Bone Broth Brouhaha

The swirl of publicity surrounding this simple broth is astounding. If one believes the proponents, daily bone broth consumption can prevent or cure all manner of ills, from aiding in digestion to repairing and strengthening bones to giving a glow to skin and a  gloss to hair—and that’s just a partial list of the purported benefits. So does this old-fashioned food live up to the hype, or is the bone broth trend a load of bunk? Let’s take a look…

Chicken Chili
Homemade bone broth can replace store bought broth in recipes like this Chicken Chili.

What exactly is bone broth?

Broth is a simple liquid made from simmering meat or fish, some spices and a few vegetables in water for a few hours. Bone broth has bones (typically either chicken or beef) added to the pot, like a stock does, though there may or may not be much meat clinging to those bones. The drinkable result is one of the trendiest foods around these days. Is this new? Hardly: home cooks and restaurant chefs alike have been making stock and broth from bones for a very long time—these liquids serve as the basis for many soups and sauces. In fact, bone broth is very similar to what’s known as “brown stock,” a classic, basic recipe in French cooking.

Why do people think bone broth is especially healthful?

While there are not scientific studies done on bone broth per se, that hasn’t stopped folks from sipping it on a daily basis in hopes that it will confer health benefits such as smoother skin, decreased joint pain and bolstered immunity.

Does it work?

There are plenty of anecdotal reports, but good scientific research to back up the claims? Not so much. Although bone broth contains amino acids, collagen and minerals that come out of the bones into the broth during cooking, there is no magic in the broth itself. These substances are available in other foods as well.

The ability of collagen to diminish joint pain is unlikely. After all, collagen is a protein, and like all proteins, it is digested into its constituent amino acids before it’s used in the body. It doesn’t go directly to the joints as collagen, or to the skin either. There have been a few studies showing that un-denatured collagen from chicken bones can ameliorate inflammation in arthritis, but when you cook bones the collagen becomes denatured or changed—so those studies do not apply to bone broth, in which the bones are cooked for hours.

Chondroitin (more accurately called chondroitin sulfate) is a natural substance that can come from beef cartilage, and therefore would likely be present in bone broth made with beef bones. Although it may provide some relief for inflammatory pain it’s not a sure thing for everyone. Hyaluronic acid, another component of bone broth, is used to alleviate arthritis pain via injection directly into the joint. There are some studies that administered it via extracts or capsules, and they showed some efficacy, but again, those studies did not use bone broth.

My bottom line on bone broth: it’s likely safe in moderation, it’s tasty and a “real” food that possibly has some benefits for those with joint pain. It also is soothing and would probably make you feel better if you have a cold, much the way that chicken soup has been recommended for people with the sniffles. Homemade broth is also a nice ingredient to have on hand for making homemade soups and sauces. I just wouldn’t count on it to “cure” you of anything.

Where do I get bone broth?

Well, unless you live in a larger city, chances are you won’t find any hip purveyors ready to sell you a paper cup of steaming bone broth for $9 a pop, but you can certainly prepare it at home. It’s pretty easy, provided you can find bones (ask at the butcher counter if you don’t see any). Or, you can save up bones from other things you’ve cooked, such as pot roast or roast chicken, and keep them in the freezer until you’re ready to make a batch of broth. There are many recipes online.