The Not So Big Deal Behind Bone Broth

Nothing brings me back to my childhood like a warm bowl of soup on a Pacific Northwest autumn day. Back then, my favourite food was “chicken-noodle-soup-with-no-chicken.” I would slurp that delicious warm, salty broth from my special turquoise plastic bowl with the built-in straw almost every day after school. It heated me up from the inside after a drizzly walk home. I think my mom also loved that my favourite food wasn’t Pop-Tarts® or some other sugary packaged snack, so she would happily heat me up some broth and noodles while I told her about my day.

Homemade soup stock is full of nutrients and proteins that are extracted from simmered bones and vegetables. My mom knew that it was good for my growing body and mind.

What she probably didn’t know was that she was a trendsetter – regularly serving me up an earlier prototype of one of the latest superfoods: bone broth.

If my mom’s soup stock was the nice-in-an-average-but-kind-of-forgettable friend of dinner options, bone broth is the beautiful-and-talented-let-alone-smart-and-funny older sibling. Bone broth is exactly what it sounds like – a broth in which bones are simmered for up to 24 hours. That long simmering process releases the bones’ gelatin. Gelatin is the star ingredient that purportedly makes this soup stand out from the rest in terms of its ability to revolutionize our health and slow the aging process. But does the hype really gel with the science? I wanted to find out.

The Hype

There are so many health claims associated with eating bone broth. One blogger* cites these desirable benefits to eating bone broth:

  • Makes your skin more supple!
  • Improves achy joints!
  • Improves sleep!
  • Protects your gut lining!

Sounds amazing, right? I mean who doesn’t want to look younger, feel healthier, sleep longer and poop more regularly?

I sure do! But before I made a beeline to the butcher for a bunch of bones I did some digging and reviewed the evidence this blogger cited.

As you can probably guess, what sounds too good to be true … well, you know the rest. But, through my research I learned some pretty interesting things about the way our bodies work and how science can be misconstrued. I’m hoping you’ll find the science behind the anticlimactic findings about bone broth as interesting as I do.

Collagen – The Fountain of Youth

Gelatin is made of collagen, which is an essential structural protein in our body. If our body was an apartment building, and our bones made up the frame, the collagen would be the floors, the walls, and the elevators. It makes up the majority of the material that lines our joints, gives our skin elasticity, and attaches our muscles to our skeleton — talk about a versatile building material! As we get older, collagen starts to degrade — this is why we get wrinkles and, with less padding between our bones, our joints feel achy.

More Supple Skin?

It would seem logical that increasing the collagen in our skin would prevent wrinkles. So if we eat more collagen, our cells have more of the building material to use, right? Well, not exactly.

Proteins, like collagen, are made up of building blocks, called amino acids. Collagen is mostly made up of two amino acids — proline and glycine, attached together in really long chains that make up a type of biological twine that can be used as a sturdy, spongy, and very versatile structural material.

Now, here’s the important thing: when we eat collagen – or any protein for that matter – our gut breaks the protein down into its individual building blocks before transporting it into our bloodstream. The bloodstream transports the building blocks to our cells where they are built back up into proteins.

Yes, there is collagen in bone broth; but not even close to the amount required to provide enough building blocks for your body to increase how much collagen it’s making.

If you give a five-year-old a really big castle that you just built out of Lego, they will likely knock it down and get started on making a bigger and better one. Because what is the fun in looking at a castle, when you could build your own?! Our body is just a kindergartener playing with Lego — we feed it food in whole pieces, and it breaks it down into the building blocks, carries it across our gut lining, and builds it back into the walls, machines, and vehicles that it wants.

So when we eat more collagen, we get more of the collagen building blocks into our bloodstream. If we have more building blocks that make up collagen, we can make more of our own collagen.

There is a small amount of evidence that consuming a large quantity of collagen every day does increase our skin’s elasticity. The study also shows that by eating the building blocks that make up the collagen, our skin’s elasticity increases as well. So really, we just need the building blocks, not the collagen.

But here’s the kicker: bone broth doesn’t have nearly as much collagen as the studies that test collagen’s effect on skin elasticity! Yes, there is collagen in bone broth; but not even close to the amount required to provide enough building blocks for your body to increase how much collagen it’s making.

On top of that, to even make collagen from the building blocks requires the machinery in our cells to be working efficiently. A pile of building materials isn’t going to get you very far without a couple cranes, a forklift, and a crew of construction workers. Scientists still don’t really understand how to improve the machinery in our cells that makes the collagen.

Less Achy Joints?

Not really. A research group at Penn State University found that elite athletes with chronic joint pain who took collagen supplements (at a dosage far higher than what is in bone broth) an hour before exercise, experienced less joint pain than before they starting taking collagen supplements. However, we have to remember that these high-level athletes are putting a ton of impact on their joints where the collagen proteins are, so they really need more building blocks to replace build new collagen. The data doesn’t mean that eating bone broth in regular doses for someone who isn’t a high-level athlete will make a difference in joint pain.

Increase Sleep?

Not at all. There is no evidence that eating bone broth will make you sleep better.  The article the blogger uses as evidence doesn’t even look at bone broth. It was actually about people who take a supplement of a large quantity of glycine, an amino acid found in almost ALL foods, and found that glycine supplements may improve sleep. The article had ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with bone broth.

Protect Gut Lining?

Our gut lining serves as a barrier between what we eat and what gets into our bloodstream. It’s like our body’s bouncer: keeping toxins out, and allowing the good stuff, like sugars, proteins, fats, and vitamins into the party. We definitely want a good gut lining.

But, nope. There is no evidence to suggest that eating bone broth will protect your gut lining. Turns out, eating whole foods that are packed with nutrients – the usual suspects: fruits, veggies, meats, and whole grains – is a pretty great way to protect your gut lining if you are an otherwise healthy individual.

Gelatin, which is found in higher quantities in bone broth, may play a role in improving the health of your gut lining if you have inflammatory conditions related to poor intestinal health, such as irritable bowel syndrome. But even then, the evidence is pretty scarce. Plus, eating bone broth doesn’t contain enough gelatin to have a substantial positive effect if you’re only eating about a bowl of it per day.

Bone Broth’s Upside

Eating a whole bunch of bone broth probably won’t improve your health any more than eating a balanced diet full of whole foods. But bone broth does have lots of good minerals like iron and calcium; vitamins like B6, riboflavin, and niacin; and protein and fats – and probably in higher proportions than soup stock.

Even if the health benefits of bone broth don’t quite measure up to the hype, the cozy feeling of home that bowl of soup provides is more than enough reason to keep it on the menu.

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References

*

The claims they made weren’t much different than any of the other blog posts, magazine articles, and Instagram stories claiming the benefits of bone broth, which is why I haven’t cited the specific blogger. Return to the article.

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