Are Organ Meats and Offal Healthy to Eat?
October 7, 2022
Although most of us rarely eat offal — aka organ meat — this nutritious ingredient is actually jam-packed with important vitamins, minerals and micronutrients that can have a huge impact on your health.
Interestingly enough, organ meats are far higher in nutrients than the muscle meats we’re used to eating.
For instance, beef liver contains 50 times as much vitamin B12 as steak and more folate and B vitamins than any other food on the planet. It’s more densely packed with vitamins and minerals than kale, spinach and broccoli.
So how can you start incorporating this superfood into your diet? Keep reading for everything you need to know.
What Is Offal?
According to Merriam-Webster, the official offal definition is “the viscera and trimmings of a butchered animal removed in preparing it for market or for consumption.”
Also known as organ meats or variety meats, offal is not commonly consumed in most cuisines of the Western world. In many cases, we think of offal for dogs or animals rather than a nutritious addition to our diets.
However, organ meats are loaded with important vitamins and minerals, often in much higher concentrations than many other foods.
Furthermore, offal has been highly valued in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for more than 3,000 years. A basic tenet of TCM is that consuming organ meats from animals will support the same organs in your own body.
Until recently, offal had fallen out of fashion and was often seen as unacceptable or lower-quality than traditional muscle meats. Western cuisine and culture, though, are slowly shifting, and more types of offal have made their way onto the menus of local restaurants.
Ultimately, the difference between traditional meats and organ meats is that offal serves a different purpose during the life cycle of an animal. These particularly special types of offal, such as liver, kidneys, bone marrow and heart, are especially high in nutrients that are essential to bodily functions.
An obvious reason offal is less popular than traditional meats often has to do with the unappealing ways much of it is packaged and delivered. However, if you can get past that and use recipes that improve offal taste and texture, enjoying offal from time to time can be a great way to add some variety to your diet and squeeze in some extra nutrients.
Types of Organ Meats
There are dozens of “accepted” types of offal, depending on where you live. Here are a few of the most common types of offal:
In addition, the folate and riboflavin in chicken liver equal out to over 100 percent of what the average person needs each day.
Chicken liver also contains high amounts of vitamin B6, niacin, pantothenic acid, iron, phosphorus, selenium and copper.
Heart liver still has a ton of important vitamins too — over 100 percent daily value of the vitamin B12 you need and over half the riboflavin, along with significant amounts of niacin, iron, phosphorus, copper and selenium.
Eating kidney parts is a concept you may need a bit of time to wrap your head around, but a cow kidney has over five times the amount of B12 you need each day, as well as almost two times your value for riboflavin.
Cooked cow kidney also can give you 228 percent of the daily value recommended for selenium. This trace mineral is associated with a number of powerful health benefits, including the prevention of certain cancer types, decreased oxidative stress and enhanced immune function.
As variety meats in the offal family go, tongue is a popular but slightly less nutritious option than others.
This tough-surfaced organ is rich in vitamin B12, along with other micronutrients like niacin, riboflavin and zinc.
Another factor making this offal less of a home run is that it has over 250 calories in just one serving. That’s not an astronomical figure by any means, but it is higher than many other offal types.
Sweetbread refers to the offal found in two separate parts of the body: the thymus and pancreas. While they aren’t sweet, nor made from bread, these meats are not high on the nutrient winner list.
They do, however, contain a large amount of dietary cholesterol and fat. We’re slowly learning that eating foods high in healthy fats is not bad for you, but it’s still worth noting.
This is also the first offal meat in which vitamin C wins the top spot on the nutrient profile, making cooking with it ideal for those looking to boost immunity and decrease cancer risk.
Surprisingly, cooking with brain parts may not be the smartest choice when selecting offal.
While it has somewhat significant amounts of several nutrients, it also contains over 800 percent of the daily recommended value for cholesterol intake.
Not only that, but consuming contaminated brains or spinal cords can increase the risk of prion diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease. For this reason, it’s generally recommended to opt for muscle meats or other types of offal whenever possible.
What is tripe? Tripe is another common offal type that is made from the lining of the stomach of various animals.
Although it does contain almost 14 grams of protein, the other nutrients that it offers aren’t found in very high amounts per serving.
Ranking above tripe for a few nutrients and carrying an astounding 44 grams of protein per serving, gizzard is a worthwhile offal meat to add to your list.
What are gizzards exactly? Gizzards are a type of organ found in the digestive system of some animals, like chickens, that are used to grind up food.
It does contain quite a bit of cholesterol in each serving but also includes 85 percent of the selenium you need each day.
What is oxtail? This big-name variety meat is, quite literally, the tail of a cow or an ox.
There are recipes galore available for it all over the internet, providing plenty of ideas on cooking oxtail, but its nutritional value is not all that impressive. Avoid this one if you’re aiming for high-nutrient offal.
Liverwurst, also sometimes called liver sausage, holds a similar profile nutritionally to liver, including a massive amount of vitamins A and B12. Its selenium content is also incredible, and it’s high in riboflavin as well.
1. High in Vitamin A
Vitamin A, one of the most powerful antioxidants known to man, is found in massive quantities in most organ meats.
Two types of vitamin A exist in food: active vitamin A — or “retinol” — and beta-carotene. Retinol is the vitamin A found in meats, meaning the body doesn’t have to first convert it to anything in order to use it.
Because it functions as an antioxidant to fight free radical damage, vitamin A provides your body with protection against several diseases associated with oxidative stress and inflammation.
Vitamin A is also an important component in maintaining optimal eye health. When consumed on a regular basis, it’s associated with a lower risk of macular degeneration, which is an age-related disorder that can cause blindness.
Vitamin A also offers plenty of immune support. Eating vitamin A foods can help your body deal with everything from the common cold to autoimmune disease and more.
Not only that, but vitamin A also helps maintain skin health to keep your skin elastic, supple and smooth.
2. Good Source of B Vitamins
All B vitamins found in organ meats (vitamin B12, niacin, vitamin B6, riboflavin) are associated with a cardioprotective effect. This means that, in one way or another, all of them help protect you against heart disease.
They’re also known to help maintain healthy blood pressure levels, decrease high cholesterol, lower blood triglycerides and aid in the formation of healthy blood vessels.
Research has found that consuming offal high in B vitamins can also help keep your brain healthy. These nutrients help reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, boost learning and memory, improve your mood, and protect against disorders like depression or anxiety.
3. Supplies CoQ10
Another important nutrient found in many organ meats is coenzyme Q10, also known as CoQ10.
While not considered a vitamin because it’s produced by the body in small quantities, research shows that CoQ10 functions as an antioxidant and has been used for some time as a natural method to prevent and treat certain diseases.
Present in its highest concentration in the heart of all offal types, CoQ10 has some benefits similar to that of the B-complex vitamins.
Supplementing your diet with synthetic or dietary CoQ10 may help support heart health, optimize brain function, slow down the natural aging process and boost energy levels.
4. Protects Against Anemia
Many of the nutrients found in offal work together to fight anemia. This condition occurs when your body is unable to create and deliver enough oxygen-rich, hemoglobin-filled blood cells.
Hemoglobin is what makes your blood red, and it’s full of iron. Many of the treatments for anemia involve increasing iron intake by consuming more iron-rich foods like offal.
B-complex vitamins also help fight anemia. Vitamin B12 is required for the formation of more blood cells, and a deficit in this important vitamin can lead to megaloblastic anemia.
Other B vitamins like riboflavin are also necessary for the production of healthy blood cells, which is why filling up on nutrient-rich organ meats can be incredibly beneficial.
5. Supports Healthy Pregnancy
Several of the vitamins found in offal are crucial for promoting a healthy pregnancy.
Vitamin B6, for example, helps decrease pain responses to menstrual cramps and has been shown to help eliminate some nausea usually experienced in the “morning sickness” phase of pregnancy.
Folate is also crucial to fetal growth and development, which is why it’s found in almost all prenatal supplements and diet plans.
However, keep in mind that most types of offal are also very high in vitamin A, which studies indicate may cause birth defects when consumed in excess. Therefore, it’s best to moderate your intake, especially if you are taking other supplements that also contain vitamin A.
6. Promotes Muscle-Building
Getting enough protein in your diet is especially important when it comes to building and preserving muscle mass.
For instance, one study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging showed that higher protein intake, from animal sources in particular, was linked to increased preservation of muscle.
How to Find and Use (Plus Recipes)
Unlike traditional meats, offal is not readily available without a little digging. Try your local farmers market, or look for butchers that practice ethical methods of raising and butchering meat.
You’ll probably have to ask for the specific type of organ or part of an animal, and you may find that the heart, liver and other animal cuts come at fairly low prices for the amount of meat you receive.
Depending on what cut you get, there are dozens of different preparation methods for meals cooked at home. You can also look for restaurants, whether nearby or abroad, that prepare meals with offal and experiment with different international cuisines.
Try, for instance, the Russian shredded tongue, the anticuchos of Peru (a popular street food made from beef heart) or the parrilladas of Argentina (a dish including cow small intestines, blood sausages and sweetbreads).
Need some inspiration? Here are a few examples of offal recipes that you can try out to get started if cooking with offal is new to you:
Grilled Beef Heart
Chicken Liver Pate
Sauteed Beef Kidneys
Risks and Side Effects
Most organ and variety meats contain purines, which are organic molecules linked with increased gout flare-ups. There’s no current evidence that suggests, however, that eating offal causes gout to develop in the first place, but you should moderate your intake if you do have gout.
Another minor consideration in eating offal is the amount of dietary cholesterol you’re consuming. While eating cholesterol in your foods is not nearly as dangerous as many believe, it’s not something you should do to excess. Try to keep an eye on the nutrition of what you eat, and don’t go overboard with dietary cholesterol too often.
Women who are pregnant should also monitor their intake carefully to avoid going overboard on vitamin A. This is especially important if you’re taking any other medications or supplements that may contain vitamin A as well, as high levels may increase the risk of birth defects.
While they’re often considered “lesser” meats or perceived as dangerous, many of the organ and variety meats known as “offal” are actually densely packed with nutrients.
Several types of offal are extremely high in vitamin A, an antioxidant that’s linked to decreasing cancer risk, protecting your eyes and reducing chronic inflammation.
Offal generally contains significant amounts of B-complex vitamins, known for their roles in helping prevent cancer, reducing the risk of heart disease and helping the brain function at peak levels.
Offal is also known to often contain minerals that aid in pregnancy and fetal health, as well as those that may help treat anemia.
Liver, heart, kidneys, sweetbreads and gizzard are some of the types of organs that fit the official “offal meaning” and boast the best nutritional profiles. If you’re new to eating offal, try new ways of cooking these meats to improve their taste and texture.