Is the new supplement on the block worth all the hype?
When it comes to nutritional supplements, the name “organ complex” may not be as catchy as, say, “vitamin C," but you might be hearing it a lot more lately. Ads for organ complex supplements have been popping up all over the internet, with claims of superfood status and terms you usually find on packages of ground beef, like “grass-fed” or “pastured” — along with slightly more puzzling terminology, like “glandular,” “desiccated,” and “ancestral.” So, what exactly is in these pills, and is it anything that’s worth their usually hefty price tag?
Organ complex supplements actually do contain organs, typically from cows, which have been desiccated, or freeze-dried, powdered, and encapsulated. It may sound unpleasant, but product manufacturers claim that these pills offer a way to reap the benefits of nutrient-rich organ meats without having to chew your way through a slab of fried liver or down a skewer of grilled kidneys.
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While organ meats are acknowledged as both nutritionally rich and largely unappetizing, at least among American consumers, there’s little to no published research on how these multi-organ supplements affect human health.
“Supplements can be sold as if they are good for your health even if there has never been a study of the supplement in humans,” says Pieter Cohen, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who studies dietary supplements. “So, we can't trust that animal-organ supplements will have any health benefits. Even more concerning, none of these products need to be tested in humans for safety before they appear on the market. Even if it appears that they might be safe and effective from reading the label it is unlikely that there is good evidence to support these claims.”
In many parts of the world, it’s normal practice — even a delicacy — to consume the internal organs of livestock, which are known collectively as offal, or sometimes “variety meats.” Not so in the United States, which ranked 171 out of 175 countries around the world for offal consumption, according to the most recent data available, recorded in 2013 and published in May 2020 in Today's Dietician. The less than 1 pound per year per person we do consume is largely in the form of hot dogs and sausages.
Lately, however, offal has experienced a modest renaissance among foodies, with dishes like crispy fried pig head, corned beef tongue, and sweetbreads (organ meats from the thymus and pancreas) Marsala showing up on trendy restaurant menus, as noted in a May 2017 article in Food and Wine.
There has been a corresponding spike in attention to these foods from meat suppliers (who would love to sell organs at a premium price) and some health advocates. In January 2020, a U.K. group called the Public Health Collaboration launched “Organuary,” urging consumers to eat organ meats twice a week throughout the month, according to FoodNavigator. The campaign was resumed in January 2021, with the U.K.’s Association of Independent Meat Suppliers backing the offal-fest.
According to Organuary’s founders, offal deserves more attention due to organs’ nutritional profiles. Heart muscle, for instance, is rich in the powerful antioxidant CoQ10, per the Organuary website. Kidneys deliver selenium, a mineral that plays a role in immune function and sex hormone creation. And beef liver packs vitamins A and B12 along with iron and folate.
But how do organ complex supplements stack up to real organs? Without a lot of solid research, it’s hard to say. A product’s nutrition facts panels may list the different kinds and amounts of animal tissue the pills contain — different formulas include material from the heart, kidney, liver, brain, spleen, pancreas, lungs, gallbladder, and adrenal glands of cattle — or specify where and how the cattle from which the organs were harvested were raised, such as whether they were grass-fed or raised without antibiotics or GMOs.
But when it comes to nutritional value, there’s not much information. Several marketers claim their products, if taken daily, deliver the equivalent of about one serving of organ meats per week. But few list specific amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients contained in their supplements on their websites or on supplement packages, and some list nutrition information for organ meats themselves instead.
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In response to consumer questions on Amazon, some organ complex supplement makers say they don’t perform assays that would measure vitamins and minerals in their products. One maker estimates that four capsules a day of an organ complex supplement provides 4 percent of the daily value (DV) for iron, 160 percent of the DV for vitamin B12, 100 percent of the DV for vitamin B6, 70 percent for vitamin A, and 320 percent for thiamin.
If accurate, those figures are similar or a little higher than the levels found in a typical multivitamin. If you’re looking for B vitamins, desiccated organs may be an expensive way to get them, according to a 2020 blog post for the independent supplement testing company ConsumerLab.com.
“It is easier and less expensive to supplement with B vitamins from a B complex, which ConsumerLab has found can cost as little as 2 cents for a high-quality product,” noted ConsumerLab.com President Tod Cooperman, MD, in the blog post. Most organ complex supplements sell for between $29 and $48 for a 30-day supply.
Manufacturers of organ complex supplements claim that their products offer unique health benefits. We ran some of those claims by experts, and this was their response:
Peptides are strings of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and have various functions in your body, such as promoting wound healing or muscle growth. Because they are smaller than proteins, they may be more easily absorbed and go to work faster. While we can get peptides from food and supplements, they are often dismantled by stomach acids during digestion. “We don’t absorb peptides well,” says Victor J. Bernet, MD, chair of the division of endocrinology at the Mayo Clinic Florida in Jacksonville and president of the American Thyroid Association. Dr. Bernet has studied supplements containing animal thyroid tissue and animal adrenal gland tissue. “They’re broken down in your stomach and never get to your bloodstream,” he says. “That’s why a peptide like insulin is delivered by injection or inhalation, and not as a pill.” Enzymes often face the same fate.
While the human spleen’s jobs include removing old red blood cells from circulation and bolstering the body’s white blood cell levels, there’s no evidence spleen extracts help these efforts, according to EBSCO Information Services’ Natural and Alternative Treatments database. “There is not enough data to support that spleen extract is helpful in treating health problems,” it notes.
Turns out “adrenal fatigue” — the idea that exhaustion and sugar and caffeine cravings are signs of worn-out adrenal glands — is a medical myth, according to Cedars Sinai health system in Los Angeles. In a study published in March 2018 in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Bernet and others found that adrenal-support supplements, including two made from animal adrenal-gland tissue, contained thyroid hormone; most supplements in the study also contained steroid hormones. Bernet says extra hormones could be useless or even cause problems, like prompting your adrenal glands to become less active. “It’s like oil in your car,” he explains. “You need enough hormones, which your body generally produces. But too much isn’t helpful.”
If you’re feeling unusually fatigued, seeing your doctor is a better idea. “People who are seeking treatments for symptoms by taking supplements may be missing something like sleep apnea or chronic fatigue syndrome,” Bernet says. “We have treatments and strategies that can really help those conditions.”
“To my knowledge there’s just not much good data proving these things do what they say they do,” Bernet says. “If you’ve got enough nutrients in your diet, do you need more? They just float around. You only have so many receptors on your cells. I think a basic multivitamin or the right supplement might be very reasonable if you’re deficient. But just taking things to make your body run better isn’t helpful.”
Consumers should understand that in the United States, supplement manufacturers do not have to prove product safety, says Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the consumer advocacy group Center for Food Safety (CFS) in Washington, DC. “The dietary supplement industry is essentially unregulated,” he says.
In addition, the CFS warns that supplements containing cow brains, spleens, kidneys, and other “glandulars” could potentially pose a very small but serious risk for the degenerative brain disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), aka mad cow disease. Despite U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) controls on cattle-part imports, Hanson says a lack of supplement oversight could lead to problems. “Supplement producers should be required by the FDA to test for BSE. If they’re not doing that, we think out of an abundance of caution that consumers should avoid them.”
“I don't recommend animal-organ supplements to my patients,” Cohen says. “I remain concerned that consumers who have been told they have a health problem by their doctor turn to these products instead of proven treatments.”
Researchers say greater oversight is needed to ensure that label claims are truthful.
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