Hunter-gatherer societies valued organ meats over muscle meats, often reserving organ meats for the pregnant and breastfeeding women of the tribe. Mature modern cultures with refined culinary traditions also praise the delicacy of organ meats. These preferences are driven by taste, but looking deeper, our evolutionary hardwiring carries a keen natural wisdom.
Science has validated the incredible nutrient density of these sacred foods. Beef liver, for instance, boasts up to seven times more B vitamins than the same weight of ground beef. A weekly helping of liver is a great food choice for those suffering from chronic stress, diabetes, and nerve problems like neuropathy and carpal tunnel—essentially any disorder that can be caused or exacerbated by B-vitamin deficiency.
Despite claims that greens like spinach can provide all the iron the body needs, liver remains our best source of easily assimilated iron. Plant foods contain non-heme iron alongside certain anti-nutrients, like oxalates and phytates, that block mineral absorption.
The iron content of liver is a boon to a pregnant woman, as the fetus draws a significant amount of the mineral from the mother. Enough iron is stored in the liver of the fetus to last the first six months of life outside the womb. Weariness is common during pregnancy, but anemia must always be ruled out when there are prolonged periods of fatigue.
Liver also has vast amounts of retinol, the most easily assimilated form of vitamin A. Carotenoids are plant-derived precursors to retinol that are converted from a provitamin into true vitamin A after consumption. If vitamin A conversion is hampered, animal forms of retinol are the only workaround.
Vitamin A plays many important roles in the body, including regulation of gene transcription. Clinical indications for vitamin A include eye and skin diseases (such as acne) as well as osteoporosis. Vitamin A can also play a role in cancer prevention.
One argument against liver consumption is the concern of toxicant exposure. This is an unfounded assumption. The mammalian liver processes and eliminates natural toxins and environmental toxicants, but the liver itself will only become burdened in advanced disease states.
If liver function is compromised, the hepatic cells will shunt partially processed toxicants to fat cells or nerve cells (common with prolonged heavy metal exposure) to maintain homeostasis within this vital organ but at the expense of less essential tissues. When the liver weakens (as in cirrhosis), it can become so overwhelmed that it becomes suffused with toxicants. Consuming liver from an animal that grazed on a pasture that was not treated with chemicals dramatically reduces this risk.
A related concern is the presence of environmental toxicants that tend to bioaccumulate up the food chain. This can be true, and for that reason it is important to choose liver from an animal low on the food chain. Cows eat grass; it’s pretty hard to get any lower on the food chain than that. Provided the pasture in which they graze is organic, beef liver is low risk compared to feedlot cattle fed grain that was subjected to multiple pesticide applications. If the animal is unhealthy, as is typically the case with factory-farmed livestock, then that animal’s liver will be unhealthy too.
Delicious liver can be quick and easy to prepare. Cut up fresh organic/pastured chicken or beef liver into bite-sized pieces. Sauté minced garlic in lard or bacon grease, and add the liver pieces to the hot skillet. Bacon grease is often preferred for its magical ability to soften intense flavors, such as liver, but both bacon grease and lard are ideal as they are among the best sources of vitamin D. Vitamin D balances the vitamin A content of liver. Use butter or coconut oil if pork products are not an option. If the texture of liver is a turnoff, try soaking the liver overnight in lemon juice diluted with water. Onions are also a tried and true aromatic that can be sautéed with liver to balance its earthiness.
If liver remains unpalatable even after you’ve tried different preparations, you could consume it like a supplement by cutting tiny pieces and freezing them to be swallowed whole as a “pill.”
While liver might not be at the top of your favorite foods list, there’s no denying liver’s place among the superfoods. Give it a try, and soon you might find that liver is an unexpectedly delicious, healthful addition to your dinner table.
Author: Brandon LaGreca, LAc
Brandon is the founder and director of East Troy Acupuncture, an integrative medical clinic serving southeast Wisconsin, where he specializes in whole-food nutrition, ancestral health, and environmental medicine.