Liver: Why and How to Incorporate It Into Your Diet (Without an Unpleasant Taste)

Updated on February 16, 2018
Kim Maravich profile image

Kim is an RN and author of the book "360 Health: Your Guide to Cancer Prevention, Healing Foods, & Total Body Wellness."

Do you eat liver? If so, you're probably in the minority of our Western population. Liver and onions used to grace the dinner plates of many families in the early 20th Century. However, as Americans became more conscientious of their health and began shying away from animal cholesterol, liver took a back seat. And, let's be honest, a large number of folks can't tolerate liver's strong flavor anyway.

But, have we been missing out on something by eliminating liver from our diets? Many nutritionists seem to think so.

The Truth About Liver

Let's begin by looking at a few of the myths surrounding liver. Some of these may be reasons why consumers do not eat this organ meat. By shedding light on these myths, we can gain an understanding of why liver isn't the "bad guy" it's often thought to be.

Myth #1: Liver Raises Cholesterol

To start, we need to debunk the myth that our cholesterol levels rise in conjunction with intake of animal cholesterol. Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Dr. Steven Nissen states,

"The body creates cholesterol in amounts much larger than what you can eat. So avoiding foods that are high in cholesterol won’t affect your blood cholesterol levels very much. About 85 percent of the cholesterol in the circulation is manufactured by the body in the liver. It isn’t coming directly from the cholesterol that you eat.”

Dr. Nissen goes on to say that foods high in trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils play a much greater role in arterial cholesterol.

Studies have also shown that a high sugar diet negatively affects cholesterol levels, more so than exogenous cholesterol consumption. One study showed that people who ate the most sugar had the lowest HDL ("good" cholesterol) and the highest triglycerides (blood fats). Those who ate the least sugar had the highest HDL and lowest triglycerides. So we don't need to avoid liver just because of cholesterol.

Myth #2: Liver Contributes to Toxin Exposure

Another myth is that we should not eat liver because toxins are stored in animal livers. This is NOT the case. True, toxins are filtered through the liver and out of the body, but they are not stored in the liver. Toxins are stored in fat cells. When eating liver, however, it would be best to consider the source and eat livers from grass-fed beef or pasture-raised poultry. This ensures that the animal is not given antibiotics or hormones and has lived as "cleanly" as possible.

Myth #3: Liver Contains High Levels of Vitamin A Which May Be Toxic

It's true that liver is a rich source of vitamin A. But liver contains vitamin A in its most natural and bioavailable form, retinol. Studies that have shown vitamin A toxicity in individuals largely used the synthetic forms of the vitamin. Obtaining vitamin A through foods lends to a natural balance/counterbalance of fat soluble vitamins. Thus, vitamins A, D, and K work synergistically in foods which is not the case when these are taken as isolated supplements. Women who are pregnant, especially, should not supplement with vitamin A, but overall, getting the vitamin through food sources like liver is generally regarded as safe. That being said, the recommendation for pregnant women is still to get not more than 10,000 IU of vitamin A per day.

Myth #4: Liver Always Tastes Disgusting

Of course, taste preferences are personal and a matter of opinion. However, as we shall see, there are ways to consume liver in which the flavor is completely masked. There are also ways to prepare liver that make it much more palatable.

Vitamin and Mineral Content of Chicken Liver (per 1 oz.)

Vitamin or Mineral
Amount
% Daily Value (DV)
Vitamin A
3732 IU
75%
Vitamin C
7.8 mg
13%
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
0.6 mg
33%
Niacin (Vitamin B3)
3.1 mg
15%
Vitamin B6
0.2 mg
11%
Folate (Vitamin B9)
162 mcg
40%
Vitamin B12
4.7 mcg
79%
Iron
3.3 mg
18%
Phosphorous
113 mg
11%
Zinc
1.1 mg
7%
Copper
0.1 mg
7%
Manganese
0.1 mg
5%
Selenium
23.1 mcg
33%
Information from "Self Nutrition Data"
Liver provides energy, boosts immunity, and is nutrient-dense.
Liver provides energy, boosts immunity, and is nutrient-dense. | Source

Health Benefits of Eating Liver

We've explored some of the myths regarding liver. Now, let's look at some of its health benefits. Organ meats can give us nutrients above and beyond the muscle meats (like chicken, beef, and pork) that we typically eat. It is precisely due to these nourishing nutrients that liver, especially from grass-fed and organic sources, trumps many other foods in our traditional diets.

  1. Vitamin-Rich: Liver is rich in a multitude of vitamins, notably the B vitamins as seen in the chart above. It is one of greatest sources of vitamin B12 in any food on the planet. B12 is important for proper nerve and blood cell operations. It is also a concentrated source of bioavailable vitamin A. Vitamin A is needed for organ functioning and eye health.
  2. Full of Trace Minerals: Liver is especially high in the minerals selenium and iron. Selenium is needed for immunity and disease prevention as well as thyroid health. Adequate iron levels are needed for energy, oxygenation, and to prevent anemia.
  3. Contains Coenzyme Q10: Many people supplement with CoQ10. Getting an adequate amount is essential for those taking statin drugs which are known to deplete levels. CoQ10 is abundant in liver. This substance is critical for heart health and is a powerful antioxidant that helps slow down the aging process.
  4. Source of Protein: A 3-ounce serving of liver contains 21 grams of protein. Protein is needed for tissue repair and growth and for appetite regulation.
  5. Helps with Detoxification: Have you ever heard the adage, "Eat what ails you?" Our livers are a main organ of detoxification, filtering unwanted pollutants out of our bodies. When we eat animal liver, we are actually fortifying our own organ and helping it to perform optimally. Animal liver also contains numerous vitamins, like folate, that support detoxification.
  6. Prevents Anemia: Getting vitamin B12 through liver may help prevent pernicious anemia, a disorder is which the vitamin is not properly absorbed in the body. This can sometimes be caused by inadequate intake of vitamin B12. Liver is also rich in iron, a mineral necessary for adequate circulation of red blood cells. These cells transport oxygen around the body. Liver can help one avoid iron-deficiency anemia.
  7. Boosts Brain Function: B vitamins, especially B12 and thiamin, are known for improving memory and overall brain health. Also, liver contains choline, a nutrient important for liver function, normal brain development, nerve function, muscle movement, and supporting energy levels. A study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition states that foods rich in choline, like liver, are important for the brain development of fetuses.
  8. Increases Immunity: Liver contains a host of antioxidants. Our immune systems need zinc to ward off viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Zinc is also important for the healing process. Selenium is known for its anti-cancer properties and for protecting the body from damage caused by free radicals and from infection.
  9. Helps with Energy: An oft cited review from a 1951 article published in the Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine describes a study which looked at three different groups of rats. One group ate a diet fortified with 11 vitamins. A second group ate the same diet with the addition of a B complex vitamin. The third group ate the same diet but, instead of B vitamins, they received powdered liver supplements. The animals were placed into a drum of cold water from which they could not climb out. They literally were forced to sink or swim. The first two groups swam for 13 minutes, but the ones receiving liver swam for longer than 60 minutes each. Something in the liver had prevented them from becoming exhausted. Whether it's the additional vitamins and minerals or just the overall composition of liver, that energy can translate to humans as well.
  10. Benefits Eye Health: Vitamin A is known for maintaining good vision. It can prevent cataracts, eye infections and age-related macular degeneration. Zinc is important in helping to transport vitamin A from the liver to the retina, to produce melanin, an eye protective pigment. Zinc also protects against night vision and cataracts.

Making Liver Palatable

Liver most certainly has a unique flavor; an acquired taste, perhaps. Some folks enjoy eating grilled or sautéed liver. However, most people do not fall into this category. Have no fear ... there are ways to "hide" liver in dishes in which the inherent flavor cannot be detected. There are also supplements that can be taken which provide the same benefits but with no taste at all.

Preparation Trick #1: Mix It with Ground Meats

If you use a 3:1 ratio of ground beef to ground or chopped liver, you'll not taste the liver. For example, combine 1 pound ground beef and 1/3 pound finely chopped beef liver. Add in some onions, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and even a dash of cinnamon. These can be made into meatballs as well.

Preparation Trick #2: Make Frozen Liver "Pills"

This is a tip from Empowered Sustenance. Use thawed liver for this. Rinse and pat the liver dry. Cut it into small pill-sized chunks that can easily be swallowed whole. Place the pieces, separated, on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Freeze until solid. Transfer the frozen liver pills into an airtight container and store in the freezer. Freeze for 14 days before eating to kill any pathogens in the liver. You can take several of these each day.

Preparation Trick #3: Take a Desiccated Liver Supplement

So this isn't exactly a preparation method, but it sure is a an easy way to get your daily boost of liver. Desiccated liver is undefatted beef liver that has been dried into powder form for easier consumption. Be sure to look for grass-fed desiccated liver to ensure the highest quality and cleanest sourcing. The best thing about taking liver as a supplement is that there is absolutely no taste!

Native Wisdom - Grass Fed Beef Liver Capsules (Desiccated) - New Zealand Grass Fed & Grass Finished - Whole Food Vitamin A, B12, Iron, Folate (3000 mg Serving, 30 Day Supply)
Native Wisdom - Grass Fed Beef Liver Capsules (Desiccated) - New Zealand Grass Fed & Grass Finished - Whole Food Vitamin A, B12, Iron, Folate (3000 mg Serving, 30 Day Supply)

This is of the highest quality because it is grass-fed AND grass-finished. I've taken this daily for months and can attest to its efficacy and energy-boosting properties.

 

Preparation Trick #4: Find Some Great Recipes

Registered Dietician Laura Schoenfeld's website compiles a host of recipes using both beef and chicken livers. (It also lists even more preparation tricks.) Finding something that hides or enhances liver's flavor, depending on your likes and dislikes, can make all the difference.

Nutrient Dense Meatloaf Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 pound grass-fed ground beef
  • 1/4 pound grass-fed ground beef liver
  • 3/4 pound pasture-raised ground pork
  • 4 pasture-raised eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 yellow onion, minced
  • 3/4 cup organic tomato paste
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
  • sea salt, to taste
  • black pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Combine the beef, liver, and pork in a large mixing bowl and mix together evenly.
  2. Add onion, tomato paste, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper to meat mixture and combine.
  3. In another bowl, beat eggs until combined and then add to meat mixture and combine.
  4. Press mixture into glass bakeware, and bake in oven preheated to 375° for 35 minutes covered and for the last 10 minutes uncovered (45 minutes total) or until the center of your meatloaf is done.

Sourcing Matters

As a final note, you'll always want to look for grass-fed beef liver or liver from pastured chickens. This ensures that the liver is from the cleanest, purest sources. If you use conventional poultry or beef, the animal may have been fed antibiotics and/or injected with hormones. We don't want to be consuming these toxins. Also, cows are, by nature, intended to eat grass. Their stomachs and anatomies are made to consume and digest grasses. Likewise, chickens should be pasture-raised and allowed to eat seeds and insects. When animals are given feed that is not inherently natural, they can become sick with digestive issues. Also, often that feed is laden with antibiotics and pesticides which ultimately are ingested by the consumer. Quality counts!

References

"Is Liver Good For You?" Dr. Axe, https://draxe.com/is-liver-good-for-you/.

Kresser, Chris. "Liver: Nature's Most Potent Superfood," 11 April 2008, https://chriskresser.com/natures-most-potent-superfood/.

Busch, Sandi. "The Health Benefits of Liver," 14 August 2017, https://www.livestrong.com/article/142988-the-health-benefits-liver/.

Razaitis, Lynn. "The Liver Files," 29 July 2005, https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/food-features/the-liver-files/.

"The Amazing Health Benefits of Eating Liver," 20 June 2014, https://dailyhealthpost.com/the-amazing-health-benefits-of-eating-liver/.

"14 Health Benefits of Eating Beef Liver #Top for Pregnancy," 2017, https://drhealthbenefits.com/food-bevarages/meats/health-benefits-of-eating-beef-liver.

"Chicken, Liver, All classes, Cooked, Simmered Nutrition Facts & Calories," Self Nutrition Data, http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/poultry-products/667/2.

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