Cow tongue facts

Updated July 19, 2017

Just like humans, cows have tongues to help them eat and drink. The tongue is a muscular organ capable of moving around. Tongues contain taste buds as well as glands that secrete saliva. Many people throughout the world eat cow tongues, also called beef tongue, just as they would any other part of the animal. These are just a few of the interesting facts about cow tongues.


Just like humans, cows use their tongues to drink, especially to suck milk when young. They also use them to break down food, a very important step in the cow's ruminant digestive system. The four-stomached cow chews food, swallows, then regurgitates the food as cud to be chewed again. So cow tongues are constantly working to break down food. By one estimate, the average cow moves its jaw (and tongue) 40,000 to 60,000 times per day just chewing food.


Because cows are large animals, naturally they have large tongues. The average beef tongue weighs about three pounds. Tongue makes up about 3 per cent of all beef exports by cattle suppliers in the United States. Japan is the largest importer of American beef tongue.


People have been eating cow tongues for as long as they have been eating cows. In ancient times (and still today in many cultures) virtually every part of a slaughtered animals was put to use. Today, many people enjoy smoked or pickled beef tongues. Modern cooks recommend scrubbing the rough outer portions and serving it sliced to improve its appearance. Many use it as a flavour enhancer for beef stock or soups.


Some people have decreased their consumption of beef due to fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Scientists have not found this deadly disease that affects cow brains and major nerves to be present in cattle muscle or organs. Theoretically, therefore, beef tongue is safe to eat. Some studies have found, however, that some beef processing plants may not adequately remove potentially illness-carrying lymphoid tissue from beef tongue. As such, some plants have recently improved their processing systems. When properly processed, beef tongue is safe. Because it is high in fat and cholesterol, however, some consumers may need to limit their intake of beef tongues.


Some people may be squeamish about eating beef tongue because of its appearance. Others may consider it only a food for low-income populations. Some fear it will be tough or rough in texture. In fact, many fine cooks consider beef tongue to be a delicacy. It is widely considered the most flavourful among commonly eaten tongues (others include lamb and pork). It can become tender and more appetizing in appearance when properly prepared.


Because it is a muscle, beef tongue is high in protein, low in sodium, and contains no sugar or carbohydrates, making it an ideal food for people on low-carb, low-glycemic, or high protein diets. As an added benefit, it is also high in vitamin B-12, which boosts the production of red blood cells.

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About the Author

Melissa Langley Biegert has worked in educational publishing since 1992. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in government from Harvard University, a master's degree in ethics and history from Vanderbilt University, and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas. She is the author or co-author of several nonfiction books.