Is Liver Full of Toxins?

Is liver really full of toxins? Putting the myths about liver to rest.

Liver. Not exactly known for being the tastiest of foods, it’s still something that’s been on the dinner table for thousands of years. And recently, in our realm of traditional, alternative nutritional standards, has developed a bit of a cult following. We real food people are all about it these days, and for good reason.

But invariably, whenever I see liver mentioned on a real food blog or Facebook page, including when I talk about it, I always see a comment from someone saying this:

“Liver is dirty! That’s where all the toxins are stored!”

The idea that liver shouldn’t be eaten because it’s a detoxifying organ and is filled with junk, is a very commonly-held belief these days. Many people actually think it’s dangerous to eat liver.

I think this could be one of the reasons why we all stopped eating it. Not very long ago, it was customary–even in America!—to eat liver at least once a week. Ask your grandmother! I bet she was served liver and onions in her home growing up.

Thankfully, many old traditions surrounding our diet are being revived — we’re learning that eating natural, whole foods like butter, bacon, and eggs really isn’t bad for us, in spite of advice from some mainstream medical professionals stuck in the 80s who haven’t yet gotten the memo.

Should You Eat Liver?

Modern nutritionists will tell you that liver should be avoided because it’s high in a substance they always advise against—cholesterol. But we know that’s not something to worry about. Cholesterol is healthy and serves very important purposes in your body. And there are some who warn about liver being too high in vitamin A.

But by far the most common misconception about eating liver that people are worried about is this myth: because it is a detoxifying organ, liver acts like a filter, trapping all the toxins in your body.

This is not accurate at all.

It IS true that liver is a “detox” organ. But it’s NOT true that liver is where the toxins are stored

Wanna know what liver does store? A veritable motherlode of critical vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants — like vitamins A, D, E, K, B12, folate, copper, and iron. These nutrients are what helps the liver to get rid of the toxins in the body — not trap them inside. The liver is able to neutralize chemical agents and poisonous toxins we encounter every day, so your body’s natural detoxifying system can get rid of them.

Why Liver Needs to Be Grass-Fed

Just like humans, for a cow or chicken, those everyday toxins include whatever the animal is exposed to in their food. If that animal is eating a healthy, natural diet, their liver isn’t going to be encountering very many toxins at all.

But if the cow or chicken is being fed pesticide-laden, genetically-modified corn and soy feed, animal waste, drugs and antibiotics, and other nasty things — their poor, exhausted livers are working overtime trying to neutralize it all, and just can’t keep up. They may have plenty of those poisonous things stuck inside at the time of slaughter.

While I’m sure liver from factory-farmed animals still has significant nutritional value, I am not convinced it outweighs the toxins that are sure to be present in it.

But a grass-fed animal raised on pasture? Their livers are full of all those nutrients, without a big load of toxins, and are very healthy to eat. The animals themselves are healthy, because they’re eating a biologically-appropriate diet and are kept in a natural environment — not knee-deep in their own feces in a concrete cage like those in a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation). Grass-fed livers are clean, healthy, and packed with nutrition.

Don’t have access to grass-fed liver? You can get desiccated (dehydrated) grass-fed liver in powder or capsule form from a trusted source I highly recommend here.

Health Benefits of Eating Liver

Many of the nutrients found in liver can’t be found anywhere else in such high amounts. Liver actually contains, gram-for-gram, more nutrients than any other food! It’s a truly potent nutritional powerhouse. Here are just some of the benefits liver boasts.

  • Nature’s most-concentrated source of vitamin A and B12, and rich in all other B vitamins
  • Great source of folate (folic acid is the synthetic stuff found in vitamin pills)
  • Rich in copper, zinc, and chromium
  • Co-Q10 for heart health and antioxidant benefits
  • High-quality protein
  • Contains an “anti-fatigue” factor scientists have discovered
  • High in purines, which are nitrogen-containing compounds that serve as a precursor to the formation of DNA and RNA

You can learn more about the health benefits of eating liver here.

What about vitamin A toxicity?

There are some concerns with overdosing on vitamin A, plenty of which is found in liver. But, these concerns all originate from studies that showed certain doses of synthetic vitamin A caused health problems and even contributed to birth defects.

Naturally-occurring vitamin A, like the kind found in liver and other natural foods, has not been shown to cause problems except in extremely large amounts. It was reported in the Merck Manual that arctic explorers who ingested several million units of vitamin A from seal and polar bear liver.

But even then, the symptoms were mild—like drowsiness, headaches, joint pain, and vomiting—the kind that go away relatively quickly on their own after stopping consumption of the food that caused them. And unless you’re an arctic explorer subsisting on nothing but polar bear liver, you’re very unlikely to experience those symptoms from getting too much vitamin A.

Even toxicity from synthetic vitamin A is hard to come by. You’d have to take over 100,000 IU for many months to get to the point of toxicity, and most people aren’t in danger of that even if they do take synthetic vitamins. Which I don’t generally recommend. Liver is the only multivitamin I need!

Safe to eat while pregnant?

Some people wonder whether or not it’s okay to eat liver during pregnancy — probably because of the information out there about the vitamin A toxicity causing birth defects.

But again, that’s only for synthetic vitamin A. Yet another reason to get your prenatal nutrition from real, whole foods — not vitamin pills! If you’re pregnant or planning to conceive, and want to learn how to optimize your diet for the health of your pregnancy and baby, check out the online nutrition course by Kristen Michaelis from Food Renegade. Right now, you can get the course (normally $199) for FREE when you pre-order the new paperback book, Beautiful Babies.

Liver is a superfood for pregnant women, and should definitely be included in both a preconception and prenatal diet, as well as for nursing mothers. The vitamins found in liver are critical for a developing baby. A 3-4 ounce serving of liver from grass-fed beef, lamb, bison, or duck, one to two times a week, is recommended. A serving provides about 50,000 IU of vitamin A. You can eat chicken liver, which contains less vitamin A, more frequently.

As I mentioned earlier, if you don’t have access to farm-fresh, grass-fed liver, I recommend taking desiccated grass-fed liver available here.

Do you eat liver?

Tell us about your experiences with this weird and slimy, but ultra-nutritious food. How do you eat it, and why?

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38 Responses to Is Liver Full of Toxins?
  1. Laura M. says:

    mmmm… liver. :P I’ve made chicken liver pate a few times and really like it. Tons of umami flavor and simple to make. I like doing the layer of butter on top to keep it from turning brown/spoiling.

    I’m like the Beautiful Babies online course too. Can’t wait for the book. :)

    Thanks for bringing up the topic of the liver as a filter. I didn’t realize I had been questioning that in the back of my brain.
    Your post does get a wee bit confusing when you say that liver doesn’t store toxins but don’t eat CAFO because it stores toxins. I get your meaning but maybe there is a clearer way to explain that bit. (AFAIK, liver doesn’t store any more toxins than any other part of an animal. So, if you are eating clean, happy, non-CAFO meat feel free to eat the liver because it has no more toxins in it than say the drum stick or the rump roast. But if you are eating CAFO meat, of course the liver will hold toxins because the whole animal is full of toxins.) Mark’s Daily Apple gives a good (all be it very statistic/numbers heavy) explination. http://www.marksdailyapple.com/does-the-liver-store-toxins/#

    • Desi says:

      Hi Laura M.,
      Do you have a recipe you can share for the chicken liver pate you made that was delicious please?
      I used to have that when i was young and haven’t had any for 10-15 years. Would love to know how to make it. Don’t really trust the store bought kinds at all… and they just taste horrible.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I grind up liver and put it in every food involving ground beef – in chili, meatballs, burgers – they’re all about 25% liver in my house!

  3. Beverly says:

    I NEED liver at certain times. 2 or 3 days every month I fry a piece for breakfast and top with a good, squishy, over easy egg and maybe some potato. It has been several years since I have suffered the fatigue and mood swings most of my friends endure.

    • ButterBeliever says:

      Ahh, good idea! I can definitely see how at “certain times” every month those anti-fatigue benefits of liver would come in handy. :)

  4. Michelle says:

    Can you please type out where you get the desicatted liver, that website that you direct me to never works, I’ve been trying to get to it for a few weeks from several different websites it never has worked, their page is just a jumble of letters. thx!

  5. I Love,Love LOVE liver! My mom always made us liver and onion as kids so now I’m a huge fan and it’s one of my comfort food go tos. I love marinating mine using morrocan ispired spices and herbs. It’s delicious!

    • Beverly says:

      Hah! People think I am odd when I claim liver as a comfort food, but I guess the stuff you grow up with has a huge influence.

  6. Jackie says:

    we do not have a constant good supply so we eat the dessicated liver… funny my picky eater loves them and my eat anything kid hates them LOL

  7. Scarlet says:

    My grandmother is Hungarian, and I grew up regularly eating chicken livers cooked with onions, lots & lots of garlic, paprika & crème fraîche.

    To this day I cook livers this way, and always have livers frozen for that time of the month. My husband & toddler request it when I haven’t made it for a while.

    People that hate livers often haven’t eaten them cooked well.

  8. […] A dish in half an hour. Oh, if you thing you need some convincing to eat liver, check out what the Butter Believer thinks about […]

  9. Brittany Ardito says:

    I add it to all my ground beef and ground pork dishes. You can’t even taste it. The doctor told me I was slightly anemic and I do feel really weak- especially when I am on my period or after I donate blood. But I have been able to tell a big difference in my energy level since incorporating liver in my diet. It is like a natural iron supplement and does way more for me than any of those synthetic supplements!

  10. Hilary says:

    I loved this post! Thanks for answering some questions I had. I am wondering, though, what you think about pork liver. There’s a liverwurst from Flying Pigs Farm (http://flyingpigsfarm.com/) that is very tasty, IMHO, and I’ve been enjoying it a couple of times a week. This is all good, right?

  11. James says:

    I really enjoy these mythbusting posts you write. I remember eating liver fairly often as a kid but somewhere along the way I stopped having it. Thanks for clarifying about the toxins. I’ve been reading up on the importance of including organ meats in your diet so I’m trying to eat liver more often, but still haven’t found a taste for it. I’m going to try some of the other commenters suggestions about mixing it in with other meat dishes.

  12. Lindsay says:

    What about pig liver? Is it considered safe to eat? I have one from an organic hog I purchased. Wasn’t sure what, if anything, I could do with it.

  13. nathalie says:

    Hi, thanks for article. Wanting to try liver, I can find it organic near my suburb.. Have heard that if you soak it this can help dissolve some of toxins? Is this true?

    • ButterBeliever says:

      I don’t think the practice of soaking is intended to dissolve toxins—my understanding is that it’s to improve taste. I’ve heard of soaking in milk/buttermilk and also lemon juice to lessen the intensity of the liver flavor.

  14. Kimberly says:

    Hi Michelle,

    Interesting post. Liver is definitely rich in nutrients as this is where it is stored. However phase 2 liver detoxification still occurs in hepatocytes, and if animals are given hormones and antibiotics, their detoxification pathways can be encumbered by these toxins, which may still be present when they get killed and sold as meat..

  15. Sara says:

    Thank goodness for you. That’s all I’ve got to say :)

  16. Jayne says:

    I have been freezing small pieces of raw liver and taking a few pieces a day with water. How was would you reccomend daily or raw liver?

  17. […] Real Superfood – and why it ISN’T toxic – do you eat […]

  18. Anamariapm says:

    Would you please tell me if chicken livers are as nutritious as calf’s. did I read in your book that you eat pieces of frozen raw liver in a glass of milk?

    • ButterBeliever says:

      Chicken and calf livers have different nutritional profiles, but both are highly nutritious. There’s less vitamin A in chicken liver (which can be a good thing if you eat liver regularly, so as to avoid vitamin A toxicity).

      Eating raw liver “pills” (cut up pieces) is about the only way I can tolerate it. I swallow them and chase with milk. :)

  19. […] you are wondering, here is why you should eat nutrient dense liver and also why it does not contain toxins. Liver is truly a superfood – so enjoy it once a week (if you […]

  20. Edna says:

    I’ve tried it smothered in onions and yuck! Can’t get past the texture. Just gets bigger as I chew it!
    Funny though, when I was a kid I loved potted meat, if I didn’t read ingredience. Today’s potted meat would be bad anyway, since it is not grassfed and full of who knows what!

  21. Lee says:

    I grew up eating liver and onions and like it just fine, but my favorite is with bacon. I remember reading somewhere (Nourishing Traditions maybe?) that there is something synergistic with eating liver cooked in pork fat/lard that makes the whole thing even better. In any case things are always tastier with bacon! :) I also like the chicken liver pate from Eat Fat Lose Fat. It includes some chicken broth as the liquid and I like to use the broth leftover from roasting the chicken which adds a new dimension of flavor to the pate. MMMMMM!

  22. Kae says:

    I love Liver and onions, particularly calves liver & onions given the opportunity…but, then, I AM grandma! Or old enough to be…yeah, as a kid it was on the menu with more regularity. I will have to look for sourcing the grass-fed beef, since I am now the “official” cook in the kitchen once again. I’ve a pretty good idea where to head….

  23. Anita says:

    I used to LOVE liver and onions. It’s important to know how to cook it. Most people don’t like the taste because they overcook it, and then the taste and texture are icky. I only eat it at home, for that reason. Don’t overcook it! Melt some butter in a pan on medium-high. Season your liver with pepper and/or whatever you like, but don’t salt it until you’re ready to eat it. Sear on both sides and cook until it’s done to medium, with the slightest bit of pink left in the center, and serve with fried onions and bacon. Proviso: when both my mother and husband died of cancer, they could not determine if it started in the liver and went to the pancreas, or vice versa. I haven’t eaten liver since, but may try it again soon. I miss the nice “rush” that all that iron provides!

  24. Susan says:

    Honestly I don’t care for it….and my mom used to fix liver and onions monthly…she, my dad and my older sister love it….I’d eat a sandwich :)

    But the best meatloaf she ever made had liver in it…it was amazing.

  25. […] does that, it flushes the toxins out of the body. It doesn’t hold on to them. Read “Is Liver Full of Toxins?“ from Butter Believer if you’d like more information about this. But back to my story […]

  26. Denise says:

    I eat liver as often as possible, which comes out to around 3 times a month. I grew up eat cattle my granddad raised and always loved liver. Grass-fed liver does taste better and has an almost this cut steak texture, cooks beautifully too. I recently found a store I can get grass-fed beef liver and plan on making it once a week now. My husband who likes liver had never had grass-fed liver before and the first time I served it his reaction after the first bite was “WOW that is great liver!” Organ meats used to be prized for a reason.

  27. […] And as a reminder: Liver doesn’t STORE the toxins, it filters them. Learn more about that here. […]

  28. Jenifer says:

    It’s difficult to find liver that is grass fed and fresh enough. So I mostly just down desiccated liver tabs or capsules. This guy has made some interesting discoveries about DL:
    http://www.ironguru.com/new-discoveries-with-dessicated-liver

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