Liver: It's What's for Dinner

In American culture, the mention of organ meat does not typically evoke a mouth-watering response. Yet internationally, carnivores across the globe don't hesitate to devour this edible animal tissue, often considering it to be a delicacy. Internal animal organs, known as offal, can be found in many dishes closely identified with a worldly region.

When in Scotland, for example, you can fuel up on haggis, a savory pudding made from, among other ingredients, sheep’s heart, liver and lungs. In France, a small snack could include foie gras, or fatty duck liver. Rather than wasting sources of calories and nutrients, chefs throughout history became creative and learned to prepare every ounce of the hunted animal.

However, recent controversy over the safety of offal consumption has become a hot topic.

On one side, many medical experts (and grandmother’s alike) tout the benefits of consuming offal. Take one of the more well-known edible organ meats: liver. One 4-oz. serving of beef liver contains 155 calories, 4g total fat, and a whopping 23g protein. It's also a good source of copper, folic acid, iron and B vitamins, as well as one of the most concentrated sources of vitamin A. The National Institute of Health even lists liver as a meat option that, when eaten moderately, may be beneficial to treat anemia.

Comparatively, a 4-oz. ground beef patty (80% lean/20% fat) provides 280 kcal, 22g fat and 19g protein. The ground beef contains many of the same micronutrients but, when placed side by side, the liver appears to be the more nutritious choice.

The other side of the debate brings other facts to light. Most notably, the seemingly healthful high concentration of vitamin A found in animal liver can be a fatal side effect if over-consumed. The active form of vitamin A, known as retinol, can build up to a toxic level within the body. To put it in perspective, one ounce of beef liver contains 8,881 IU vitamin A. The recommended upper limit for males and females older than 19 years is 3,000 IU. Other side effects of vitamin A toxicity (Hypervitaminosis A) include nausea, skin and hair changes, bone pain or swelling and birth defects.

Current cattle-raising methods offer a new source of controversy. Two main functions of an animal liver include detoxifying chemicals and metabolizing drugs. There is building concern over the method of injecting American cattle with growth hormone to produce a larger product yield. Since the liver acts as a filter, the concern is that consuming this organ will expose our bodies to larger quantities of hormone than we would get by only eating animal muscle.

All in all, the debate over the safety and health benefits of liver seems to lead to the same conclusion as many other of our decadent favorites: eat in moderation. The nutritional value of your total diet will determine if eating liver is actually beneficial, so be mindful of all the foods you choose to eat. If the flavor is one you enjoy, be careful not to go overboard, since there are known, and deadly, side effects. Young children and pregnant women should take extra caution, since they are at higher risk of vitamin A toxicity.

If you are feeling adventurous, give it a try at your next meal!