Meat: have we had it wrong all along?

We’re certainly defying the well-established practices of every other traditional culture on earth. And this isn’t a reference to factory farming, genetic modification or the overuse of antibiotics – although these counterproductive methods need an urgent overhaul as well.

Then what’s this radical departure from typical meat consumption I speak of?

The act of isolating one part of the animal – selecting what is literally the least nutritious part (the muscle) for consumption – and somewhat wastefully, tossing aside the rest.

Traditional societies have always prized the organs, glands and fat above all else, (to the extent that some were known to leave the muscle meat for their dogs). In fact, the nose-to-tail approach is still the norm anywhere beyond the boundaries of westernised society – a swift jaunt through any food market in Asia will confirm this.

Even predatory animals, when feasting on their kill, are known to eat the nutrient-rich liver, heart and other organs first and the muscles last .       

Flicking through any cookbook from our grandparent’s generation will reveal that offal was a mainstay in their diets as well.

So why then, in such recent history, did we turn our backs on traditional wisdom – sacrificing nutritional diversity, flavour and variety – in favour of monotonous predictability?

Nose-to-tail vs muscle meatIt was no doubt a combination of fat-phobia and cholesterol fear mongering (thankfully, a reversing trend); the by-product of shifting to more ‘efficient’ processing methods, enabling mass production; and plain ol’ food snobbery and convenience getting the better of us. However, common sense appears to be prevailing and hence, there’s a resurgence in popularity of these forgotten treasures. And thank goodness for that – organ meats are a nutritionist’s DREAM. Take a look at what we’ve been collectively denying ourselves for the past few decades! The following What to Eat slide (inspired by Denise Minger), shows radial graphs highlighting the distribution of different vitamins (purple), minerals (grey) and other elements contained in various beef organ meats, compared with steak. (Click to enlarge)

Steak vs organ meatsWhilst they present organ meats favourably, the above charts only show the balance of nutrients, without giving an accurate indication of the how well they rank in terms of nutrient content. So now let’s compare the nutrient density of steak, liver and kidney.

Steak vs organ meats 2

It’s no wonder Dr Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition, has concluded that it’s ‘nearly impossible to get adequate vitamins and minerals without these foods’. Organ meats are by far, the most nutrient dense and nutritionally complete foods available to us – bar none. And with the steady rise in illnesses caused or exacerbated by malnutrition, they provide a digestible, inexpensive and delicious solution – both remedial and preventative. And when it comes to ‘nose-to-tail’ eating, nutritional value is just the tip of the iceberg. This practice simultaneously honours the animal, supports the farmer and benefits the butcher, the chef and our fragile environment.

Why nose-to-tail wins

> Respects the animal, by utilising every part -> no waste

> Eases the burden on farmers, allowing them to sell the whole animal -> predictable demand

> Allows butchers/restaurants to buy & sell the whole animal, rather than merely offering prime cuts -> more    economical and reduces the ecological impact of animal processing.

> Offers meal variation and creativity in the kitchen for professional and home chefs alike.

Economical nutrition

One of the biggest benefits to consumers of utilising the ‘odd bits’, is the fact that they’re literally the cheapest types of meat you can buy. Here are a few comparative prices with some of the more popular cuts, from my local butcher:

Organ meats price comparisonWith such compelling incentives, there’s no reason not to break out of your culinary comfort zone – so can you rise to the challenge?   Cooking with organ meats can be quite daunting if you’re relatively new to the idea. However, there are so many subtle ways to introduce them – it needn’t be overly confronting. Try pureeing them for the freezer to add to sauces, soups and stews; then graduate to pâté (not too much of a hardship, surely); and eventually you’ll enjoy them in their whole state , pan-fried, braised or baked. If all this remains well outside the realm of possibility – they can be dehydrated, powdered and taken in capsule form.  As with all meats, it’s best to opt for grass-fed / finished and organic if possible, (the former being more important than the latter). Start a conversation with your butcher – if they’re genuinely passionate about their trade, they’ll tend to relish any opportunity to talk organ meats.

So, have we been missing the mark when it comes to meat?  Clearly we have a LOT to learn from traditional societies. It’s high time we rekindled forgotten knowledge and re-established certain customs back into our modern lives.   I implore you to go in search of unusual culinary experiences. Dust off your grandmother’s cookbooks. Immerse yourself in traditional cooking. There is nutritional wisdom woven into the tapestry of regional cuisine. Out with the new..  in with the old-school!


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