Food & Drink

Is bone broth as healthful as you think?

New York chef Marco Canora released his book “Brodo: A Bone Broth Cookbook” in December, with claims that drinking long-simmered broths made from chicken, beef, pork and shellfish twice a day has helped him lose weight and improved his mood swings.
New York chef Marco Canora released his book “Brodo: A Bone Broth Cookbook” in December, with claims that drinking long-simmered broths made from chicken, beef, pork and shellfish twice a day has helped him lose weight and improved his mood swings.

Let’s call it a bone of contention.

Making stock and broth from animal bones is something human beings have done for thousands of years. It’s economical. It’s nutritious. Heck, it’s delicious.

But is it a miracle cure? From cookbook authors to local-food fans, people are saying it can improve everything from weight loss to arthritis, even depression. Others, such as nutritionists, say the claims are overblown.

“What we know is humans have been making bone broth for a really long time,” says Terry Graedon of the public radio show “The People’s Pharmacy.”

“So it really can’t be bad for us. But whether it’s going to do the wonderful things they claim is really up in the air.”

Yes, there are a lot of claims, but the research to back them up isn’t there yet. Nutritionists and other health experts have a lot of hesitation around the idea that cooking bones for a long time, as long as 6 to 18 hours, and then drinking the broth throughout the day will have much affect on health issues.

Elisabetta Politi, a registered dietitian and the nutrition director of the Diet and Fitness Center at Duke University, says she loves the idea of encouraging people to cook from scratch.

“Soups and broths can be part of a healthy diet,” she says. “But to rely on them as the only strategy to lose weight or get healthy? I think that’s kind of a long shot.”

That hasn’t stopped people from diving into the bone pile. In the last year, a whole crop of cookbooks popped up, from “Bone Deep Broth: Healing Recipes With Bone Broth,” by Taylor Chen and Lya Mojica, to “The Bare Bones Broth Cookbook,” by Katherine and Ryan Harvey.

There are even K-Cup versions of chicken, beef and vegetable broths you can make in a Keurig coffeemaker. Made by the California company LonoLife, they debuted last month at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.

New York chef Marco Canora, who has added a takeout-broth window, Brodo, to his restaurant Hearth, released his book “Brodo: A Bone Broth Cookbook” in December, with claims that drinking long-simmered broths made from chicken, beef, pork and shellfish twice a day has helped him lose weight and improved his mood swings: “I would sooner forgo coffee altogether than go a day without a cup or two of broth.”

People who sell bones are certainly noticing the sudden demand for everything from chicken feet to beef marrow bones, both prized for making broth with lots of collagen and gelatin.

“Oh, yeah. They pour in here to try to buy bones to make broth,” says Steve Goff, head butcher at Raleigh’s Standard Foods restaurant and market. “It’s typically this health-driven crowd.”

Harriett Baucom of Baucom’s Best, who sells pasture-raised beef and chicken at Charlotte-area farmers markets, says she has a waiting list for marrow bones.

“People don’t want one or two. They want 8 pounds, 10 pounds. I just got a call from a girl who said, ‘I’ll take all you have.’ I don’t have any in stock right now. It’s crazy popular.”

At Rose’s Market & Sweet Shop in Durham, butcher Justin Meddis makes broth he sells by the quart for $6. Based on his conversations with customers, he estimates that 70 percent of his shoppers are buying it for perceived health benefits.

Baucom says she hasn’t heard from customers who have had improvements in arthritis. But she has heard positive things from people who try broth for digestive problems.

“Food can be medicine,” she says. “I believe that. If you eat healthy food, it’s going to have health benefits. If it doesn’t work, then how damaged are you?”

Making soup from bones is ancient, of course, and people have always put a lot of stock in folk-medicine claims for things like the immune-boosting power of chicken soup. Karl Sty, a chef-instructor and history buff at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, points out the Victorian-era belief in “beef tea,” made from meat and used as a restorative for sick people in the late 19th century.

Other claims about the value of stock, though, may not hold water.

For instance, in the bone-broth world, one claim is that adding a little vinegar and cooking bones for a long time – from 6 hours for chicken broth to 18 hours for beef stock – will pull out more vitamins and minerals. As a nutritionist, Politi questions that.

“We know that vitamins and minerals are heat-sensitive,” she says. “If you boil something for 12 hours, the vitamins and minerals will no longer be there because the long heat will destroy them.”

She also questions claims that bone broths help conditions like arthritis because the cooking method will draw out cartilage-building substances like glucosamin and condroitin. Many people take them in pill form to combat arthritis, but clinical trials haven’t shown they’re effective.

On the other hand, no one wants to suggest that making your own stock isn’t a good idea. It’s cooking, after all, and cooking from scratch has all kinds of benefits, from controlling how much sodium goes into your soup to the satisfaction that comes from making something yourself.

“Part of the great thing about making soup, as long as you have the time, it’s a comforting thing,” says Graedon. “Something made with a homemade bone-based stock is going to taste better.”

That also means cooking from the best ingredients you can find. Just buying the cheapest bones you can find may not have the same benefits as using bones from an animal that was raised on pasture and given high-quality animal feed.

Nutritionists also fear that people will get the idea that buying ready-made broth from cans or boxes and drinking it all day will help you. Many of those products are high in sodium and may replace the flavor you get from long-cooking with artificial flavor enhancers.

“The typical American isn’t going to have 12 hours to cook a bone broth, or find the bones,” says Politi. “There aren’t a lot of people willing to cook today.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

Broth vs. bone broth

What’s the difference between stock, broth and bone broth? The terms are usually interchangeable, but in general, broth may be made with vegetable trimmings, while stock is always made from bones. Bone broth usually means slow-cooking bones with water, vegetables and a little vinegar for as long as six hours for chicken to 18 hours for beef or pork bones.

What you need

Bones: Save trimmings in the freezer, such as chicken backs, wing tips and the remains from roasted chickens. Chicken feet add a lot of gelatin, but you usually have to find them from farmers who sell locally raised meats. For broth with the most body and richness, include beef leg bones (called marrow bones, for the tube of marrow in the center) and beef knuckles. You also can make stock from pork bones or from the shells of lobsters and shrimp.

Vegetables: Onions, carrots and garlic are often added to stocks for flavor. You can make vegetable stocks from onions, carrots and mushrooms, although there aren’t as many health claims for those.

Roasting pan: Roasting chicken and meat bones before simmering them can make darker, rich stocks.

Stock pot: Large amounts of bones need plenty of room. Stock pots are taller than they are wide, so there’s lots of room for water to circulate around the bones while there’s less surface area for evaporation.

Slow cooker: While most don’t hold as many pounds of bones and water as a stock pot, they can be a good option if you don’t want to leave something on the stove for many hours. You can start the stock on the stove and then add it to a slow cooker. To concentrate the broth, leave the lid off for a while.

Fine-mesh strainers: You’ll need to strain the stock and discard the bones. If you only have a colander, line it with cheesecloth, or try a coffee filter.

Roasted Chicken Broth

From “Brodo: A Bone Broth Cookbook,” by Marco Canora (Pam Krauss Books, $20).

10 pounds chicken necks and backs (if available, substitute chicken feet for 1 to 2 pounds)

3 large onions, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 large carrots, scrubbed and coarsely chopped

6 celery stalks, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

5 bay leaves

1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley

Fine sea salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the bones in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan. (If you’re using chicken feet, set those aside.) Roast the bones until well-browned, about 1 hour, flipping after 30 minutes.

Put the roasted bones and feet, if using, in a 16-quart pot. Add cold water to cover by 2 to 3 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, about 1 hour, skimming off the foam every 15 to 20 minutes.

As soon as the liquid boils, reduce the heat to low, pulling the pot to one side if possible. Simmer about 90 minutes, skimming once or twice. Add the onions, carrots, celery, peppercorns, bay leaves, tomatoes and parsley, pushing them into the liquid. Continue to simmer 3 to 5 hours, adding more water if needed to keep the bones fully submerged.

Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a large heatproof bowl or another pot. Season with salt to taste and let the stock cool. Transfer to storage containers and refrigerate overnight. Spoon off solidified fat and save for cooking other dishes. Store the stock in the refrigerator up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 6 months.

Yield: About 6 quarts.

Beef Bone Broth

From “The Bare Bones Broth Cookbook,” by Katherine and Ryan Harvey (Harper Wave, $27.99).

2 pounds beef knuckle bones

2 pounds beef femur bones (also called marrow bones)

2 pounds bone-in beef short ribs

1 oxtail or pig’s foot, or several chicken feet

1 pound carrots, scraped and chopped

2 onions, peeled and chopped

1 leek, white and pale green parts, chopped

6 to 8 quarts water, or enough to cover the ingredients

2 tablespoons vinegar (cider, white or white wine)

6 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread out all the bones in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet and roast 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown. Spread the vegetables on a separate sheet and roast for 15 minutes.

Transfer the bones to a stock pot or large slow cooker, cover with water and add the vinegar. Place over high heat and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. (If using a slow cooker, start on the high setting and reduce to low after the broth starts to boil.)

Skim off fat and scum that rises to the surface. Continue simmering, skimming occasionally, for several hours. Simmer up to 24 hours. Add the vegetables and herbs in the last 5 hours.

Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a large heatproof bowl or another pot. Place in an ice bath to cool about 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate up to 1 week or freeze up to 6 months.

Yield: About 3 quarts.