What Are Sweetbreads?
Sweetbreads simmer in a sauce with polenta and morels.
Credit: Jacques PALUT | Shutterstock

Sweetbreads are neither sweet, nor are they breads.

"Buyer beware — sweetbreads are NOT a sweet-bread like a cinnamon roll," said Rebecca Shenkman, director at the Villanova College of Nursing's MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education (COPE). "In fact, they are the total opposite of what one might expect from an English language interpretation of the word. Sweetbreads are culinary names for the thymus or pancreas glands of (typically) a calf or lamb."

Sweetbreads have been consumed since ancient times and have been found to be particularly healthy. 

Sweetbreads are "the most nutrient-dense part of the animal," said Dr. Jennifer Jackson, an internist at Ascension Via Christi Health. "Indigenous cultures would serve organ meats to women of childbearing age to boost mom's nutrition."

"Organ meats have been a staple part of ancestral diets," said Dr. Vincent Pedre, author of the book "Happy Gut" and an internist in New York City. "They are rich in trace minerals, heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and essential fat-soluble vitamins like A, E and K." 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), sweetbreads, particularly the beef variety, have healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats. These are called "good fats," and have many health benefits. Some benefits include improving blood cholesterol levels, lowering the risk of heart disease and helping with blood sugar control, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The vitamins found in sweetbreads are also important for good health. Vitamin K is known as the "blood-clotting vitamin" for its important role in healing wounds, and it also plays an important role in bone health. Vitamin A is used by the body to aid in healthy vision, skin and bones, and works as an antioxidant, fighting cell damage. Vitamin E is also an antioxidant.

While sweetbreads contain vitamins, minerals and good fats, they shouldn't be considered health foods and eaten a lot. They contain purines. 

When the body breaks down purines, it creates uric acid. A buildup of uric acid in the body can cause gout, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Large amounts of sweetbreads must be consumed to cause gout, though. Eating them every now and then shouldn't be a problem unless a lot of other organ meats and other foods containing purines are consumed.

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