Who Eats Organs Anymore?
Organ meats are a far distance from being staples on the modern western diet. They don’t share the sizzling glamour of a porterhouse steak, and the flavours they bring can be described as novel. But with the metabolic epidemic running on a steep line towards disaster, it might be time to put offal back on the map. Or at the very least, remember that they still exist outside autopsies and the gravy you get doled out for thanksgiving dinner.
These days, organ meats occupy a niche slot in cultural cuisines, while occasionally also sneaking onto the menu as a pâté that’s been mixed and tamed with a cluster of spices. But there was a time when liver, brain, tripe, and the like, dominated the menu. They were held in unsurpassed esteem for their rich nutrient content. You could even pinpoint the date when they started to be phased out. The first agricultural revolution, which in the scope of health and wellbeing can comfortably be described as humanity’s worst mistake, began the steady process of wiping the hunter diet from existence.
There’s much you could compare between the lives of nomadic hunters, farmers, and today’s office dwellers. But even with the drastic decline in activity levels, the adoption of serial nutrient deficiencies has done the most damage. Much of the state of metabolic dysfunction can be traced back to some nutrient, or at least one, being out of whack. And they don’t have to be as obvious as a case of scurvy. A nutrient deficiency can foster a state of systemic inflammation, which in itself drives a deadly cocktail of diseases.
In a world where the consequences are dealt with an armada of supplements, there’s no better cure than a generous dose of superfoods. The hunter life might have died with your distant ancestor 10,000 years ago, but that doesn’t mean you get to turn up your nose at the thought of putting fresh liver on the cutting board.
The offer posed by organ meats is on a level of seduction you shouldn’t have the heart to turn down.
- They are at the top of the nutritional charts, when factoring density, diversity, and bioavailability of micronutrients. Even eggs can’t match up to liver.
- They come incredibly cheap, for the most part. One man’s trash can be your treasure.
- This happens to be the ethical choice. If we really want to do our bit for the environment, then we need to use as much of the animal as we can.
- Organ meats were prized foods for the hunter-gatherer, making them part of our species-appropriate diet.
- The nutrients are supplied in synergistic amounts, allowing them to be absorbed and utilised effectively.
Offal’s Fall From Grace
It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve tried to put organs back on the comeback trail. The second world war saw the American government make a valiant attempt to put the wings on offal, partly because they were shipping their pork and beef to the troops over in Europe. Their boys were hungry, and they needed the prize cuts.
Cookbooks were rolled out, and the term ‘variety meats’ was born as they gave the shunned byproducts a fresh lick of paint. Yet once the war rolled past, the fervour died a quick death. Partly because it was a forced replacement for a national icon. With this being a few decades before the unfortunate birth of the low-fat movement, a cut of steak was still prized as the centrepiece of a dinner plate. Organ meats just couldn’t match up to that.
But the real roots of liver hate go much further than ration packs. Even before the war shortages, offal was seen as food for poor people. And there was some truth to that, because liver was cheap. With everyone reaching for the capitalist dream of trimmed lawns, they couldn’t be seen eating on a budget.
Compounding this was the fact that more people were growing up in households without chancing on liver pâtés or gizzard stews. They had no idea what to do with them, while roast chicken came tried and tested.
Finally, there was an undercurrent of bad press simmering up nicely on the subject of meat factories, much of it warranted. The new world-savvy folks were growing a conscience, and the conditions of slaughterhouses somewhat spoiled the taste. With frozen chicken breasts neatly packaged in the supermarket, it’s easy enough to ignore its recent history. Heading to the local butcher and buying offal freshly stripped from the carcass, that would have been too much to stomach.
With the whole low-fat craze that followed, and is still very much at large, offal faded from the limelight altogether. Organ meats are barely seen as edibles, and people are trudging on through life, blind to the fact that only 42% of harvested cattle is made of the boneless cuts. At least in the west. American companies make big bucks by selling off their offal to Asia and South America, where these cuts are still prized as delicacies.
Which should make you wonder just how much flavour is based on perception. If you walking into dinner with a pre-built set of biases against liver ethics, perhaps with a dose of childhood trauma from force-feeding, then that meal is probably going to sit somewhere around your low expectations. It’s the same belief system that knocked fat-drenched steak off its perch in the 1960s.
The Evolutionary Diet
It’s an abrupt turn from the dynamic our ancestors used to have with meat, evidenced by nomadic tribes that have survived into modern times while still practising the apex lifestyle. Stefansson lived with the Inuits for several years, watching them hunt down caribou. After a successful kill, they’d eat the organs, and the fat around them, while leaving the meat for the dogs. This isn’t a special case, the theme of picking organs before meat is matched by the Hadza tribe in Tanzania, as well as the Aboriginals in Australia.
These tribes are following ancient customs that stretch back, generation by generation, into palaeolithic human history. The stake they place in organ meats hasn’t been picked up by scrolling through nutrient data. It’s the practice that made sure we outlasted the Neanderthals and made it through the 21st century as the only surviving members of Homo. Survival of the fittest. Until farming arrived, and then became compounded by modern medicine, the folks getting the best nutrition stood the best chance of surviving past the sunset.
Organ meats reached their lofty foothold on the apex menu, by the steady grind of trial and error that stretched over hundreds of thousands of years. The hunters who survived, the ones who looked the healthiest, passed on the wisdom through to the next generation of people determined to make it past 20. This is how we figured which mushrooms were poisonous, and which sent you into your death throes. We even had a few vegan cousins, a species named Paranthropus, who lived alongside the homo populations. They were pushed into extinction and written off the evolutionary tree, while the meat-eaters made it past the Pleistocene.
If you were to buy into the status of the human species as apex carnivores, who’ve just recently stepped into a whirlwind romance with carbs, then there’s some value in looking at the other creatures that inhabit the carnivore kingdom.
Lions go for the organs, leaving the muscle on the carcass for the hyenas and vultures to fight over. A pack of wolves will let the alpha eat the liver.
Where they lack in campfire stories, they certainly make up for intuition. Before farming came and muddied the picture, the hunting economy, followed by humans and wolves alike, dictated that the predator needed the most amount of nutrients relative to the calories spent in the chase. And in that context, organ meats carried the biggest bang for the buck, even more so than saturated fat. But hours of foraging around for a handful of berries? That wasn’t in the picture.
This place of organs meats at the top of the nutritional ladder, persists outside the straggling tribes that still follow the hunter’s creed. Traditional Chinese medicine, which goes back at least 3000 years, has a simple rule for the value of organ meats. Eat the one that matches the organ you’re trying to heal. Where that leaves us with gizzards, I’m not sure. Maybe just go with tripe.
These days, we can back up the ancestral wisdom with their actual micronutrient value. And they certainly tend to be fantastic sources of vitamins, minerals, as well as a host of peptides and enzymes.
They not only make for a cheaper alternative to getting monthly batches of tablets, they also provide the nutrients in their synergistic quantities. I’ve previously made the point, and it needs to be repeated, that nutrition just doesn’t happen in isolation. That’s my main gripe with supplements. The fat-soluble vitamins are so named because they don’t get absorbed without accompanying fat. Minerals exist in a delicate balance with each other, in order to assure proper bodily function.
Beyond that hitch, supplements can also lack bioavailability, with non-heme iron being a classic example. The low absorption rates similarly plague the plant kingdom, making the five-a-day rule a terrible way of topping up on your vitamins.
And in the meantime, in a portion of beef liver, you have concentrated amounts of Vitamin A, B6, B12, C, copper, magnesium, and much more. All of highly bioavailable stock, and existing in synergistic quantities that nature intended. It wasn’t by accident that the caribou started growing organs that matched our nutrient requirements. It was by the evolution we undertook over millions of years, adapting slowly to make the most of the top foods on the menu.
As for the ethical and planetary concerns, this is exactly why we need to be making use of organ meats. As the stat goes, only 42% of harvested cattle end up as muscle meat. When you leave out the bones, the hooves, and the leather, that still leaves a hefty chunk of offal at around 20%. While some regions of the world have kept them as part of the cuisine, they’re all but forgotten in the west. American companies end up shipping much of their stock overseas, leading to a sizable carbon footprint.
So the easiest solution would be to simply do your part by helping pump up domestic sales. Your conscience should be a little lighter knowing that the cow’s life is being put towards improving yours. Rather than being discarded as waste.
I’d hesitate to label food as medicine, but if we were to dive into those waters, then organ meats would be the best form of DIY before opting for stronger measures.
The True Organic Promise
The small matter of curbing hunger can be the only pitch some need. The old-fashioned approach to satiating meals is just to fill the plate up with low-calorie fluff. But it doesn’t really work, at least not for longer than a few fleeting minutes. That’s because hunger is a complex mechanism that’s smart enough to see past these low-effort tricks. The real trick is in supplying it with the opposite. Foods that are jam-packed with nutrients.
And it’s all doable on the barest of budgets. At this point, the dearth of popularity means you’ll find butchers willing to pawn off their cuts of tripe for practically free.
But if you were to now go on a little adventure into the ancestral cuisine, then which of the organs do you try first? If your sensitive taste buds were the biggest barrier, then it may be best to take on poultry first, as chicken liver has a milder taste compared to pork and ruminant options. However, chicken, or pork for that matter, won’t quite have the magic of ruminant meat. Since the latter are able to digest, absorb, and convert whatever we throw at them, the nutrition tends to be a level above. Even when there’s lots of corn involved.
I’d rather you grit the teeth and weather the storm of foreign flavours, because the whole agenda with organ meats is to use it as a multivitamin. So here are the prime candidates for helping upgrade your metabolism.
The Pick Of The Organ Meats
Liver is an obvious choice as the standout amongst this assembly of superfoods. And as an aside, for those who are worried about their toxins, this is the place where the body gets rid of toxins. Not a storage site. Instead, liver is loaded to the brim with micronutrients, in particular vitamin A, also known as retinol. The version of vitamin A in plants, beta-carotene, is a precursor to retinol that converts very poorly. Another reason why those bright vegetables are a misguided way to top up on your vitamins.
Besides that, liver contains high amounts of Vitamin A, B2, B5, and even C. In the mineral camp, there’s plenty of iron and copper. Then there’s always the protein, which comes in handy when you’re not backing this up with several pounds of steak.
But there’s more to nutrition than just the list of essentials on the RDA chart. Liver also contains betaine, a natural antioxidant that plays a vital role in the function of your actual liver. Then there’s choline, which aids in cellular growth while acting as a precursor to acetyl-choline, a neurotransmitter vital for enhancing focus.
There’s always the option of just giving liver a light sear and throwing it down the gullet, but you can mask the flavour by mixing it with butter, cream, and even ground beef. I’ve laid out a few recipes for you to try, taken right from my site.
This is one of the easier tastes to acquire, given that the heart’s a muscle, and as such resembles meat in its flavour. Given that this organ is vital for supplying nutrients to the rest of the system, you can probably guess that it’s going to have an energising effect. It’s the richest source of the enzyme CoQ10, a powerful natural antioxidant that forms a critical part of mitochondrial function.
Given that it’s near enough muscle meat, you don’t have to be too creative. Just slice it into thin pieces, add spices if needed, and chuck it in the air fryer. Which I’ll happily back as God’s gift to the kitchen.
Following up the mild flavour of heart, is the strong kick of the kidney. This organ acts to balance out the nutrients in the body, while removing waste. Appropriately, it smells like ammonia, which can make it a bridge too far for some people. But having tried it myself, after a shaky start, any reflexes soon wear off.
Particularly for people with histamine issues, kidney hosts the DAO enzyme, which aids in the break up of histamine. Beyond that, it also contains high amounts of selenium, a mineral that’s vital for immune function. So it may be worth the initial shock.
The interesting smells and flavours can be dialled down a few notches by soaking it in water or buttermilk for a couple of hours before cooking. And try not to cook it too thoroughly, that tends to accentuate the mineral taste.
Perhaps something that gets more people nervous than the prospect of kidney stew, but for entirely different reasons. The taste itself is fantastic, and it can feel like you’re biting into a cloud. However, there have been a few scares over prions and mad cow disease, with brains being held as suspects. The actual scientific evidence of transmission however, is scant, and the skipping this one would be akin to avoiding dipping in fresh lakes because of the possibility that the brain-eating amoeba will crawl up your nose.
Brains are excellent sources of Omega 3, which can then convert to DHA, an essential part of the brain’s structure. The eastern method of eating brains to get brainy definitely checks out.
You might struggle to source this one in the UK, but there are vendors that sell lamb and veal brains. As for figuring out the problem of how to cook it, it’s soft enough to be mixed with eggs and made into pancakes. You can try it out by attempting my very own recipe.
The name might not quite match the food, as sweetbreads are made from the thymus and pancreas. So they aren’t going to be the gluten-free replacement you’ve been dreaming of. But sweetbreads are still something of a luxury cuisine, adored by the elite taste buds. They also happen to be high in cholesterol, which is absolutely a good thing, despite all the flaky 1960s science that attempted to suggest otherwise. Since cholesterol is the building block for cell membranes, as well as a precursor to major hormones, sweetbreads have some nutritional punch.
The texture is going to be similar to brain, soft and delicate, with no odour. They have a creamy bite, which is why they’re used so often for breading. Think of it as another entry-level organ, alongside heart.
Oxtail has its own special perk, it’s a rich source of collagen, the nutrient that goes towards building skin and tendons. Beyond that, the amino acid glycine, a chief part of collagen, helps balance out the methionine that’s inbound from muscle meat. Runaway methionine has been linked to inflammation, oxidative damage, and decreased fat burning. Whereas glycine supplementation has been shown to counteract those effects. There’s no danger and only positives in simply ramping up your collagen intake to balance out all the muscle meat.
Being quite tough to bite into, you’re best off throwing it in the slow cooker along with bone broth or plain water and spices.
Getting Back To The Top Of The Food Chain
Much of the dilemma of modern nutrition is a sum of two opposing factors. The rise to prominence of inflammatory foods, and the sheer lack of micronutrient-rich options. With organ meats, you’re not just solving the latter. With its powerful effects on satiety, there’s going to be much less room left over to weigh up the possibility of pizza on a Friday evening.
Hunger is a mechanism crafted by the body to ensure we survive into the next day. The only way to really get rid of it, is by supplying the metabolism with the ingredients it needs to sustain optimal function. That’s fat, that’s protein, as well as a host of micronutrients. It’s a complicated equation with a simple solution. Eat the foods we prized over the course of human history. A bowl of cornflakes doesn’t quite enter the picture.
Organ meats are going to be an asset regardless of the diet you’re following. Look at this from any angle, weight loss, athletic performance, mental wellbeing, or even just keeping an eye on the weekly food budget. They pack a hefty punch.
If you haven’t got the tastebuds to take on the novel flavours on offer, those will eventually get acquired. If there’s a deep-rooted dislike stemming from being force-fed kidney stew as a child, therapy can fix that. If you’re committed to a plant-powered lifestyle, then jump through whatever mental hoops you need to get organs on the menu.
There is always the option of getting desiccated organ supplements, where they’ve been freeze-dried and packed into capsules. But if you’re so adverse to the taste, then just cut your meats into salami slices, and gulp them down. You don’t need big portions, 4-6 ounces of liver in a week already gets you a huge dose of multivitamins. So you’re best off biting the bullet, and going on a little adventure. Back to a time when organs were at the very top of human cuisine.
The Apex Blueprint
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