The nutrition world is notoriously fickle and often seems to leave more questions than answers. The reasons for this frustrating opaqueness are complicated and at least partially political. But this post is not about the failures of nutrition science. It is about the astounding phenomenon of bone broth.
Over the past couple of years, bone broth has exploded in popularity, garnering endorsements from almost all of the modern day indy health gurus like Chris Kresser, Dr. Axe, and, of course, Dr. Mercola. First restaurants started offering bone broth on the menu, then dedicated broth bars (with long lines!) and full recipe books started popping up on Amazon.
In fact, the market for bone broth has tripled in the past year alone. It now represents a 20 million dollar industry. In terms of food markets, that’s small potatoes but the growth rate is astounding.
Bone broth is similar to regular broth or stock except it is typically made from more bones, fewer vegetables, and is cooked for much longer. Oh, and its magic.
Proponents of bone broth claim everything from immune support to increased healing to joint pain relief. I’ve even seen it touted (as every trend eventually is) for weight loss. Dr. Mercola even implies that it could help you recover from sepsis, a life-threatening condition involving systemic infection. Oy.
I take a more conservative view of bone broth. Let’s take a deeper look.
What Is Bone Broth?
As I said above, bone broth is similar to traditional broth or stock in that it is bones and vegetables boiled for long periods of time to make a concentrated fluid usually used as the base for soups. It differs in that connective tissue is included in bone broth and the concoction is simmered for much longer — as much as 48 hours. Importantly, some sort of acid like lemon juice or apple cider vinegar is also included. Proponents claim the addition of this acid breaks down the bone and connective tissue better, releasing the precious amino acids, gelatin, glucosamine and collagen. After all that simmering all that’s left is a good straining.
It looks like this:
As with all magic elixir du jours, if you look hard enough on the internet you can find just about every imaginable health claim attributed to bone broth. From mundane and possibly plausible things like immune support and joint pain relief to the ludicrous like infection control and rebuilding bones. But are these claims warranted?
Unfortunately there have not been any quality studies evaluating the health effects of bone broth. The only truly relevant study I could find raised concerns about the possibility of lead contamination from this type of broth because the lead in animal bones leaches into the broth in the cooking process. It looks like there could be something to that theory, but only if you were to consume pretty massive amounts.
So when there is no evidence, we fall back to theory but, importantly, we should not make claims. In theory, bone broth could contain nutrients to support immunity (as chicken soup has been shown to) but that’s about it. The other claims are just too thin. The rationale for joint support is the glucosamine content of the broth. However, it is likely much too low to approach even the doses that may offer joint support.
The weight loss claims are true — in the same way that drinking any low calorie beverage in place of a meal would promote weight loss but that’s just silly.
The Bottom Line
Bone broth is a tasty beverage that could likely support one’s immune system (depending on the recipe used) but no more than a bowl of chicken soup. It likely also provides some nutrition in the form of protein and electrolytes but not a great deal. Depending on the animals used to make the broth and how much you consume, there may be some risk of lead contamination.
It is not, however, a cure-all. Whether a 20 million dollar market is justified is not for me to say.
In areas concerned with health, particularly one as murky as nutrition, there will always be snake oil and magic elixirs. And we will always want to believe them. After all, drinking a salty, savory, hot broth is much less of a hassle than actual lifestyle change.