Bone Broth: Good for Your Body?

Home cooks and chefs all over the world have traditionally boiled leftover bones to make rich, flavorful broth. Now bone broth is a rising health trend that may become as popular as fresh vegetable juice and smoothies in some circles. Why is this simple soup gaining superstar status?

Followers of the trendy Paleolithic, or Paleo, diet are familiar with bone broth, a staple stock made from the cracked and slowly simmered raw or cooked bones of poultry, fish, or almost any type of meat. Recipes vary, with some including vegetables and others adding spices, but vinegar is always an ingredient because it helps soften the bones as they break down during cooking, so more minerals are released and more nutrients added to the broth. Advocates make many health claims about bone brothís benefits, from strengthening joints and improving gut health to adding a youthful glow to aging skin. But not all health professionals fully support the trend.

"Little to no research has been performed to back up these statements," says registered dietitian Laurie Deutsch-Mozian, MS, RD, CDN, Project Coordinator at HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley in Kingston, New York. "No one knows how much broth you have to consume to realize these benefits and how much, if any, might be detrimental to your health."

Still, there are some clear nutritional gains from drinking bone broth. Most significantly, bones contain the minerals calcium and phosphorus and the protein collagen, all of which are considered essential for good health.

Bone Broth Concerns

At the same time, there is some concern about excessive nutrient intake, as well as the amount of lead that could end up in bone broth. Environmental lead that gets into an animalís body accumulates in bone and other parts, such as cartilage and skin. This stored lead is then released during the breakdown of bone and other materials that occurs in cooking.

One study, published in 2013, found that broth made from chicken bones contained as much as ten times the amount of lead as the water in which the bones were cooked. This amount was enough to motivate the researchers to recommend that physicians consider the possibility of lead contamination when discussing bone broth with patients.

A case study published in 2011 illustrated the danger of excessive nutrient intake from drinking too much beef bone broth. In this case, a 29-year old man suffered chronic vomiting after drinking one to two quarts of beef bone broth at least three days a week for six months. His vomiting turned out to be a symptom of hypercalcemia, or too much calcium in the blood. This patientís particular form of hypercalcemia was caused by excess vitamin D, which speeds up calcium absorption in the body. Since the patient reportedly took no supplements, his doctors determined that excess vitamin D came from the fatty portion of the beef bones (the marrow) used to make his broth.

As with human bone, the nutritional content and level of contaminants in animal bone can vary greatly, depending on the animal and its age, food sources, environment, and other factors. It is also important to note that animal bones are not the only potential source of lead and other contaminants in the human diet: Analysis of food products in the United States between 1991 and 2005 revealed notably high lead levels in foods as diverse as sweet pickles, milk chocolate bars, beef liver and canned fruit.

The takeaway message is not to avoid bone broth, but also not to think that "more is better," or go overboard when it comes to thisóor any otherófood fad. Keep in mind, for instance, that in recent years, many people were routinely juicing kale and blending it into smoothies before the word got out that too much raw kale can interfere with normal thyroid function. Kale is a very nutritious green vegetable, but thereís always the chance you can have too much of a good thing.

"Go ahead and enjoy sipping hot broth from time to time during the cold winter months," says Deutsch-Mozian. "Just donít mistake bone broth for a miracle drug to be taken in daily doses."

Basic Bone Broth

Makes approximately 4 quarts (16 servings).

Note: If you donít see bones for sale at your supermarket, ask the butcher.

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs. raw or leftover cooked beef, chicken, or lamb bones
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 1/2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, split
  • 1 large onion, quartered
  • 1 carrot, cut into chunks
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • Water
  • 1 tbsp. cider vinegar or lemon juice

Directions

  1. In a large saucepot, combine the bones, garlic, bay leaves, ginger root, onion and carrot. Add enough water to cover the bones by three inches. Add the vinegar or lemon juice.
  2. Bring just to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to low, partially cover and cook at a low simmer: six hours for chicken bones or 8 to 12 hours for beef or lamb bones. (If there is meat on the bones, remove it once cooked, and return the bones to the pot.)
  3. When cool enough to handle, strain the broth through a wire sieve into a large bowl. Cool completely, cover and refrigerate for up to five days, or freeze for up to three months.

Laurie Deutsch-Mozian, MS, RD, CDN, reviewed this article.

Sources

Deutsch-Mozian, Laurie. E-mail message to author. January 30, 2015.

Clark, KL. "Nutritional Considerations in Joint Health." Clinics in Sports Medicine 2007 26:101-118. doi: 10.1016/j.csm.2006.11.006

Monro J.A., R. Leon and B.K. Puri. "The Risk of Lead Contamination in Bone Broth Diets." Medical Hypotheses 2013 80(4):389-90. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2012.12.026.

European Foods Safety Authority (EFSA). "Scientific Opinion on Lead in Food." EFSA Journal 2010 8(4):1570.

Mekenzie, Riley, MS, RD. "Do You Boil Your Bones?" University of Illinois Extension. January 16, 2015.

"Bone Structure and Function." American Society for Bone and Mineral Research (ASBMR). Updated January 16, 2004.

Pandita KK, Pnadita S, Hassan T. "'Toxic' Beef Bone Soup." Clinical Cases in Mineral and Bone Metabolism 2011 8(2):43-44.