Is Bone Broth Really a Cure-All?
Winter is well and truly upon us, and with it comes the barrage of comforting soup recipes, immune-boosting remedies and winter ‘fitspo’. Bone broth appears to tick all three of these boxes. What’s more, those on the bandwagon claim that it’s a cure-all for a multitude of common ailments such as poor gut health, joint pain and skin ageing. This article will therefore explore whether the hype around bone broth is based on science or science fiction.
What is Bone Broth?
Many of us are led to believe that we can use broth, stock and bone broth interchangeably. However, the preparation methods of each differ slightly and as such so does their nutritional value. Understandably, not knowing this makes it all too easy to fall prey to all the noise and hype surrounding certain foods.
Bone broth is essentially a fusion of broth and stock, glamourised for the health and wellness industry. Stock is typically prepared by simmering animal bones with herbs, spices and mirepoix (a vegetable flavour base of carrots, celery and onions) for 12-24 hours. The resulting liquid is relatively neutral in taste and has a thick mouthfeel, owing to the gelatine, minerals and collagen released from the simmered bones. These qualities make stock an ideal flavour base for dishes such as soups, casseroles and stews. Broth, on the other hand, is traditionally prepared by simmering meat with various herbs and spices for 8-12 hours. This lends the liquid a rich, flavourful profile that makes it easy to consume on its own. The bone broth marketed by the wellness industry, however, is stock simmered with some meat. The resulting liquid is therefore rich in flavour and thick in texture, enabling it to be touted as a hearty meal alternative.
In terms of nutrition, the main difference between stock, broth and bone broth is their total calorie contribution. Broth typically contains half the calories of stock per serving. This is because stock contains almost twice as much fat, protein and carbohydrates per serving due to the use of mineral and fat-dense bones. This increases with the addition of meat, as in bone broth.
Why the Hype?
Bone broth was popularised by Dr Kellyann, pioneer of the ’21 Day Bone Broth Diet’. This involves consuming paleo-based meals for 5 days of the week. Bone broth is then consumed as snacks within these meals, and as meal replacements on the 2 remaining ‘fasting’ days of the week. Dieters inherently refrain from dairy, grains, refined sugar, alcohol, gluten, soy and processed foods. Dr Kellyann and other proponents claim that consuming high levels of collagen via the bone broth diet will aid weight loss, fight the physical effects of ageing, assist with regulating blood glucose levels, improve gut health, assist with post-workout recovery, reduce joint pain and improve energy levels. The apparent whole-body, global effects of this diet sound revolutionary, so it’s no wonder people are keen to try it out for themselves!
What Does the Science Say?
Bone broth is endorsed as a superfood because of its supposed collagen content. Collagen is one of the most abundant sources of protein in our body, being the main structural component of connective tissue. Several studies have provided definitive evidence that hydrolysed collagen supplements (i.e. collagen broken down into its constitutive amino acids) may alleviate joint pain associated with osteoarthritis. However, the jury is still out on whether collagen supplementation holds true to other wellness claims. Moreover, there is limited evidence to suggest bone broth can replace therapeutic collagen supplementation, even in such cases as reducing joint pain associated with osteoarthritis.
Bone broth typically contains whole collagen, leached straight from the animal bones used during its preparation. Collagen is primarily made up of the amino acids hydroxyproline, proline and glycine. These amino acids are the functional constituents of collagen. Enzymes such as collagenase must break down any whole collagen we’ve consumed into these amino acids before it can be absorbed into our bloodstream and utilised by the body. Now here’s the catch – although you may be consuming bone broth to assist with anti-ageing, the homeostatic mechanisms of the body inherently prioritises where protein is needed most. If you were recovering from a surgical wound, for instance, the majority of collagen consumed from bone broth would inevitably be broken down into its constituent amino acids and used at that site rather than for firming the skin on your face.
Studies have also demonstrated that bone broth contains minimal amounts of the amino acid leucine, which is essential for skeletal muscle repair. As such, bone broth isn’t necessarily the ultimate post-workout recovery drink; you’re better off having a naturally higher protein source such as lean beef or chicken.
A recent study also found that the mineral and collagen content of bone broths could differ significantly across standardised and non-standardised preparations. So relying on the drink for meeting calcium and protein requirements would be quite a gamble. Although some dairy is leached out of the bones used in bone broth, it is approximately 10 mg or less per cup, and as such is insignificant in terms of our RDIs. This makes it all too easy to have an inadequate intake of calcium each day. Similarly, more than 80% of Australian adults do not meet their fibre requirements. The lack of wholegrains on the bone broth diet would undoubtedly compound this. Wholegrains are an beneficial component of a healthy diet and their beneficial effects extend far beyond keeping our bowels regular.
Lastly, it is worthwhile to note that many of the advertised benefits of the bone broth diet don’t necessarily come from drinking bone broth itself. A lot of the benefits come from the reduction of certain contributors to the diet. For example it can look like gut-health has improved since certain foods that were triggering symptoms such as bloating have no been minimised, or weight loss can occur due to an overall reduction in energy intake.
The Bottom Line
The hype for bone broth appears to be ahead of the evidence. While it’s a delicious base for winter meals, it’s hardly a nutritious meal replacement, nor the answer to numerous common ailments. If your aim is to replenish your body after a workout or increase collagen synthesis for anti-ageing benefits, aim to meet your protein requirements for the day first. If you’ve been advised by a health practitioner to consume collagen supplements for joint pain, it’s best you follow their advice rather than drinking copious amounts of bone broth. Similarly, address any concerns for a particular ailment with the relevant practitioner. If you are otherwise healthy, aim to eat a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, dairy, grains and protein sources.
Nadia is a final year Bachelor of Science student, majoring in Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Sydney. Her passion for dietetics, health and wellbeing began as a young foodie with a love for helping people in need, and grew into a dream to become a dietitian.
As an aspiring health professional, Nadia’s long-term goal is to complete a Masters of Nutrition and Dietetics and gain a wealth of experience in all aspects of dietetics – from fertility and gut disorders to mental health. In the meantime, Nadia can be found brunching with friends, binge-watching chick flicks with her Mum and sisters, soaking up the sun between classes and avidly reading fiction and non-fiction books.