by Grace Goodwin
What’s up with the latest nutritional “superfood” known as bone broth? Is this trend all hype, or does it have legs, er, bones?
For a nutrition student, food trends are always floating around us like bubbles at a 6-year-old’s birthday party. Your friends: “Have you heard about bulletproof coffee?” You: “Yup.” Friends: “Do you know about matcha?” You: “Yup.” It’s tough for us students to cling to fads when we study the science, because we know that they are just that – fads.
But bone broth has caught my eye. Bone broth is exactly what it sounds like: bones of poultry, pork, beef, or fish simmered for up to 24 hours in water. These broths can also include meat, herbs, spices, or acids (like tomato paste or vinegar), but bones are the main character here. If you were to compare it to the classic terms “broth” and “stock” used for cooking, the trendy bone broth would be much more similar to the latter. “Broth,” as a culinary term, typically means a liquid in which meats (not bones) are cooked, whereas stock requires bones and other connective tissue.
Why is bone broth different from other fads? To me, it is simply its familiarity. Unlike goji berries, Icelandic yogurt, or zoodles, the image of broth evokes the scene of a post-Thanksgiving evening with my mom boiling our turkey carcass with celery and rosemary in an enormous pot. There are emotions associated with warm, comforting broths that other cooler, newer trends don’t impart. Its stamp of Grandma’s approval makes it seem safe to me. Though I haven’t been sipping bone broth post-workout or at breakfast, as its fans now do, I’ve been eating it my whole life as a base for different meats, herbs, and vegetables.
I certainly acknowledge that at Friedman, we cover many cultures – not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving, and while a nutrition trend like turmeric may be new to me, it’s as classic as it gets for our Persian classmate, Nusheen. However, broth seems to be an international staple. NPR’s The Salt gave seolleongtang in Korea, sopa de lima in the Yucatán and “Jewish penicillin” (chicken soup with matzo balls) as comparable examples. Bone broth is also well respected in traditional Chinese medicine.
If you’re a skeptic of bone broth’s modern popularity as a nutritional wonder-drink, this map can serve as proof: 12 Locales to Sip on Trendy Bone Broth (Eater), or just give the phrase a quick Google search and notice that it’s on every list for what’s “hot” in 2015 (pun slightly intended). An 8 ounce broth in stores seems to retail for about four to five dollars – not much more than an almond milk latte, but perhaps a steep price when you realize its made with a butcher’s refuse. A New York Times article by Julia Moskin this January said that suppliers have even popped up online that offer monthly subscription of frozen versions.
Bone broth is a compatible subcomponent within a bigger trend of the past half-decade: diets that embrace ancient traditions – a “return to our roots” – like the Paleo Diet. Moskin wrote: “[Human] ancestors probably made theirs by dropping fire-heated rocks into the stomachs of whatever animals they managed to kill. The subsequent invention of the pot made soups, stocks and broths staple in virtually every corner of the culinary world.”
And so follows the logical next question: bone broth is popular now, and has been for centuries in less trendy forms – but what is the science? It’s pretty sparse. There are very few journal articles or studies about the effects of specifically bone broth on health. The topic does appear in numerous books, typically those about naturopathic medicine, traditional medicine (including Chinese), and herbal healing. In her theory of the Gut and Psychology Syndrome, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride advocates for bone broth as a remedy for natural treatment for autism, dyspraxia, A.D.D., dyslexia, A.D.H.D., depression, and schizophrenia.
Bone broth analyses also appear on myriad blogs. Mark’s Daily Apple provides a thorough rundown of each of bone’s components and their respective health benefits: glycine, collagen, proline, hyaluronic acid, chondroitin sulfate, calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium, to name several. It is important to note that collagen (like other proteins) is not absorbed “whole,” so there is no proven benefit to their ingestion. Furthermore, the USDA food database shows that the values of micronutrients in bone broth are still inferior to more “classic” healthful foods – for example, spinach.
Dr. James Hamblin, The Atlantic’s charismatic doctor-editor that spoke at Friedman last month for the Stanley N. Gershoff Symposium, covered Bone Broth in his If Bodies Could Talk video series. Hamblin does not scientifically analyze broth in this piece, though he does say that he is an occasional broth-drinker and seems to implicitly endorse the practice.
I only found one study specifically investigating bone broth: a 2013 study in the journal Medical Hypotheses that found that chicken bone broth as well as broth cooked with chicken skin and cartilage, yet no bones, had a “markedly high lead content” (7.01 μg L −1 and 9.5 μg L −1, respectively), most likely because bones sequester environmental lead. Based on these results, the study did not provide guidelines for bone broth or meat broth consumption, but the research suggests that bone broth may be inadvisable in excess. What determines “excess” is quite unclear.
Its restorative properties may be more psychological than physical, invoking images of family and holidays. However, bones are full of micronutrients and it seems logical that slowly steeping them could offer some benefit. Whichever the case, bone broth is something that we can trust as safe – as part of a balanced diet and not to excess, of course – because it has stood the test of time.
Grace Goodwin will be graduating this May with an MS in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition, and is already nostalgic for hanging out in the Jaharis Café.