Offal: Are Organ Meats Healthy to Eat?

August 11, 2017
Offal - Dr. Axe

Few things in the food world are more controversial than offal. Is it a superfood group or a toxic wasteland to be avoided at all costs?

First, let me clarify what we’re discussing here for those of you not familiar with this word. Offal (pronounced like the word “awful”) is a term used by non-Americans for what we call “organ meat” (meat from functional internal organs) or “variety meat” (non-traditional meat sources, like cow’s foot or tongue). Simply put, while most of the standard American diet includes meats derived from the muscles of animals, it often ignores any potential benefits from other animal meat sources.

These other types of meat are broadly termed as anything other than muscle meats. Literally, they’re what falls off an animal if the muscle meat is removed (“off-fall”), where it originally found its name. Some of these are items you’ve probably heard of or seen on a menu, such as chicken liver. Others, like brain or blood, are not as widely accepted and usually enjoyed by a few individual cultures.

Offal tends to be overlooked quite a bit, but with a rich history of tradition and nutritious value, it’s not something to ignore. Find out below just how important organ meats can be as part of a healthy diet.


Are Organ Meats Healthy to Eat?

Like I said, organ meats tend to be a tricky subject for some people. However, most of the concerns people have are based on a misunderstanding of bodily processes.

For example, one of the most widely eaten types of offal is that of liver. One Google search will afford you dozens of articles insisting that liver is not good for you because it “stores toxins” and, that by eating liver, you’re essentially eating everything the slaughtered animal’s body could not remove.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Liver is good for you, just like most organ meats for most people. Allow me to explain.

Misinformation has led people to believe toxins from foods and other substances absorbed into our bodies simply sit in the liver and are never expelled. Think, for instance, of an air filter in your car. It “filters” by catching the bad stuff, and the bad stuff sits there until the filter is no longer useful and must be replaced.

But the liver is much more complex than we give it credit for being. It is not a simple “filter,” but instead functions by metabolizing, altering and directing substances that pass through it. When a toxic substance enters your liver, your well-designed body understands that it must be altered (if possible) and/or expelled. Instead of sending dangerous substances further through your digestive system, the liver changes them into something less dangerous and chooses where they will go from there. (1)

In fact, if there were a place your body would store toxins, it would more often be in your nervous system or fatty tissue.

In order to perform the tasks required of it, the liver is actually full of incredible levels of nutrients, including an array of B-complex vitamins, vitamin A and folate. Other organ meats, like heart, have huge amounts of CoQ10, which I’ll dive into a little later.

Just like any other type of food, all types of offal are not the same. Some have more or less nutrients in a serving, some taste great while others are bland, and some are not even legal to eat in certain countries.

There’s one extremely important factor when it comes to buying and consuming organ meats: Never eat the organs of animals who were not free-range and appropriately fed (for example, grass-fed beef).

While I’m never a fan of the abhorrent ways many commercial farms enslave and inhumanely raise and slaughter animals, this argument is not only a moral one. It’s fairly common knowledge in farm culture that the offal obtained from mistreated and stressed animals is fraught with problems, such as fat deposits (especially around the heart and kidneys) that are indicative of deeper physical problems. (2) Livers from grain-fed beef, for one, will often puncture and mush at the touch of a finger, while healthy livers from grass-fed beef are firm and strong to the touch — not to mention an appropriate size for the animal.

Like humans, if animals are fed a species-inappropriate diet and live their entire lives under unnatural stress levels, their insides are not going to be in good shape.

Most agencies and reputable farmers agree that grain-fed organ meat is unacceptable for human consumption, as it is of sketchy quality and most likely will not afford the nutritional value of its ethically raised counterparts.

If you can’t already tell, I’m a pretty big fan of many offal meats. In fact, I believe that liver (especially beef and chicken varieties) is a superfood to rival kale or spinach!


Benefits of Offal

1. High in Vitamin A Antioxidants to Reduce Inflammation

Vitamin A, one of the most powerful antioxidants known to man, is found in massive quantities in most organ meats.

Far from offering just one benefit, the presence of vitamin A is important because it provides the complete array of benefits without adding the risk of toxicity.

You see, many people have heard that an overdose of vitamin A can be toxic. However, your body does not absorb synthetic vitamin A in the same way it absorbs it from dietary sources. Generally, the body simply expels excess nutrients in the food you eat if it can tell you don’t need them. This isn’t the same story for the vitamins and minerals found in supplements, which don’t process the same way and can sometimes cause toxic reactions when overeaten.

Of course, there are very rare exceptions to this rule. Eating the organ meats of polar bears, for example, has (at least in one case) been found to cause “severe illness,” likely due to the overwhelmingly high amounts of vitamin A it contained (a condition now referred to as “hypervitaminosis A”). (3) Not a polar bear hunter in an arctic tundra? My guess is that you’ll probably be just fine.

Back to the good stuff. 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 from several diseases associated with oxidative stress.

Most widely known, vitamin A is an important component in maintaining optimal eye health. When consumed on a regular basis, it’s associated with a lower risk of macular degeneration, an age-related disorder that causes the majority of adult blindness cases.

Vitamin A also offers a lot in the way of immune support. Eating vitamin A foods can help your body deal with everything from the common cold to autoimmune disease. (4)

Another common benefit of vitamin A is the way it reduces disease-causing inflammation. The ramifications of chronic inflammation in the body are many, including neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, arthritis and even cancer.

On a slightly more cosmetic level, vitamin A also helps your skin remain elastic and supple and at a lower risk for skin conditions.

2. Provides a Stunning Array of B-Complex Vitamins

You’ve probably heard of the B-complex. This group of vitamins include an incredible amount of benefits, some of which I’ll outline here.

All B vitamins found in many organ meats (vitamin B12, vitamin B3/niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B2/riboflavin) are associated with a cardioprotective effect. This means that, in one way or another, all of them help protect you against heart disease.

One way these B vitamins do it is by lowering homocysteine, an amino acid found in the blood associated with the development of cardiovascular problems and diseases. (5) In addition, they’re known to help maintain healthy blood pressure levels, decrease high cholesterol numbers, lower blood triglycerides and aid in the formation of healthy blood vessels.

Consuming offal high in B-complex vitamins can also help keep your brain healthy. These nutrients help reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, boost learning and memory, and are also known to help improve your mood and protect against disorders like depression or anxiety.

Lastly, B-complex vitamins (like many important nutrients) help you prevent developing certain kinds of cancer.

 

Offal types and benefits - Dr. Axe

 

3. Holds a High CoQ10 Content

Another important nutrient found in many organ meats is CoQ10, the abbreviation for coenzyme Q10. While not considered a vitamin because it’s produced by the body in small quantities, 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 the organ meats, CoQ10 has some benefits similar to that of the B-complex vitamins. This amino acid, for example, plays a role in preventing heart disease, particularly due to the antioxidant activities it performs.

Supplementing your diet with synthetic or dietary CoQ10 can also keep your brain functioning at an optimal level, slow down the natural aging process and improve your natural levels of energy.

4. Helps Protect Against Anemia

Many of the nutrients found in organ meats work together to fight anemia. This condition occurs when your body doesn’t create and deliver enough oxygen-rich, hemoglobin-filled blood cells. Hemoglobin is what makes your blood red, and it’s full of iron. Much of the treatment for anemia involves increase iron intake, which is a great idea — plus, organ meats have a lot of that in them, too. Iron deficiency is more common in women than men, which is important to note.

B-complex vitamins also help fight anemia. Vitamin B12 is required for the formation of more blood cells, and a deficit in this vitamin may lead to megaloblastic anemia. (6) Your body also needs B6 in order to produce hemoglobin to transport oxygen throughout the body, so eating foods rich in Vitamin B6, like offal, can aid you in homeopathically treating this condition. Low levels of Vitamin B2 are also associated with an uptick in anemia risks. (7)

5. Aids in Fertility and Healthy Pregnancy

Niacin, one of the B-complex vitamins found in various types of offal, can help men decrease the instance of erectile dysfunction. B6, on the other hand, decreases pain responses to menstrual cramps and may also help eliminate some nausea usually experienced in the “morning sickness” phase of pregnancy.

However, the most important vitamin provided by offal in terms of fertility and pregnancy is folate, sometimes referred to as Vitamin B9. Almost all prenatal supplements and diet plans include a healthy amount of folate because it’s one of those things known to have a large impact on a healthy pregnancy.

Low folate levels during pregnancy are specifically associated with neural tube defects like spina bifida and heart complications.


Offal vs. Traditional Meats

Offal often gets a bad reputation because of the misconceptions I discussed earlier and cultural preferences. Until recently, organ meats had fallen out of fashion, seen as unacceptable or lower-quality meats than traditional muscle meats. Western culture, though, is 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 organ meats serve 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 essential to bodily functions.

When you actually examine the numbers, many organ meats boast a much more colorful nutritional profile than the same weight in their muscle meat counterparts. Obviously, this is not always true and must be considered by the individual item.

An obvious reason offal is less popular than traditional meals often has to do with the unappealing ways much of it is packaged and delivered. Few people desire to eat the entire face of animal or overlook the fact that they’re eating marrow out of an actual bone of a creature that once lived.


Varieties of Offal

There are dozens of “accepted” types of offal, depending on where you live. I’m not going to provide an exhaustive offal handbook, but we’ll briefly review some of the more common forms: liver, heart, kidneys, tongue, sweetbreads, brain, tripe, gizzard, oxtail and liverwurst.

Liver

I can’t get enough of it. Liver is one of my favorite superfoods — it contains only 116 calories but has more than double the daily recommended value for vitamin A and vitamin B12. In addition, folate and riboflavin in chicken liver equal out to over 100 percent of what the average person needs each day. (8)

Chicken liver also contains high amounts of vitamin B6, niacin, pantothenic acid, iron, phosphorus, selenium and copper.

Heart

While it may not have as much of each nutrient as liver, the heart (especially of the cow) provides you with the most CoQ10 of any of the offal meats. And it still has a ton of great nutrients — over 100 percent daily value of the vitamin B12 you need and over half the riboflavin (not to mention significant amounts of niacin, iron, phosphorus, copper and selenium). (9)

Kidneys

If you’re like me, eating kidneys 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.

Cow kidney also contains 228 percent of the daily value recommended for selenium intake. This trace mineral has a huge number of benefits attributed to it, including the prevention of certain cancer types, lowering risk of cancer, defense against oxidative stress and boosting immune responses. (10)

Tongue

As variety meats in the offal family go, tongue is a popular but slightly less nutritious option than other organ meats. This tough-surfaced organ contains about ¾ daily value of vitamin B12, along with a quarter of the niacin, riboflavin and zinc. (11)

Another factor making this offal less of a home run is that it has over 250 calories in one relatively small serving. That’s not an astronomical figure, but so far, the calorie counts have been closer to 100–150 per serving.

Sweetbreads

This deceptive name refers to the organ meat found in two separate areas 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.

These do, however, contain a large amount of dietary cholesterol and fat. We’re slowly learning that eating foods high in fat is actually not that bad for you at all, but it’s worth noting. This is also the first offal meat in which vitamin C wins the top spot for nutrient loads, making it ideal for those wishing to boost immunity and decrease cancer risk. (12)

Brain

Surprisingly, brain 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 average human’s daily recommended value for cholesterol intake. (13)

Tripe

Tripe is another common organ meat (the lining of various animals’ stomachs) that’s popular without much nutritional science to back up its popularity. While it does contain almost 14 grams of protein, the other nutrients it offers aren’t found in very high amounts in a serving. (14)

Gizzard

Ranking above tripe for a few nutrients and carrying an astounding 44 grams of protein per serving, gizzard is a fairly worthwhile offal meat to try. It does contain quite a bit of cholesterol in a serving but also includes 85 percent of the selenium you need each day. (15)

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, but its nutritional value hovers somewhere around worthless. Avoid this one if you’re aiming for high-nutrient offal. (16)

Liverwurst

I saved one of the most familiar for last. Liverwurst (liver sausage) contains a similar profile nutritionally to liver, including a massive amount of vitamins A and B12. Its selenium content is also incredible, and it’s also not lacking in the riboflavin arena. (17)


How to Find and Use Offal + Offal Recipes

Unlike traditional meats, offal is not readily available without a little digging. Try your local farmer’s market or butcher (those practicing ethical methods of raising and butchering meat). You’ll probably have to ask for the specific type of organ or variety meat you’re searching for, but these can often come at fairly low prices for the amount of meat you receive.

Depending on what meat you get, there are dozens of different preparation methods for home-cooked meals.

Your other option is to find restaurants, whether nearby or abroad, that prepare meals with offal and experiment with their different international cuisines. Try, for instance, the Russian shredded tongue, the anticuchos of Peru (a popular street food made from beef heart) or the parilladas of Argentina (a dish including cow small intestines, blood sausages and sweetbreads). (18)

If you’re going to try my favorite, liver, you can make something very simple and fast like these Garlic Chicken Livers.

Looking for an offbeat Valentine’s Day (or other romantic holiday) dish? Why not try a delicious Grilled Beef Heart, complete with all the CoQ10 benefits you could possibly want?

Or, perhaps you need a little additional selenium in your diet. In that case, go with this recipe for Sauteed Beef Kidneys, guaranteed to impress (and benefit your body).


Precautions with Offal

While most conceptions about the dangers of offal aren’t based in fact, there’s a commonly accepted belief that it’s something to avoid if you suffer from gout. Most organ and variety meats contain purine, an organic molecule linked with increased gout flare-ups. (19) There’s no current evidence that suggests, however, that eating offal causes gout to develop in the first place.

Another minor consideration in eating offal is the amount of dietary cholesterol you’re consuming. While eating cholesterol in your foods is actually not nearly as scary and dangerous as many in the mainstream would have you believe, it’s not something you should do to excess, so try to keep an eye on the nutrition of what you eat and don’t go overboard with dietary cholesterol very often.


Final Thoughts on Offal

  • 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.
  • Liver, one of the most popular types of offal, is not laden with toxins, but a superfood I would equate on the same lines as kale and spinach.
  • Because farming standards greatly impact the quality of organ meats, it’s important to only eat meats raised ethically, meaning free-range animals fed species-appropriate diets (not grain-fed).
  • 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, reduce the risk of heart disease and help the brain function at peak levels.
  • Offal is also known to often contain minerals that aid in fertility and pregnancy, as well as those that may help treat anemia.
  • Liver, heart, kidneys, sweetbreads and gizzard are some of the types of offal with the best nutritional profiles.

Read Next: Is Liver Good for You? 3 Benefits of Eating Liver


From the sound of it, you might think leaky gut only affects the digestive system, but in reality it can affect more. Because Leaky Gut is so common, and such an enigma, I’m offering a free webinar on all things leaky gut. Click here to learn more about the webinar.

Josh Axe

Get FREE Access!

Dr. Josh Axe is on a mission to provide you and your family with the highest quality nutrition tips and healthy recipes in the world...Sign up to get VIP access to his eBooks and valuable weekly health tips for FREE!

Free eBook to boost
metabolism & healing

30 Gluten-Free Recipes
& detox juicing guide

Shopping Guide &
premium newsletter

More Foods