A staple in the diets of our ancestors, organ meats, including liver, offered valuable nutritional benefits. When food sources were scarce, utilising the whole animal was an obvious necessity, which some communities believed had even greater benefits. Through eating the organs of a healthy animal, they believed you could improve the health and function of your own.
With most cuisines embracing dishes which showcase liver, it has more recently been viewed as a speciality ingredient, all be it one with health-promoting properties.
Rich in protein, low in calories and packed with essential vitamins and minerals; liver is one of the most nutrient-dense foods available. What makes it even more of a superfood is that the nutrients can be easily accessed by our body. One example is vitamin A; liver and liver products like pâté supply vitamin A as retinol, which is its ‘active’ form. Muscle meat is not such an impressive source and plant sources have to be converted during digestion so the body can use them.
Similarly, liver is a valuable source of vitamin D, a nutrient typically formed by the action of sunlight on the skin. Its difficult to obtain adequate amounts of this vitamin from our diets because there are very few food sources, and with levels of sun light or outdoor exposure limited, it’s common for levels to be low. The form supplied by liver is vitamin D3, the more ‘active’ form, which once again is found in much lower levels in muscle meat.
Liver is an impressive source of bio-available B vitamins including folate, choline and vitamin B12. These nutrients are needed for a number of functions in the body and especially for metabolism. Also rich in iron, liver supplies the haem form which is helpful for supporting adequate iron stores. Maintaining these stores is especially relevant for menstruating women and girls who are commonly low in this important mineral.
Like other organ meats, liver supplies fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Despite concerns over these nutrients, eaten in moderation and as part of a balanced diet, they help support a number of functions and aid the uptake of fat-soluble vitamins A and D. However, because liver is such a rich source of vitamin A, in the form of retinol, you should be careful not to eat too much of it, too often. This is because over time, vitamin A accumulates in the body which may be detrimental to health.
Other concerns surrounding the consumption of liver rests on the fact that one of its key roles in the body is the processing of toxins. The liver’s role is to filter toxins, parcelling them up to be excreted from the body, it does not store them, as some people mistakenly believe. Nevertheless, it is wise to select organ meats, such as liver, from animals which have been subjected to higher welfare standards and, if your budget permits, free-range or organically reared.
Who shouldn’t eat liver?
The nutrient density of liver means there are some individuals who should minimise how much and how often they eat liver and foods containing it. One of the reasons being its high vitamin A content. Pregnant women should avoid liver and liver products during pregnancy because too much vitamin A may cause birth defects, especially during the first trimester.
Some research suggests there may be a link between high vitamin A intake, over multiple years, and fracture risk in post-menopausal women and older men. This means this older age group should limit liver and liver products to no more than once a week, or have smaller portions.
Liver, like other organ meats, contains high levels of naturally occurring compounds called purines. People who suffer from gout have problems metabolising these compounds and are advised to minimise their offal intake.
How to include liver in your diet
If you wish to include liver in your or your family’s diet, there are some simple ways to integrate this nutrient bounty into your meals. Some people dislike the earthy taste of liver but including it in a stew or casserole with a complementary and distinctive flavour, like orange, can be a successful and tasty strategy. An added plus is that vitamin C-rich foods like citrus supports our body’s ability to absorb valuable nutrients like iron.
Another option is to mince liver with beef and use it to make beef burgers or chilli con carne – aim for about one fifth the quantity of liver to beef. It’s worth noting that some nutrients, like vitamin A, can be destroyed by overcooking and are best eaten with some fat to aid absorption. For this reason, cook liver dishes lightly but thoroughly and combine with complementary ingredients.
If you or a family member falls into one of the categories who should minimise their consumption of organ meats, refer to your GP or Healthcare professional before making any significant dietary changes. When eaten in moderation and as part of a varied, balanced diet liver can make a valuable nutritional contribution.
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This article was published on 17th June 2020.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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