by Eilish Blade
Eating less meat is a core principle of a sustainable diet, but we tend to forget about offal, the meat that comes from an animal’s organs which is rich in nutrients. As an MSc student in Nutritional Therapy, I’m interested in health outcomes and the nutrient density of food Could. “nose to tail” eating be the next step?
Eating nose to tail requires a shift in mindset and dietary patterns. Offal from intensively reared animals is not a healthy option given the levels of antibiotic usage, over-feeding, excess omega 6 from grain feeding which causes inflammation and the high production of stress hormones. Sourcing offal from grass-fed and ideally, organic animals, means forming direct relationships with our local butchers to understand where animals are raised, how they are fed and where they are slaughtered?
I am coming at this from the point of research, but also because I want to make this part of my weekly diet for myself and my family. Luckily, in Cardiff I have Riverside Community Market which stocks a range of offal and bones on request, and a fantastic family-run butchers in Canton, Oriel Jones, whose premium free range meats are supplied by both their farm in Carmarthenshire and other ethically approved farming partners. Oriel Jones’ proprietor and front of house is Shaun, who is a passionate advocate for animal welfare, the environment and creating a nutritious product.
Nose to tail eating has become one of our hot topics to discuss and it’s heartening to hear that their own faggots and liver pate may soon be available, along with liver, heart, kidney, oxtail and marrow bones. In turn, I love to share my knowledge from a nutritional approach: how the Inuits prevented scurvy by eating the adrenal glands of an animal, which have a high vitamin C content, or what makes liver the most nutrient-dense food.
There is nothing new of course about eating the whole animal and historically many different cultures integrated it into their diet. Wales has a legacy of nose to tail eating, with recipes which have their roots in working communities and post-war austerity. While finances were largely driving resourcefulness in the kitchen, research from the mid-1930s by Dr Weston A Price had already identified the health benefits from consuming the whole animal. His studies identified traditional cultures untouched by modern refined foods, eating whole plant foods and the whole animal, which had no signs of chronic disease or tooth decay. His analysis showed that traditional diets were significantly higher than modern diets in the fat-soluble vitamins A and D, which are found primarily in animal sources and especially organ meat.
Modern society is characterised by the double burden of too many macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein) and not enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). This means “empty calories” which contribute to obesity and a plethora of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, CVD, cancer and osteoporosis. We should certainly eat more whole plant foods and reduce or eliminate processed and refined foods, but it’s important to consider offal. Organ meat, cartilage and bones bring a much improved synergy of amino acids plus a wider vitamin and mineral profile to a meal. Small amounts of both muscle meat and offal, rather than an emphasis of one to the exclusion of the other, gives a good nutritional balance according to epidemiological studies of traditional diets.
We are not accustomed to the sight of organ meats and other forms of offal. The Eatwell Plate highlights lean meats like beef, turkey and chicken as healthy options which provide protein and certain micronutrients, while lowering saturated fats. An optimum amount of meat is defined as 70g per day but if the focus shifted to include offal there would be a net increase in overall nutrient density. The easiest place to start would be liver, which for a percentage of the population may be an important source of vitamin A.
Liver has an incredible range of nutrients such as the B vitamins, specifically B12 and folate, iron, zinc, copper, choline, selenium, and polyunsaturated fatty acids DHA and arachidonic acid. It is a rich source of vitamin A in the form of retinol and has some vitamin D, the actual levels depending on how the animal is raised. Retinol is necessary for healthy vision, fertility, immune health, thyroid function and childhood mortality, and more recent studies show protection against type 2 diabetes and regulation of blood glucose.
Retinol is the animal source of vitamin A. The precursor of vitamin A is also available through fruit and vegetables in the form of carotenoids, with the most abundant being beta-carotene. This must be converted to the active form, retinol, in a process which is controlled by a series of enzymes. And herein lies a problem, because recent studies have identified mutations in the family of BC01 genes which control these enzymes. These genetic impairments are estimated to affect 45% of the population, making it difficult for them to convert beta-carotene to retinol. This may be one reason why certain individuals thrive on a vegan or vegetarian diet and others simply don’t.
If two portions a week of meat were replaced with 50-100g of liver, it would supply the RDA for vitamin A, and many other nutrients. This is dependent on age, sex and individual requirements like pregnancy and breast feeding. Therefore, it demonstrates how we can consider liver within the parameters of a sustainable diet which sits comfortably within dietary guidelines.
Liver can be part of a model for sustainable eating in Wales through simple meals like liver and mash, or faggots and onion gravy. It can also be incorporated into family meals like shepherd’s pie and Bolognese sauce. I’ve found I can add approximately 200g of lamb’s liver to either recipe without my children detecting it.
Eating nose to tail is also good for reducing food waste. Here in Cardiff, thanks to the work of Lia Moutselou and Rebecca Clark, the Wasteless Supper pop-up restaurant has collaborated with local businesses to showcase sustainable eating practices such as nose-to-tail eating. Trotters, tails and tongues are still a rare sight in most high street restaurants and this is part of the challenge, along with the need for new culinary skills. Slow cooking is one of the best ways to make the most of cheap cuts and offal. One of my successes to date has been slow cooked, curried sheep’s heart but like all new ventures there have been a few failures along the way.
Nose to tail eating needs more study. It’s an area where research is lacking as most dietary models have not included offal, being largely based on muscle meat. This is something we really need to acknowledge in the backlash against meat. Offal is an important part of a sustainable diet.
Eilish Blade is a qualified Naturopath and practitioner in various types of bodywork based in Cardiff. Currently she is studying a MSc in Nutritional Therapy at Worcester university. She also has a BA in Green Studies with a background in both horticulture and permaculture.