Bowl with beef broth, boiled bones and fresh vegetables.

Is Bone Broth Healthy?

Bowl with beef broth, boiled bones and fresh vegetables.

 

Bone broth continues to enjoy the spotlight. In the past few years, it has become really popular, especially among health-conscious individuals.

 

That’s because like many foods, science has deconstructed the health-promoting properties it’s believed to have.

 

No one has done any real research on bone broth specifically when it comes to particular health issues. However, there is good evidence on the various nutrients found in bone broth which suggests drinking it might be a good idea

 

What is bone broth?

Broth and stock are used interchangeably  for basically the same thing: a savoury liquid made from bones with connective tissues and meat scraps and flavoured with vegetables. It might seem like I’m splitting hairs, but technically speaking bone broth and stocks are different.

 

What the blogosphere refers to as “broth” is technically a “stock” because it’s made from simmering bones, and sometimes tendons, skin and cartilage, for 6 to 24 hours. For more, check out What’s the Difference Between Stock and Broth?

 

Traditionally broths and stocks were used to make soups, stews, sauces and gravy but today, it’s the superfood du jour as a trendy drink.

 

The long-cooking process allows small amounts of nutrients in the bones (as well as the protein collagen) to leach into the water creating a flavorful liquid that is thicker than normal broth. Bones from beef and poultry are most common, and they are usually roasted before simmering if not from a previously cooked animal.

 

Roasted beef bones in a pan

 

Why has bone broth become so popular?

In the past 10+ years, there’s been a revival of ancestral and traditional diets. First on the scene was likely paleo with an emphasis on grass-fed meats, pastured eggs, whole milk and organ meats like liver, and offal.  This is also refer to as nose-to-tail eating.

 

Soon to follow were stocks and broths and in the name of ancient traditions and pioneer cooking. Broths stocks have been a staple in the human diet for eons and their popularity stems from that culinary philosophy.

 

Is bone broth healthy?

Bone broth nutrition is promoted as a cure-all of sorts, but is it really? How well is this hot food trend really helping you to stay healthy? We know it uses part of the animal like bones, meat, sometimes marrow. And broths use an acid, like vinegar, to help extract minerals from the bone during the cooking process but what’s the real deal?

 

A lot of people have written about bone broth and/or collagen and have concluded that neither are really helpful. They make statements like “consuming bone broth or collagen doesn’t improve bone health or skin health”. Or that “collagen isn’t a good quality protein [lacking essential amino acids] so it doesn’t benefit the body like whey”.

 

But that’s not the angle to take. Collagen, gelatin or bone broth provide the building blocks. Your body digests the protein, takes the amino acids, in this acid two in particular, and uses them to build new collagen in your body. This is how biology, nutrition and metabolism works.

 

Bone broth nutrition

In general, bone broth is very nutritious. But you may need to think beyond the traditional sense of the word.

 

The nutrient content of bone broth will vary to some degree depending on the type of bones used and whether or not connective tissue like ligaments etc are included.

 

Beef bones, like the ones in the image above, are good as they provide access to the bone marrow. Whole chicken or turkey carcasses don’t but that doesn’t mean their broth/stocks aren’t worth eating – they are.

 

Preparation method, the type of bones use, cooking times, and other ingredients etc will affect the exact nutrient content but bone broth will contain the following nutrients.

 

Vitamins and minerals

Despite what you read on the Internet, the amount of vitamins and minerals in bone broth is surprisingly low (1).  The USDA found calcium in the range of 12 to 68 mg per 250 ml of broth as an example. Curiously, this has been known for awhile. King’s College Hospital did an analysis way back in 1934 and their results still stand today Bone and Vegetable Broth.

 

Not sure how this was lost over the years, where we got to the point of believing something just because it’s been repeated over and over (bone broth is rich in vitamins and minerals). Turns out most of the nutrients in broths and stocks come from the vegetables used to flavour it and not from the bones.

 

Collagen

Animal bones, your bones, they’re all rich in protein. Bones can be thought of as scaffolding made up of minerals with layers of protein throughout. Bones are rich in collagen and therefore broth is too. Collagen can be digested by your body to yield two important amino acids (glycine and proline) which are used, in turn, to help rebuild the collagen in your own body (2).

 

Bone broth in a glass jar on a table with green onions

 

Glycine and proline

Both abundant in the collagen found in the connective tissue, cartilage, tendons and the bones themselves, bone broth is a great source of easily digestible glycine and proline (3). Although your body can make some of your own proline and glycine, evidence suggests you, me and everyone, can’t make enough of them for optimal health (4).

 

Glycine. “Anti-aging” Clout From This Humble Amino Acid?

 

Gelatin

Also referred to as hydrolyzed collagen, gelatin is produce when collagen is cooked. Cooking, in this case simmering, breaks down the collagen to form gelatin. So both collagen and gelatin are good sources of protein, proline and glycine which you need to make your own good quality collagen.

 

Glutamine

Another important amino acid found in bone broth and is the most abundant amino acid in the blood. Under normal circumstances, you can make all the glutamine you need but there are times when you need a little more.

 

Intestinal epithelial cells and activated immune cells eagerly consume glutamine for cellular energy (5, 6). What’s more, glutamine has a special role in intestinal health. It helps to maintain your gut barrier function (e.g. helps to prevent “leaky gut”) (7, 8).

 

Glycoaminoglycans (GAGs)

GAGs – chondrotin, glucosamine, hyaluronic acid – are technically a type of carbobydrate that have both a structural and functional role in your body. They are used to maintain your connective tissue such as ligaments, tendons, and cartilage.

 

GAGs are needed to make synovial fluid, the lube for your joints. Without synovial fluid, your joints would be stiff and be difficult to move (9).

 

Leaky Gut, Autoimmunity and Mental Health. Whats’ the Link? Part 1

 

What are the benefits of bone broth?

The benefits seem endless right? Bone broth for weight loss, bone broth benefits cancer, bone broth for brain health. While bone broth hasn’t specifically been studied, the highlighted nutrients mentioned above have.

 

Consuming bone broth will help to keep your nutrient bank [“nutrient pool”] topped thereby allowing your body to use the nutrients it needs, when it needs, to support the following:

 

Skin health

Jjust underneath the outer layer of your skin (the stuff you see) is the dermis. The dermis is made up of collagen and GAGs which provide structure (10). Lots of studies have demonstrated collagen’s and gelatin’s role in improving skin quality (elasticity, and moisture levels) (11, 12, 13).

 

GAGs (hyaluronic acid) has been shown to promote skin growth (in a healthy way) which helps to increase skin turnover and moisture (14).

 

Gut  health

One of bone broth’s claim to fame comes from the so-called “alternative” health world where it’s promoted as a way to heal a leaky gut. The term “leaky gut” tends to freak out most conventional health professional but it shouldn’t.

 

Leaky gut is real, and it goes the medical term “gut barrier dysfunction” where normal gut contents get into the bloodstream. Things like gut microorganisms, fungi, food proteins and toxins (lipopolysaccharide or LPS). When this happens, it can cause inflammation and a strong immune response = feeling like crap (14, 15).

 

The nutrients in bone broth: collagen, gelatin, glycine and glutamine, have all been shown to sooth gut irritation and inflammation, strengthen the gut barrier and reduce the presence of LPS in the blood (16, 17, 18).

 

Meat broth with parsley in a white bowl

 

Bones and joint health

This question pours in all the time: is bone broth good for bone health? What about bone broth for osteoarthritis?

 

Studies support the main ingredient of  bone broth, collagen, in reducing knee pain and overall joint health.

 

This trendy beverage also has support when it comes to helping those with osteoarthritis and the added collagen from the broth (diet) provides glycine (which is lacking in the modern diet), as well as, proline (19, 20, 21). All of chick helps to maintain joints, cartilage and ligaments.

 

Osteoporosis is also marked by a reduce levels of collagen in the bones and therefore increased poor bone quality (22). More protein, more collagen (glycine and proline) = better bones.

 

Not to be out done, heaps of studies have found the GAGs glucosamine and chondrotin to be effective in decreasing joint pain in osteoarthritis (23, 24, 25, 26).

 

Brain health

The amino acid glycine helps to calm the nervous system which can help you relax. Broth made with marrow bones will provide the fat your brain needs for fuel and to help maintain its structure. About 60% of the human brain is composed of fat and the quality of fat in your diet influences the fat in your brain (27)

 

What’s the bottom line?

Bone broth isn’t rich in minerals when made just with bones, but it does contain protein and amino acids such as glycine and proline which you body uses to make it’s own collagen. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body. Maintaining good quality collagen benefits the muscles, bones, skin, hair, and joints. When made with vegetables, the mineral content of bone broth increases significantly making for a more nutritious food.

 

However, there is currently a major lack of direct research on bone broth. It’s unlikely this will change much in the future but the best way to look at bone broth is as a healthy food that can contribute to the overall quality of your diet.

 

At the very least, bone broth is a tasty, soothing, warming and incredibly satisfying addition to any meal or as a snack.

 

Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, mental health.  Follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

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