We love organ meats around here and heart is no exception. Mainstream eating culture in the US has not fully embraced the idea of eating organ meats but, let’s be honest, if we relied on mainstream advice we’d all be fat and sick.
In fact, it is somewhat ironic that many people consider the vital survival organs of the body (brain, heart, kidney, liver, and lungs) as waste products. They are so infrequently consumed in the US that they are a leading export product.
But organ meats, and heart in particular, are loaded with nutrients and provide many health benefits. To understand the benefits of heart as a superfood within the diet, we need look no further than human history and nutrition research.
History Loves Organ Meats
Organ meats have been a part of a healthy human diet for centuries. Organ meats are by far the most nutrient dense (nutrients per calorie) part of an animal. The concept of eating nose to tail prevents excess waste and is also a foundational practice for nourished living.
That’s why many cultures around the world enjoy their own organ meat delicacies:
- Scotland has haggis (ie, sheep or calf heart, liver, and lungs mixed with suet, oatmeal, and seasonings boiled in a bag made from the animal’s stomach).
- Jewish cultures have chopped liver
- Bolivians savor tenderized beef heart that has been cooked over charcoal
- Pakistani cultures make a hash of heart, intestines, livers
Despite the historical health benefits, the US is almost last in terms of consumption of organ meats. Out of every country in the world, the US ranks 171st out of 175 countries in organ meat eaten per person per year (*). It’s not surprising that the US also ranks highest in modern health problems like heart disease, obesity, autoimmune disease and diabetes. It’s pretty safe to say we aren’t exactly known for our healthy eating habits (hence the SAD, standard american diet, acronym).
Like Fuels Like
Beyond analyzing cultures around the world that eat organ meats, the benefits can be sorted out by reviewing nutrients contained in the meat and what role they play in the body.
Heart is a good source of many important nutrients including:
- Coenzyme Q10
- B2 (Riboflavin)
- B6 (Pyridoxine)
- B9 (Folate)
- B12 (Cobalamin)
Human nutrition research often demonstrates the concept of ‘like supports like’. That is to say the micro and macronutrients in organs and tissues of animals support those same organs and tissues in humans. For example animal muscle meats, fuel growth and repair of human muscles. Similarly, the nutrients in animal organ meats support that same organ in the human body.
The nutrients contained in the heart support the function of the heart as well as the entire cardiovascular system. And because nutrients rarely have just one function, these same vitamins and minerals also support cognitive function, energy levels, natural immunity and even promote longevity.
Top 5 Health Benefits
The specific nutrients in the heart solidify its place as a true superfood in the diet.
According the the USDA a 100 g (3.5 oz) portion of beef heart contains:
- 112 calories
- 18 grams of protein
- 4.31 mg of iron (24% DV)
- 287 mg of potassium (6% DV)
- 21 mg of magnesium (5% DV)
- 21.8 mcg of selenium (40% DV)
- 1.70 mg of zinc (15% DV)
- 7.53 mg of niacin (47% DV)
- 1.79 mg of pantothenic acid (26% DV)
- 1 mg of riboflavin (70% DV)
- 0.3 mg of vitamin B6 (21% DV)
- 0.24 mg of vitamin B9/Thiamin (20% DV)
- 8.5 mcg of vitamin B12 (356% DV)
- 11. 3 mg Coenzyme Q10 (no DV established)
- 17 mcg of lycopene
- Protect your heart
I am going to repeat myself here bThe nutrients in heart protect your own human heart. Folate and B12 may reduce the risk of fatal heart disease in adults (*).
Homocysteine levels in the blood are regulated by vitamins B6 and B12 as well as folate. Elevated levels of homocysteine are an independent risk factor for heart disease and high blood pressure. Getting B6, B12 and folate from your diet reduces homocysteine concentration in the blood and therefore reduces risk of these common cardiovascular conditions (*).
B vitamins also support blood vessels formation and some studies link higher intake of B vitamins to reduces risk of peripheral artery disease (PAD) (*)
Cholesterol levels are positively influenced by B vitamins (*,*).
Heart is also a great source of the little known or talked about nutrient coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10).
CoQ10 is found in the mitochondria of muscle cells (including the heart muscle) and has several important roles in the body, including:
- Acting as an antioxidant protecting cell membranes and lipoproteins
- Supporting the production of cellular energy (Adenosine Triphosphate aka ATP)
Taking statin drugs to lower cholesterol, reduces the concentration of CoQ10 in the body. It’s a bit ironic that this major treatment (aka bandaid) for cholesterol is meant to reduce heart disease risk but in fact, decreases the concentration of a nutrient known to protect the heart. Makes you wonder who’s running the show, doesn’t it?
- Boost Cognitive Function
Some of the nutrients found in heart support optimal cognitive function including the B vitamins and Coenzyme Q10.
B vitamins (B6, folate, and B12) regulate homocysteine (Hcy) levels, and hyperhomocysteinemia is a major vascular risk factor and an established risk factor for dementia. The active form of folate, is involved in DNA repair and replication, both essential processes for adult hippocampal neurogenesis (new neuron formation in the brain (*).
The integral role of B vitamins as cofactors in cellular processes such as the methionine and folate cycles have formed the basis for hypotheses relating B vitamin status with mood . Vitamins B6, B12, and folate are commonly acknowledged as cofactors for enzymatic reactions in the methionine and folate cycles. The B vitamins are required for clearance of homocysteine (*). As you’ve probably learned so far, high homocysteine is toxic, especially to your most important organs like your brain and heart. So it should be no surprise that elevated levels of homocysteine are a risk factor for poor mood and depression. One study found that up to 30% of depressed patients have elevated homocysteine levels (*). Adequate intake of B vitamins is required for healthy homocysteine levels and this can translate into better brain health.
- Support Immune System
I think we can all agree that a well-oiled immune system is a high priority given the current circumstances.
Heart is a good source of zinc, providing 15% of the DV for this important mineral that helps the immune system function optimally. Zinc has a number of functions related to immunity including (*):
- Development of cells that mediate immunity
- Influence cellular behavior beneficial to immunity (killing damaged cells)
- Preserves natural tissue barriers including those of the respiratory tract
- Increase Vitality
Iron, B vitamins and coenzyme Q10 are all essential nutrients for high energy, mental sharpness and sex drive.
Iron delivers oxygen to all your tissues so they can function properly. Without oxygen you’ll feel sluggish and fatigued. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world. Heart, and other organ meats, are a great source of iron.
Coenzyme Q10 has a very different job than iron however, when you don’t have enough, you feel it. Que the fatigue, muscle weakness, memory problems, and low sex drive.
Finally, B vitamins are the nutrients that help your body turn energy from food into energy for your cells. Without adequate cellular energy, each cell, tissue, organ system are less able to carry out work. And, you’ll feel this – more fatigue, sluggishness, slower metabolism and decreased endurance and stamina.
Taste and Texture
All well and good, right? Of course we all want to enjoy superfoods but how does it actually taste? What is the texture? What does it look like? The benefits won’t do you any good unless you’re able to choke it back.
The taste and texture of heart have been compared to eating brisket or steak. The heart is a muscle that gets quite a bit of work in its lifetime. So it may be a little tough. Chef’s prefer low and slow cooking methods or cutting it into smaller pieces and cooking over high heat like the grill.
We haven’t taken the plunge into heart jerky yet but our liver jerky is wildly popular among health enthusiasts who want to not just choke back their organ meats but actually enjoy them.
Get to it!
If you haven’t tried organ meats yet, what are you waiting for? If you’re turning your nose up and popping supplements instead, you’ve got it all wrong! The real benefits are in whole food organ meats. If you’d like more energy, better brain function and a strong ticker, heart may be just the thing to add to your weekly routine.