As a kid, I always looked forward to Sunday family meals after six days of fish and vegetables. Besides the usual kare-kare, pochero and sinigang, Grandma often had “a little extra” like pork or beef liver bistek drenched in onion rings, or chicken liver and gizzards adobo. When she had the time and energy, we had bopis, containing chopped lungs and pig’s head. The whole family loved those dishes from animal parts westerners call organ meats, variety meats, and offal.
Grandma, who never had a nutrition lesson, repeatedly reminded us that the organ meats she called menudencia were more nutitious than other cuts of meat. I believed her because they tasted healthy.
Organ meats have been consumed since time immemorial. Several variety meats are richer in certain vitamins, minerals, and forms of protein than muscle tissue. Beef offal includes the stomachs, tripe, or large stomach, brains, heart, liver, tongue, and kidneys, tongue, brains, feet, stomach, heart, liver, and lungs. In pork, the term includes the liver, kidneys, brains, trotters, and head. Pigs’ intestines are used as casings of sausages, and pigs’ blood is an ingredient in black pudding and the Filipino dish dinuguan.
Before World War II, most variety meats in the US were consumed by those growing up on farms. As affluence grew the desire for variety meat declined. As global trade grew, however, variety meat exports led to increased consumption of variety meats. Specific variety meat products such as beef tongues, beef livers, or pork ears become destined almost exclusively for export markets.
US packers profit from a wide range of pork variety meats in China on products ranging from ears and front feet to tails and uteri.
Variety meats or offal are the internal parts and some extremities of an animal. Offal includes the heart, liver, tongue, lungs, spleen, kidneys, bone marrow, testicles, brain, mesentery (intestinal membrane), feet, sweetbreads, stomach, oxtail, pig snouts, and head.
On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss this menu as a mere Halloween stunt—duck hearts, cow tongues, lamb kidneys, pig ears, and even testicles.
But there is a growing number of innovative American chefs who are incorporating “variety meats,” or offal, into everyday menus.
The term “offal,” which sounds like “awful” comes from “off fall,” the parts that fell off the butcher’s table, or an animal’s organs, entrails, and extremities. Advocates claim it’s flavorful and more economical than traditional meat cuts. It’s also comparably nutritious: Some variety meats even have higher concentrations of vitamins and minerals like iron. But offal advocates will have to overcome diners’ squeamishness.
It wasn’t always unpopular. A hundred years ago, kidneys and other variety meats were a common sight on American dinner tables, especially during the Great Depression, when meat was expensive and scarce.
With industrial livestock production, Americans started eating prime cuts because they became so cheap. People forgot about variety meats.
Many credit offal’s resurgence in top restaurant kitchens to Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating, first published in 1999. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has called Henderson “the most influential chef in the world” for helping put ingredients that had grown irrelevant in much of the Western world back on the map.
There’s very minimal demand for beef variety meats like tongue, lips, liver, heart, kidney, stomach, and intestine in the U.S. Still, across the world, international consumers are eager to get their hands on these US beef products.
The most common types of organ meat include liver, sometimes referred to as “nature’s multivitamin;” tongue, more of a muscle, a tender and tasty cut of meat due to its high fat content; heart, which is lean and tasty; kidneys; brain, considered a delicacy in many cultures and a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids; sweetbreads; which have a deceiving name, as they are neither sweet nor a type of bread, they are made from the thymus gland and pancreas; tripe, the lining of an animal stomach; testicles, sometimes called Rocky Mountain Oysters or Stones; intestines, cleaned and fried or sautéed, sometimes called Chitterlings or Chitlins.
The nutrition profile of organ meat varies slightly, depending on the animal source and organ type. But most organs are extremely nutritious. In fact, most are more nutrient-dense than muscle meat. They are particularly rich in B-vitamins, such as vitamin B12 and folate. They are also rich in minerals, including iron, magnesium, selenium, and zinc, and important fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K.
Furthermore, organ meats are an excellent protein source. Animal protein provides all nine essential amino acids that the body needs to function effectively. Organ meats are a good source of iron and protein and packed with vitamin A, B12, and folate, in addition to many other important nutrients.
These are some of the benefits of eating organ meats.
Organ meats are an excellent source of iron, containing heme iron, which is highly bioavailable, so it’s more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron from plant food.
Organ meats keep you fuller for longer. Many studies have shown that high-protein diets can reduce appetite and increase feelings of fullness. They may also promote weight loss by increasing your metabolic rate .
Organ meats may help retain muscle mass. They are a good source of high-quality protein, which is important for building and retaining muscle mass.
Organ meats, especially liver, are a source of choline, an essential nutrient for brain, muscle, and liver health that many people don’t get enough of.
Organ meants are less expensive cuts, often be found at a bargain price.
Also, eating these parts of the animal reduces food waste.
That said, some people may be more vulnerable to high intakes and need to limit their consumption. People with gout need to moderate intake. Gout is a common type of arthritis caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood. Purines in the diet form uric acid in the body. Organ meats are particularly high in purines, so you may find that you have fewer flare-ups of gout if you avoid them.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends liver as a source of certain important nutrients during pregnancy. In addition to vitamin A, liver is a great source of iron and B vitamins, which are important for your health and the health of the fetus.
Vitamin A comes in two forms—preformed vitamin A, also called retinol and retinyl esters, which are naturally found in animal food including organ meats, and provitamin A carotenoids, which are naturally found in plant sources.
While getting enough vitamin A is important during pregnancy, too much preformed vitamin A can cause harm. Liver is very rich in vitamin A, so people who are pregnant or lactating should monitor their intake to avoid birth defects.
Organ meats are already found in many cuisines, but they’re becoming increasingly popular in fine-dining restaurants due to their strong and unique flavors. If you haven’t tried organ meats before, it may be best to start off with the more mildly flavored organs like tongue and heart.
If you enjoy eating meat, it could be time to substitute some muscle meat with organ meat. Not only will it provide you with some additional nutrition, it’s also easy on the wallet and benefits the environment.
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