away the fat, connective tissue, valves and tendons, cut it into slices, salt it and soak it in an acid-based marinade for at least an hour to tenderize it and release those delicious flavors. Grill the slices and serve with a vinaigrette. Prepare chicken hearts the same way (except you don’t have to butcher them). You might notice extra energy immediately after you eat.
Per 68-gram serving of beef liver (approximately one 2.5-inch by 2.5-inch slice)
One of the most common organs, liver is a great source of high quality protein and is one of the most concentrated sources of vitamin A, along with copper, folic acid and iron. It also contains Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), which is important for cardiovascular functions. Athletes love liver because it improves the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood cells, increasing endurance and strength and fighting fatigue, while its B vitamins aid people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Liver is commonly enjoyed in cuisines all over the world: in the South, they deep-fry chicken livers; in Germany, they feast on liverwurst; and in Japan, they use raw fish liver to make sashimi. Opt for beef, veal, goat, lamb, bison, buffalo, chicken, geese or duck liver, preferably from a young animal (it might appear more pale), which is most tender. The only thing off limits is polar bear liver, which, because of its high density of vitamin A, can cause drowsiness, irritability, bone pain, vomiting and even peeling skin.
Liver can retain toxins from drugs and other chemicals, so buy grass-fed meat without added antibiotics or hormones. Soaking in lemon juice or milk for several hours before cooking reduces liver’s strong metallic taste. Sear it until it’s light pink and top with caramelized onions. Cooking too long can make liver tough or rubbery, and releases many of the nutrients and digestive enzymes.
Per 4-oz. serving of beef liver (approximately one 4-inch by 4-inch slice)
Zombie jokes aside, eating brains is a tad controversial. It can contain prions, a type of protein that has been liked to mad cow disease, and more cholesterol than any food (2,000-plus mg in a 4-ounce serving.) But it’s also one of the most nutrient-rich organs found in any animal, full of healthy oils rumored to increase brain power. That’s due to the DHA found in brains, an oil that, when eaten in childhood, is thought to make people smarter in adulthood. Brains also are a great source of B12, which helps fight fatigue, depression and anemia and increases mental ability.
Beef, lamb pork, pig, rabbit, etc.
Brain is often served lightly dredged in flour and sauteed. First remove any veins and the film around the brain. Soak in water for several hours, changing the water hourly. Quickly blanch the soaked brains in boiling water, then toss in flour and sautee them in butter until they’re golden brown. People also cook them in stews, poach them, scramble them and even slice them in sandwiches.
Per 4-oz. serving of beef liver (approximately one 4-inch by 4-inch slice)
If you’re looking for a way to get lots of protein without lots of fat, opt for kidneys, which contain a pissload of B12, riboflavin and iron, as well as healthy amounts of B6, folate and niacin.
Kidneys are usually consumed in beef, lamb and pork form, but if you’re just easing into eating them, we suggest trying beef kidneys, which have a milder flavor. They’re also the easiest and cheapest to prepare.
The best kidneys are plump, glossy, and free of discoloration or strong odors. Choose kidneys deep red in color, unless you’re going for veal, which look more tan. Rinse them in cold water, remove the outer membrane and slice them in half (if you don’t want a strong flavor, you can soak in water for a few hours with some salt). They’re often sauteed with butter and olive oil, but also commonly baked into kidney pies or casseroles.
NEXT: 3 MORE ORGANS TO TRY
Plus: 3 More Organs to Try
There are two things deceiving about the name “sweetbreads,” as they are neither sugary desserts nor bread. (They are slightly sweet tasting, and “bread” goes way back to an old English word for “flesh.”) What they do contain is plenty of protein—not to mention fat and cholesterol. They’re made from either the thymus gland or pancreas from a calf or pig, and they’re dredged in flour and sauteed in butter until golden brown and slightly crispy.
While it looks like something living in the back of your refrigerator (thanks to the “honeycomb” texture), tripe has been considered a delicacy ever since the Grecian days. (Homer wrote that it was prepared in honor of Achilles.) The most common type is reticulum, the honeycomb variety, which comes from the second stomach of a cow. There’s also the rumen, or blanket/smooth tripe, which comes from the first stomach. Once you get past the gamey taste and chewy texture, enjoy the fact that you’re getting loads of high-quality protein, and a good amount of potassium and other healthy minerals.
Tongue is another organ packed with B vitamins (especially B12). The most common forms are beef and veal tongues. Most tongues share a grainy, firm texture and pinkish-grey color. Stew it, boil it, roast it, poach it—you can even pickle it.
Organ meats are sometimes referred to as “offal.” The word offal derives from the term “off fall,” referring to any part of an animal that falls away when it is butchered, such as the tail, feet, and testicles.
In the United States, organ meats include all things that are distinguished as offal. On the other hand, most meats Americans are used to eating are muscle meats, while organ meats are not considered a staple of the Western diet.
Organ meats carry some risks, however, as well as benefits, when they are consumed, despite their nutritional value.
Fast facts on organ meats:
Organ meats are very high in some vitamins and nutrients.
There are issues with harmful bacteria in intestines if not cleaned properly. Also, brain meat has been known to transmit rare diseases, such as Mad Cow Disease.
Despite the vitamin content, culturally in the U.S., organ meats are not considered as important a part of a dietary plan, as traditional muscle meats.
What is organ meat?
Liver is a type of organ meat or offal.
Chicken liver is a type of organ meat or offal.
There are several different types of organ meats, some of which are better known than others including:
Organ meats are sometimes referred to as “super foods” because they are dense sources of vitamins and nutrients, including:
Across the world, many different cultures like to use an animal in its entirety for food, including making use of the blood, bones, and organs.
In the natural world, predatory animals are known to value the organs of their prey and, for example, to eat the liver first because it is so densely packed with nutrients.
Here is a breakdown of some of the most common organ meats and their benefits:
Liver is high in vitamin A, folic acid, iron, and zinc.
Liver is high in vitamin A, folic acid, iron, and zinc.
Liver is the most nutrient dense organ meat, and it is a powerful source of vitamin A. Vitamin A is beneficial for eye health and for reducing diseases that cause inflammation, including everything from Alzheimer’s disease to arthritis.
Liver also contains folic acid, iron, chromium, copper, and zinc and is known to be particularly good for the heart and for increasing hemoglobin level in the blood.
Rich in nutrients and proteins, kidney meat contains omega 3 fatty acids. It is also known to contain anti-inflammatory properties and to be good for the heart.
Brain meat contains omega 3 fatty acids and nutrients. The latter include phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine, which are good for the nervous system.
The antioxidants obtained by eating brain meat are also helpful in protecting the human brain and spinal cord from damage.
The heart is rich in folate, iron, zinc, and selenium. It is also a great source of vitamins B2, B6, and B12, all three of which are in a group known as B-complex vitamins.
B vitamins found in organ meats have a cardioprotective effect, meaning they protect against heart disease.
B vitamins are also associated with maintaining healthy blood pressure, reducing high cholesterol, and forming healthy blood vessels. They are beneficial to the brain and have been found to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.
Heart meat is also a great source of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). This is an antioxidant and can help treat and prevent certain diseases, particularly heart disease.
CoQ10 has been shown to slow down the aging process and to improve energy levels.
Tongue meat is rich in calories and fatty acids, as well as zinc, iron, choline, and vitamin B12. This meat is considered especially beneficial for those recovering from illness or for women who are pregnant.
Folate is the vitamin in organ meats considered beneficial for fertility and for helping avoid fetal defects in a baby, such as spina bifida and heart problems. In addition, vitamin B6 can help during the morning sickness phase of pregnancy.
Kidney is an example of organ meats or offal, which is rich in vitamins and minerals.
Organ meats are high in cholesterol, saturated fats, and purine. This makes the consumption of organ meats potentially risky for those with heart conditions or gout.
Organ meats are high in cholesterol and saturated fat. Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol and saturated fat are now thought to be important for a balanced diet, but they must be consumed in moderation.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) dietary guidelines state that saturated fats should be limited to 10 percent or less of an individual’s calories.
However, for adults who need to lower their cholesterol, the American Heart Association recommends that saturated fat should not make up more than 5-6 percent of daily intake of calories.
It is also widely believed that people who have gout should avoid eating organ meats, as they contain purine, a molecule associated with gout flare-ups.
Furthermore, there can be a concern that animals that have been exposed to toxins and pesticides will have toxicity in their organs. It is important to remember, however, that while organs, such as the liver and kidneys, act as filters for toxins that enter the body, they excrete those toxins and do not store them.
Organ meat quality
It is vital to know how the animals whose organs are being eaten were raised before slaughter.
Aside from the moral implications, organ meats obtained from stressed and mistreated animals can cause all sorts of problems.
For example, fatty deposits can often build up, particularly around the heart and kidneys. Essentially, if the animal has led an unhealthy life, their internal organs will not be healthy either.
It is recommended that organ meats should be sourced from a farm that uses organic practices and puts its animals out for pasture.
Many organ meats have a high nutritional value and can be very beneficial to the human body in many ways.
That said, there are risks to eating too much organ meats, and anyone considering making significant dietary changes should consult their doctor first, and ensure they have thoroughly researched the pros and cons.
In general, though, as long as eaten in moderation, organ meats can be a healthful and regular part of a balanced diet.