“What am I, chopped liver?” Somehow, being compared to chopped liver implies you’re less desirable. How did liver get such a bad rap? Chopped liver — and other organ meat (also called offal or variety meats) — is packed with nutrients and bursting with flavor. (Don’t knock chopped liver smothered in fried onions till you’ve tried it!)
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“Organ meat is loaded with health benefits, more so than the muscle meat we typically prefer,” notes dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. “For most people, they’re a nutritious addition to the diet when eaten in moderation.” Zumpano weighs in on the benefits of eating organ meat, along with a few precautions about who should avoid them altogether.
What is organ meat?
Organ meat is the internal organs and other parts of the animal besides muscle meat, including:
- Blood, bones and skin.
- Kidneys and liver.
- Intestines and tripe (stomach lining).
- Sweetbreads (pancreas and thymus).
In the U.S., common organ-meat foods include:
- Hot dogs and sausages: Many have casings made from animal intestines.
- Bone marrow: This creamy, spreadable food comes from the center of the bone and has become more popular recently.
- Bone broth: Another trendy food, bone broth is made from boiling animal bones to release their collagen into a soup.
- Pork rinds: You can find this crispy, pig skin snack in your grocery store’s chip aisle.
The benefits of eating organ meat
Besides being more affordable than premium cuts of meat, organ meat is often higher in nutrients, too. The amounts of vitamins and minerals depend on the organ and the animal. But in general, you can expect organ meat to be a good source of nutrients.
Contains high levels of iron
Iron is necessary to make hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen throughout your body. Meat and fish contain heme iron, the easiest form for your body to use.
“If you’re looking to boost your iron intake, organ meat can potentially be one option,” says Zumpano. “Ounce for ounce, it provides more iron than other types of meat.”
For example, compare 4 ounces of chicken liver to the same amount of beef tenderloin, as measured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodData Central:
- Chicken liver: 10.2 milligrams of iron
- Beef tenderloin: 2.664 milligrams of iron
Rich in B vitamins
Organ meat is rich in B vitamins, especially B6 and B12, which serve multiple important functions in your body. B6 is crucial for breaking down proteins, carbohydrates and fats. It also supports healthy immune function. B12 is necessary for making brain and nerve cells, DNA and red blood cells.
Packed with protein
Protein is the building block of cells. It builds new cells and repairs existing ones. Although not as high in protein as traditional muscle meat, many organ meats are still a good source of protein.
For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodData Central reports that 100 grams (roughly 3.5 ounces) of beef liver contains 20.4 grams of protein, while the same amount of top loin steak has 22.8 grams.
Contains alpha-lipoic acid
It doesn’t get a lot of attention, but alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) has been shown to have health benefits.
It protects mitochondria — the part of your cell that produces energy — from damage, and helps turn nutrients into energy. Research indicates it can be helpful for neuropathy (or nerve damage) associated with diabetes.
Your body makes alpha-lipoic acid. However, production decreases as you age. You can find the nutrient in foods like spinach, tomatoes, broccoli and organ meat (beef hearts and kidneys contain the most).
Filled with important minerals
Organ meat provides many essential minerals, including:
- Magnesium: This mineral plays a key role in more than 300 bodily processes, including nerve and muscle function, and making bones.
- Selenium: This nutrient is vital to proper thyroid function and reproductive health.
- Zinc: An immune booster and wound healer, this mineral is also necessary to make protein and DNA.
Contains fat-soluble vitamins
Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble vitamins. They get absorbed along with fat and stored in fatty tissue, unlike water-soluble vitamins, which get flushed out with urine.
Organ meat is rich in fat-soluble vitamins, which contribute to vital functions in your body.
- Vitamin A: It’s crucial for good vision, but vitamin A is also necessary for other areas of your body. It helps your immune system and organs like your heart and lungs work properly.
- Vitamin D: You need vitamin D for a strong immune system and bones.
- Vitamin E: This vitamin is an antioxidant, a substance that protects cells from damage. Vitamin E also helps blood flow by preventing over-clotting and widening vessels and plays a role in your immune system.
- Vitamin K: This nutrient is key for making proteins for blood clotting and building bones.
Is it safe to eat organ meat?
For the most part, yes. “Organ meat is safe for most people to eat in moderation,” says Zumpano. “But it’s high in cholesterol and saturated fat, which can increase your blood cholesterol level. If you have heart disease risk factors like high cholesterol, it’s best to choose leaner muscle meat instead.”
Those with gout (a type of arthritis) should also watch their intake of meat, including organs. They contain purines (a naturally occurring compound), which worsens gout. Children should also stick to smaller portions of organ meat than adults.
Other concerns associated with consuming organ meat include:
- Mad cow disease: Also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), this disease spreads to people if they eat the brains or spinal cord of affected cattle. The likelihood of getting it from U.S. beef is extremely low. The U.S. has tight regulations to eliminate any high-risk animal from the food supply for both people and pets.
- Excess vitamin A and iron: Consuming too much vitamin A can cause birth defects. As organ meat contains high amounts of vitamin A, people who are pregnant should avoid it. Organ meat is also loaded with iron, which can be a problem for those with an iron overload disorder. Children need less vitamin A and iron when compared to adults, too, so keep consumption in children to a lesser amount than adults.
- Fatty liver disease: A large study of adults found that eating organ meat may slightly increase the risk of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. However, researchers recommended more studies to confirm this conclusion. To be on the safe side, if you live with Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol — both of which are considered risk factors for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease — then you might want to skip eating organ meat.
- Bladder cancer: A review of multiple studies found that regularly eating organ meat could raise the risk of developing bladder cancer, although more research (including a large-scale study) is needed. If you have a history of bladder infections, smoke or have other risk factors, limit your consumption of organ meat.
Is organ meat good for you?
Organ meat contains more vitamins and minerals than traditional cuts of meat. Eating it can be an excellent way to get essential nutrients. But for those with certain health conditions, a high intake of organ meat can lead to problems. If you have concerns, talk to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian. This way, you can be confident that your dinner plan — with or without a side of chopped liver — is a healthy and safe choice for you and your family.