We hear the term ‘superfood’ bandied about all the time these days. The term is applied to a kind of food that contains such a large range of vitamins and nutrients, and has such a fundamentally positive affect on our health, that it merits such a description. Normally, when we hear the term, it is applied to such things as blueberries, broccoli, garlic and kale. Oddly, when one searches for such lists on Google, all sorts of foods will be advocated with the notable exception of liver or, indeed, meat of any sort.
This omission seems strange indeed given the obvious benefits of consuming meat in general and liver in particular. Some meats are better than others, of course. As with all food, it is better to avoid the processed and go for meats that come as nature intended. Given the amount of proteins, vitamins and healthy fats commonly available in meat though, it seemed strange indeed that the compilers of these lists could find no examples of superfoods other than those appropriate to a plant-based diet. Oddly, in this day and age, even people who consider themselves meat-eaters, even carnivores, will routinely consume muscle meat but pay scant regard to where nutrients are to be found in an abundance to boggle the imagination; organ meats.
Types of Liver
Of all the possible muscle meats and organs available, perhaps the most obvious as far as a superfood goes is liver. As far as normal human consumption goes, commonly available forms are beef, lamb, pork, and chicken liver. Each of these come with their own wonderful list of nutritional benefits so, for the sake of simplicity, I will focus on beef liver in this article.
As a small aside, whilst researching this article, I looked at many articles on YouTube where people were advocating liver but apparently struggling to consume it. Oddly, this seemed to be particularly the case if the presenter was from the US. There seemed to be a commonly held belief that liver is unpleasant or even ‘yucky’. I think this may be a culture specific problem. Personally, I find liver very tasty and easily consumed; lightly fried with a few onions, it is a culinary delight. Many of these presenters were suggesting getting a regular dose of liver through supplements. This is something I would not endorse.
What are the Benefits of Liver?
The benefits of liver are seemingly endless, hence my contention that it should be included on any list of superfoods. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the most obvious. Listing every benefit would make this a very long blog indeed!
Vitamin A (Retinol)
Having sufficient amounts of Vitamin A in your diet is important for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most significant of these, for me at least, is the role it plays in protecting eyesight. Having sufficient Vitamin A will give a large measure of protection from age-related macular degeneration and improve our night vision. Beyond this, Vitamin A is very good for the skin and is a key ingredient in a range of cosmetics It’s also very good for reproductive health (for both men and women), and offers vital support to the immune system.
Beef liver contains preformed Vitamin A, one form of which is retinol. Non-meat sources of retinol need to be converted before it is physiologically available in the body. Obtaining retinol from animal sources is vastly more efficient than trying to get it from vegetables and fruits, wherein the Vitamin A is not performed. . For example, one microgram of retinol directly from beef liver is the equivalent of 12 micrograms obtained via beta-carotene in fruits or veg.
My own idea of a ‘normal’ serving is around 100 grams. I usually enjoy this with a couple of fried eggs for breakfast. A normal serving of beef liver will supply nearly 30 mg of Vitamin A. This gives a %DV figure of just over 600%. A quite remarkable figure!
Beef liver has a wide range of health-giving B Vitamins. These are vital for many essential physical and mental functions.
Vitamin B1 Thiamine
Thiamine is used by the body to assist in the break down of carbohydrates into glucose. These are then used throughout the body. Vitamin B1 is also needed for the breakdown of fats and proteins. Thiamine helps maintain the muscle of the walls of the digestive tract. It also promotes the health of the nervous system, the hair, the skin the mouth, the eyes, and, logically enough, the liver. A deficiency of B1 can result in nerve damage. Further, it can also lead to fatigue, weakness, and even psychosis in extreme cases.
Vitamin B2 Riboflavin
The central role of Riboflavin is in helping the body with growth and developing red blood cells. Like Thiamine, Riboflavin also plays a role in converting energy from food consumed as carbohydrates. Unfortunately, a deficiency of this vitamin is not unusual in the Western World.
Vitamin B3 Niacin
Niacin’s main role is in digestion. It also plays a key role in maintaining healthy skin and nerves. Famously, a deficiency of this vitamin causes pellagra, symptoms of which are inflamed skin, diarrhoea, and dementia. A shortage may also lead to digestive problems and mental difficulties.
Vitamin B5 Pantothenic Acid
Pantothenic acid aids in growth and metabolism. Although some plant sources have some, it is present in a very bio-available form in beef liver. A normal serving of beef liver will supply nearly 7 mg of Pantothenic Acid. This gives a %DV figure of just over 70%.
Vitamin B7 Biotin
Biotin plays a very similar role to Pantothenic Acid. It is also a significant factor for growth and plays a vital in our metabolic system. It is found in similar plant sources to Pantothenic Acid but again is much more readily available in beef liver.
Vitamin B9 Folate
Folate is a B vitamin that plays multiple roles in the body. It helps create proteins, red blood cells and even DNA. Obviously, the presence of this vitamin is of fundamental importance. This is, perhaps, of particular significance in pregnancy. Expectant mothers need to be aware of this and ensure that their diets have sufficient Folate. Deficiency of Vitamin B9 causes a range of ills such as mouth ulcers, peptic ulcers, retarded growth, anaemia, prematurely grey hair and diarrhoea. A normal serving of beef liver will supply nearly 260 mcg of Folate. This gives a %DV figure of approximately 64%.
Vitamin B12 Cobalamin
Perhaps the main point that concerns the majority of people as far as Vitamin B12 goes is its role in the healthy development of our nervous system and brain. Vital as this is, it should also be noted that B12 also aids in the production of red blood cells. Those who choose diets lacking in meat need to be aware of the dangers of a Cobalamin (B12) deficiency. Common symptoms are weaknesses in the extremities, general weakness, disturbed vision, and anaemia. A normal serving of beef liver will supply nearly 70 mcg of Vitamin B12. This gives a %DV figure of just over 1200%. An astonishing amount of this essential vitamin.
Vitamin D and K2
Vitamin D plays many vital roles within the body. Perhaps the most notable is in the absorption of calcium. More recent findings have demonstrated it also is important for our nervous and immune systems, and plays a role in glucose metabolism. It works hand in hand with Vitamin K2, hence grouping these two vitamins together. This is particularly the case in regards to the promotion of calcification of bones (where it is appropriate) and in the prevention of calcification of blood vessels and kidneys (where it is not appropriate). Calcium is good in the right places – in the bones and not in the blood vessels. Although amounts of Vitamin D are not huge in beef liver, a normal serving will supply around 6% of the %DV. In regards to Vitamin K2, a normal serving of beef liver will supply nearly 3.2 mcg of Vitamin K2. This gives a %DV figure of just over 4.5%.
Iron comes in two types, heme and non-heme. Heme comes from animal sources such as beef liver, whilst non-heme comes from animal plants. The body doesn’t absorb the non-heme iron from plants as well as it does the heme iron from meat. Iron is present in haemoglobin. This is a protein that has the task of transporting oxygen from the lungs around the body. Deficiency of iron can lead to anaemia. This is of particular concern to women because of menstruation but is something that we all should be aware of, whatever our age or sex. A normal serving of beef liver will supply nearly 6.5 mg of Iron. This gives a %DV figure of just under 40%.
Selenium plays a critical role in our reproductive health, thyroid hormone metabolism, and DNA synthesis. It also is important for the body’s protective system against oxidative stress and damage. A deficiency of this mineral could show up in both male and female infertility. Hair loss and general weakness are also known symptoms. Further, a deficiency is also known to exacerbate the effects of iodine deficiency. This is a particular danger to children and can lead to cretinism. A normal serving of beef liver will supply nearly 35 mcg of Selenium. This gives a %DV figure of around 54%.
Zinc is needed by the body in order to promote the healing of wounds. It also plays a role in regulating hormones and glands in the endocrine system. Relating back to Vitamin A, Zinc may also play a role in helping prevent age-related macular degeneration, an all too common problem later in life. Symptoms of a deficiency are hair loss, acne, slow wound healing, poor vision, and hearing problems. It can also lead on to more serious problems such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s. A normal serving of beef liver will supply nearly 5.5 mg of Zinc. This gives a %DV figure of just under 54%.
EPA and DHA
The roles of DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) revolve around helping to reduce inflammation and lowering the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart problems. DHA supports brain function, indeed, it is key to maintaining neurological health. Although beef liver is nowhere near as rich a source of Omega 3 essential fatty acids as marine sources, it still contains around 151 mg of EPA and 283 mg of DHA per 100 gram serving. There is a caveat to this, however. This only applies if the cow in question is grass fed, hence a concern for those who live in the US where the majority of the cattle are fed on corn. Fortunately, most of the rest of the planet avoids such retrograde practices.
Co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a vital co-enzyme needed for energy-dependent functions in the body. For example, it plays a role in helping the heart muscles to contract. Without it, the body would be unable to adequately carry out the conversion of food and nutrients into energy. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Because of its neuroprotective effects, it may even help to ward off such problems as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. A normal serving of beef liver will supply nearly 3.9 mg of CoQ10.
Other Nutrients Worthy of Mention
As must be immediately obvious from the above, beef liver comes stacked with a huge range of vitamins and minerals. Although I have mentioned many above, there are nearly as many that I have had to leave out. These include Potassium, Phosphorous, Magnesium, Calcium, Choline, Betaine, Manganese, and 19 of the possible 22 amino acids that go to make up proteins. I think that is a pretty impressive list in anyone’s book.
Hopefully, this article will have demonstrated just how powerful a claim beef liver has to the title of Nature’s Greatest Superfood. Whilst researching for this article, I looked into the properties of such other claimants to the title as blueberries, kale, broccoli, and garlic. None of them have a fraction of the range of nutrients and vitamins found in beef liver. Often, they lack the bio-availability too. Just two or three servings a week will protect you from a range of maladies and ensure that you have sufficient amounts of a huge range of minerals and vitamins. Buying these as supplements would cost a small fortune, whereas beef liver is still relatively cheap, available and hugely nourishing. Give it a try … after all, what have you got to lose?