Americans are notoriously averse to organ meats, which are typically viewed as the “extra bits” of an animal that are discarded in favor of choicer cuts of meat. This dislike of organ meats has a long history in the United States, whereas people in other countries routinely eat liver, intestines, heart, and other organ meats.1
Not only is discarding organ meats wasteful, but you also lose out on valuable nutrients that can improve bone health. However, there are some health risks to eating organ meats in addition to numerous benefits. Today we'll discuss how organ meats can improve bone health and how to incorporate these often ignored meats into your diet.
What Are Organ Meats?
Organ meats, sometimes known as offal, include any portion of the animal that “falls off” (the source of the term “offal”) when it is butchered. In the Western world, the most common cuts of meats are muscle meats, whether obtained from poultry, pork, beef, or other animals. Any non-muscle meats are thus considered offal, including the following:2
- Sweetbreads (thymus or pancreas, typically of calf or lamb)
- Tripe (intestines)
- Trotters (feet)
Synopsis: Organ meats are not a staple of the typical Western diet, but consumption of these meats can be a healthy addition to a balanced diet.
Nutrients in Organ Meats
Organ meats contain a variety of nutrients that support bone health. Each organ contains a slightly different balance of nutrients. Consider the following bone-healthy nutrients found in offal:
Magnesium: Approximately 50 to 60% of the magnesium present in the human body is found in the bones. Getting enough magnesium promotes the formation of new bone tissue and prevents bone from being broken down. Adults need 350 mg of magnesium daily.
Vitamin B: Vitamin B-complex consists of eight vitamins, some of which have been implicated in bone health. While several B vitamins have been shown to improve bone mineral density, Vitamin B12 appears to be particularly important. Large observational studies have demonstrated that Vitamin B12 deficiency increases the risk of osteoporosis in both men and women.3 Adults need 2.4 micrograms of Vitamin B12 daily. Liver is a particularly good source, with a 3-ounce serving containing a whopping 70.7 micrograms.4
Copper: Copper is a trace mineral that is vital for the proper functioning of the brain, immune system, and cardiovascular system. The presence of copper is also essential for the functioning of numerous enzymes throughout the body. In particular, the copper-dependent enzyme lysyl oxidase promotes collagen formation. As collagen is an integral component of bone tissue, lack of copper weakens bones and increases the risk of fracture. Offal is an excellent source of copper, with 1 ounce of liver containing 4.1 micrograms5.
Phosphorus: Phosphorus is one of the primary structural components of bone, found in its form known as hydroxyapatite (calcium-phosphate salt). Inadequate phosphorus levels disrupt bone mineral density, contributing to soft or weakened bones. Offal is an excellent source of phosphorus, helping to promote good bone health. The ratio of calcium to phosphorus appears to be particularly important, especially for women.6 Thus, while phosphorus is critical for bone health, it must be obtained in the context of high calcium intake.
Vitamin K: The presence of Vitamin K2 (menaquinone) supports a variety of bone-related functions. In particular, Vitamin K is required for enzyme activity that regulates the bone-associated proteins osteocalcin, matrix gamma-carboxylated glutamate protein, periostin, and anticoagulation factor S.7 Collectively, these proteins are critical for bone homeostasis and connective tissue health.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is one of four fat-soluble vitamins (the others are Vitamins A, E, and K). Very few foods naturally contain Vitamin D, and especially D3 (cholecalciferol), though the vitamin can be synthesized through exposure to sunlight. Organ meats are one of the few foods that contain ample Vitamin D levels. Getting enough Vitamin D is critically important for bone health. Vitamin D3 regulates osteoblasts (bone-forming cells) and osteoclasts (bone-destroying cells), improving the quality of bone tissue. Your body requires more Vitamin D as you age, and while the Medical Establishment recommends 600 IU daily, the Save Institute considers 2000 IU as the optimal daily dose.8 Liver, kidneys, and other offal are excellent dietary sources of this critical vitamin.
Coenzyme Q10: Coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone) is a fat-soluble compound that your body can produce in small quantities on its own or can be obtained through the diet. This compound has high antioxidant properties, meaning that it sweeps free-radicals and other sources of oxidative damage from cells throughout the body. Organs that require high levels of energy to function, including the kidneys, heart, liver, and lungs, have high concentrations of coenzyme Q10.9 Thus, eating organ meats is an excellent way to obtain more of this important molecule. Although scientists have not yet determined the precise Recommended Daily Allowance for coenzyme Q10, incorporating more organ meats into your diet ensures that you get enough of this valuable compound.
Organ meats contain a variety of nutrients needed to support bone health. In particular, organ meats are high in magnesium, phosphorus, copper, coenzyme Q10, and Vitamins B12, D, and K. Incorporating organ meats into your diet may prevent nutritional deficiencies in these vitamins and reduce your risk of poor bone health.
Organ Meats Have Acidifying Properties
Despite the nutritional benefits of organ meats, it is important to eat these foods in moderation. Your body keeps a tightly regulated pH or level of acidity. The foods you eat impact your pH, with some foods lowering pH (making your body more acidic) and others raising pH (making your body more alkaline). An imbalance between acid and alkaline-forming reactions increases your risk of bone loss and other unwanted health conditions. In particular, the balance becoming tipped too far onto the acidifying side leads to osteoporosis, bacterial infections, loss of muscle mass, and chronic pain.10
Every food you eat either increases or decreases pH. To maintain an appropriate pH balance, try to eat more alkalizing foods that raise pH. Most plant-based foods have alkalizing effects. In contrast, meats, eggs, grains, dairy products, and processed foods have acidifying effects. Organ meats are no exception to this, as they also make your body more acidic. Thus, eating large quantities of organ meats may actually lead to the counterproductive effect of acidifying your body despite the overall nutritional benefits.
To address the concern about the acidifying effects of organ meats, eat these foods in moderation. Aim for an overall balance of 80% alkalizing foods and 20% acidifying foods. Eating organ meats in conjunction with a primarily plant-based diet gives you the excellent nutritional benefits of organ meats without tipping your body’s pH too far onto the acidification side.
Organ meats, like all animal products, are acidifying. Eat organ meats in moderation in the context of a largely plant-based diet (aim for an 80% alkalizing, 20% acidifying balance) to promote bone health without compromising pH balance.
Connection Between Organ Meats and Gout
Gout is a complex form of arthritis that often affects the joint at the base of the big toe. This painful condition may be exacerbated by poor dietary choices. Gout occurs when your joints accumulate urate crystals, a form of uric acid. Your body produces uric acid when you eat substances that contain purines, a type of molecule found naturally in certain foods. Organ meats are particularly high in purines, with livers, kidneys, and sweetbreads containing the highest purine levels11. Thus, individuals with gout should steer clear of organ meats, as the nutritional benefits of offal likely do not outweigh the potential danger of purines triggering a gout attack.
If you have gout, avoid excessive consumption of organ meats, as their high levels of purines may exacerbate gout symptoms.
Concerns about Toxicity in Organ Meats
Your body’s organs, particularly the kidneys and liver, work hard to remove toxins from the rest of your tissues. Animals’ organs work the same way, raising concern that organ meats may contain high levels of toxins that could be dangerous for your health. While this is an understandable concern, the scientific evidence does not support this conclusion. The kidneys and liver do filter toxins from the body, but they excrete these toxins rather than storing them. Indeed, a 2007 study found that organ meats contained only trace amounts of heavy metals and other toxins, none of which exceeded the safe ranges set forth by the European Union.12
Despite concerns that organ meats contain concentrated amounts of toxic substances, no scientific evidence supports this conclusion.
The Bottom Line: Organ Meats, When Consumed In Moderation, Boost Bone Health
Although organ meats do not feature prominently in the typical Western diet, these foods are rich in vitamins and minerals that support bone health. While eating organ meats may strengthen bones and reduce the risk of fractures, remember to eat offal in moderation.
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1 Adams, Cecil. “Why Don’t Americans Eat More Offal?” Washington City Paper. September 7, 2016. Web. https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/columns/straight-dope/article/20833229/why-dont-americans-eat-more-offal
2 Young, Jake. “The Offal Truth.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. 2018. 18:76-82. https://gcfs.ucpress.edu/content/18/1/76
3 Dai, Zhaoli and Koh, Woon-Puay. “B Vitamins and Bone Health: A Review of the Current Evidence.” Nutrients. 7:3322-3346. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4446754/
4 National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. “Vitamin B12.” Web. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/
5 Linus Pauling Institute. “Copper.” Web. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/copper
6 Linus Pauling Institute. “Phosphorus.” Web. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/phosphorus
7 Linus Pauling Institute. “Vitamin K.” Web. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/vitamin-K
8 National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. “Vitamin D.” Web. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
9 Linus Pauling Institute. “Coenzyme Q.” Web. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/coenzyme-Q10
10 Schwalfenberg, Gerry K. “The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline pH Diet Benefits Health?” Journal of Environmental and Public Health. 2012. 2012:727630. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195546/
11 Mayo Clinic. “Gout.” Web. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gout/symptoms-causes/syc-20372897
12 Lopez-Alonso, M., Miranda, M., Casillo, C., Hernandez, J., Garcia-Vaquero, M., and Benedito, J.L. “Toxic and Essential Metals in Liver, Kidney, and Muscle of Pigs at Slaughter in Galicia, Northwest Spain.” 2007. 24:943-954. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17691007