Jane Says: There’s Nothing New About Trendy Bone Broth

Long before New Yorkers were sipping stock out of coffee cups, ‘beef tea’ was a popular—and ultimately debunked—medical treatment in 19th-century Europe.

(Photo: Bill Broms/Flickr)

Feb 4, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Should I be drinking bone broth?

Kyle Stutzman

What goes around comes around, and the latest culinary example of this maxim is bone broth, the health elixir du jour that’s reputed to help whatever ails you, from dull hair or cellulite to worn-out joints, gut troubles, and more. Here in New York, the health-conscious wait in line for steaming cups of the stuff, bolstered by add-ins such as turmeric and marrow, at the takeout window of chef Marco Canora’s Brodo—as well as restaurants, cafés, and juice bars from Asheville, North Carolina, to Boulder, Colorado; Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, are on trend too. Mixologists have gotten into the game with bone broth cocktails, and Belcampo Meat Company, which operates butcher shop–restaurants in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles, sells cups of broth made from its meat bones. Even Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, now 36, sings its praises, suggesting it’s helped him recover from joint injuries. Recipes for homemade broths and sources for good-quality bones (i.e., from grass-fed beef, pastured poultry, and the like) and premade broths are readily available online.

“Health food aficionados and Paleo Diet followers make up a key part of the market right now,” notes the trade publication Restaurant Hospitality. “But mainstream customers could soon follow their lead. The ongoing popularity of Asian restaurants that serve broth-based dishes like ramen and pho has transformed many U.S. patrons into de facto connoisseurs of flavorful broths.” What I’d add is that the aroma alone of a well-made bone broth is enough to make you feel faint with hunger and desire. Sipping it in place of coffee or alcohol doesn’t feel like a hardship.

For the origins of bone broth, I reached out to archaeologist and educator Daphne Derven. “Cooking bones into broth or stock falls into the waste-not-use-every-part regime that was generally practiced in both prehistoric and historic times,” she replied in an email.

“It requires time, therefore a certain amount of staying in place, cooking time, and containers—not just cooking containers, but those for eating and drinking,” Derven continued. “There are a variety of premetal containers, like ceramic or skin, that could be used, most likely with heated rocks rather than direct flame or heat (hot-rock cooking is a very effective technique). Our Paleolithic ancestors were not making broth; they were preserving the meat and cracking the bones for the marrow.

“Once metal containers, which could withstand long periods of heat, were invented, some sort of stock or broth would be a constant companion in the kitchen and used to enrich soups and sauces. Common practice was to use bread for plates (trenchers) in early days. At the end of a meal, they would then be soaked in stock or sauce and given to the poor and needy.”

By the mid-19th century, a broth made with meat and bones was “viewed as a nutritious food,” Derven said, “with uses for the young, frail, wounded, ill, and elderly.” Victorian celebrity chef Alexis Soyer, who created model soup kitchens in London and, most famously, in Dublin during the Great Hunger, fed his Famine Soup to thousands a day. In Germany, chemist Justus von Liebig boiled down “beef tea” into a concentrated extract that could be reconstituted with boiling water to make soup.

“ ‘Meat teas’ made from Liebig’s extract addressed ‘all cases of weakness and digestive disorder,’ according to the company’s advertising, and allayed ‘brain-excitement’ when served as a nightcap,” wrote Clay Cansler in Chemical Heritage Magazine. Much like today’s broth-sipping hipsters, the medical establishment jumped on board. “By the late 1860s, St. Thomas Hospital in London reported using 12,000 pots of the stuff each year,” he continued.

The only problem? “There really wasn’t much nutritional value in all those pots. As the extract grew in popularity, skeptics started to question its value,” Cansler wrote. “Chemists who tested Liebig’s creation found it contained very little in the way of fats and proteins.” As skepticism mounted, Liebig’s company pivoted, moving away from broth-as-medicine and instead selling its meat teas “as a delicious palliative capable of easing a troubled stomach and mind.”

What Exactly Is Bone Broth, Anyway?

Bone broth is made by boiling bones, along with the bits and pieces of meat, skin, and gristle attached to them, in water for 18 hours or so—much longer than you’d simmer a typical chicken or beef stock. It can be made from one kind of animal, or it can be a mix. The Hearth Broth at Brodo, for instance, gets its balanced, rounded flavor from turkeys, beef shins, and stewing hens.

Whether buying broth or making it yourself, it pays to know where the bones are from and how the animals were raised. A small study on lead contamination in bone broths made from organic chickens, published in 2013 in the journal Medical Hypotheses, made quite a splash among broth-ers, and there are numerous blog posts devoted to the topic. Ultimately, it seems as though the study raised far more questions than it answered. If you’re at all concerned about your (or your children’s) exposure to lead through the consumption of broth or anything else—eggs from the chickens scratching around in your backyard, for instance—a simple blood test performed by your doctor may be in order.

Bones are a major repository for calcium, and when it comes to that mineral—which is well-known to decrease lead absorption in the intestines, by the way—you might think that bone broth would be especially high in that regard. But no. The amount of calcium in one cup of beef stock is far less than that in a cup of milk, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database.

“Naughty Nutritionist” Kaayla Daniel and Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, were so surprised by the data that they had their own testing done before the publication of their book Nourishing Broth: An Old-Fashioned Remedy for the Modern World. “The inescapable conclusion is not much calcium ends up in the broth, even when the bones are cooked long enough to have softened and begun to dissolve,” Daniel wrote for The Healthy Home Economist. She added that “the best way to increase the calcium content of bone broth is to include calcium-rich vegetables while making the broth. Adding milk or cream to the broth to make cream soups or chowders would most appreciably increase the calcium content.”

Bones—as well as skin, blood vessels, bones, tendons, and ligaments—also contain a specialized family of proteins called collagen, the most abundant protein in mammals. Collagen (the word is derived from the Greek word for glue) is basically what keeps us stuck together. Gram for gram, one type of collagen is stronger than steel.

I’ve noticed that a number of articles about bone broth refer to collagen and gelatin as two separate broth components, or they use the words interchangeably. In truth, however, one begets the other. When you cook collagen, it begins to melt at about 160° F. The resulting rich liquid is gelatin, and that is what gives a tough cut of meat—a chuck roast, for example—its moist, tender, silky texture after being braised.

So will sipping a cup or two of bone broth a day help rebuild the cartilage in our joints, erase wrinkles, or reduce intestinal inflammation, as many proponents—the Los Angeles Lakers included—believe? I couldn’t find any studies that looked at bone broth specifically, but it’s worth noting that “when we consume collagen, usually in the form of food, the long chain proteins are broken down during digestion to their original amino acids,” explains Science-Based Medicine contributor Scott Gavura. “Only then can they be absorbed. Once absorbed, these amino acids are available as building blocks to support collagen synthesis throughout the body. So from a dietary perspective, your body doesn’t care (and can’t tell) if you ate a collagen supplement, cheese, quinoa, beef, or chick peas—they’re all sources of protein and indistinguishable by the time they hit the bloodstream. The body doesn’t treat amino acids derived from collagen any differently than any other protein source.”

The Takeaway

Bone broth isn’t an exalted superfood, as some would have you believe, but as one component of a varied, balanced diet, it is delicious and good for you, especially if you substitute it for less-healthful alternatives. A true restorative, it’s invigorating and soothing all at the same time. (Somewhere, Baron von Liebig is smiling.)

If you hope it will solve specific health problems, then more power to you. Just look at the icon status “Jewish penicillin” has achieved. “Chicken soup, a popular home remedy for the common cold since at least the 12th century, may really help,” states the A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. “The steam from chicken soup may open up congested noses and throats. Soup also provides fluid, which is important for fighting infection. Some researchers suggest that substances in chicken soup reduce the inflammation associated with the common cold, thus providing some relief of symptoms. Although researchers have not been able to prove that chicken soup helps cure the common cold or other illnesses, you may want to take advantage of these apparent healing properties.”

No argument here, especially during a year in which the flu vaccine has been relatively ineffective. I have one container of Thanksgiving turkey stock left in the freezer, and I’m hoarding it like gold.