As a culture, we are always looking for the new miracle superfood. Acai, coconut oil, going gluten-free, bulletproof coffee, there is always some recently-discovered nutrition fad that is going to change your life. One of the latest supernatural elixirs of life is bone broth, the flavorful liquid made by slowly simmering the bones of meat, which is usually used as a base for soups and sauces. One of my family’s favorite meals is my wife’s chicken soup: homemade chicken bone broth, shredded chicken, kale, onions, carrots, celery, and spices—it’s divine. The leftovers are known to be the cause of fisticuffs between my kids, but what about all these supposed health benefits?
It’s interesting that a food that has been eaten nearly since the dawn of time, by virtually every culture ever, mostly as a means to not waste, is now becoming popular as a health panacea. I’ve heard everything from cellulite reduction to curing food allergies to improving athletic performance attributed to bone broth. The (theoretical) magic of bone broth is found in its high concentration of collagen and unique amino acids.
The longer we boil down animal bones, the greater the broth’s concentration of gelatin, which provides the amino acids necessary to make collagen. Collagen is a protein found in our bones, skin, muscle, and is especially abundant in connective tissue. While it serves many roles, its primary responsibility is to provide structure and strength. While most of our collagen is endogenously produced (produced within the body), as we age, our ability to produce it at adequate levels progressively diminishes. Lack of collagen is one of the several reasons why risk for osteoporosis increases the older we get, why our skin begins to sag, and why we begin to experience losses in muscular strength. So, eating collagen-rich substances such as bone broth is a great way address this deficiency, right? Unfortunately, there is little actual scientific evidence that collagen we consume will do much for building bone and soft tissue strength. There is some research that suggests consumption of dietary collagen may lead to a reduction of articular pain, but they are subjective in nature and the mechanisms are not clearly understood. The digestive system breaks down the collagen into its individual amino acids and then they are used independently in whatever context they are needed. But, bone broth still contains high levels of calcium and magnesium, which are important in bone strength. Unfortunately, the long cooking process denatures many of the other vitamins and enzymes provided by the broth, making them less bioavailable. In order to maintain levels, you might actually be better off increasing your intake of dark leafy greens, which are sources of many of the building blocks of collagen, as well as vitamin C, and antioxidant lutein.
The last time I went online to order some more of my favorite whey protein, I saw an interesting and expensive new alternative: bone broth protein. The angle? Along with offering theoretical bone-strengthening and gut-lining-healing benefits of bone broth, bone broth protein offers high levels of the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. In fact, bone broth protein offers levels of glycine and proline up to 20x that of more conventional sources of protein. The supposed joint-repairing, leaky gut fixing, and muscular growth supporting benefits of bone broth are credited to these special non-essential (the body is able to produce it) amino acids. And they are special, at least based on their chemical structure. Glycine and proline are the only two amino acids that do not follow along with the typical Ramachandran plot. Glycine is unique in that it has a hydrogen atom as its side chain, allowing it to be small enough to fit into small spaces when protein folds. Proline is often found at the bends and loops of protein because its side chain is covalently bonded with a unique amino group. Sounds cool, right? Unfortunately, other than a few rat studies that were at best inconclusive, to date, there is little evidence to suggest that the unique structure of these amino acids offers any magical muscle-building or bone-strengthening properties.
Simmering the remains of your rotisserie chicken dinner is a fantastic way to create a delicious base for soups and sauces, but science has yet to discover any supernatural properties of bone broth. If you are looking to increase bone and muscular strength, your wallet is probably better off sticking to more conventional food sources of vital nutrients and amino acids than purchasing a container of bone broth protein. If you are looking for a healthy and cost-effective dinner for your family, feel free to ask for my wife’s chicken soup recipe.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.