In case you haven’t heard of it, bone broth is what it sounds like—the stock made from simmering bones, typically over many hours, that is often combined with added salt, herbs, or vegetables for flavor.
Your grandmother probably made from scratch it in the pre-Knorr days when you couldn’t just purchase ready-made stock or bouillon powder at the grocery store to make soups, sauces and stews. Non-commercially made broth, using the bones of cattle, chicken or fish, is a traditional food that is a staple of virtually every cuisine around the world. Bone broth is an essential flavor-enhancer for fine cooking yet can also be enjoyed as a refreshing health drink.
Now, I have nothing particular against fresh, high-quality bone broth. After all, it’s a great way to add a dash of flavor to many vegetable dishes and it does have its own health benefits. I do, however, want to note that bone broth is not all it’s cracked up to be, protein- and nutrition-wise. It’s good, it’s just not the all-around miracle superfood that many blogs purport it to be. The science just isn’t there. This post will explain why.
A bone broth primer
Bone broth is popular in the Paleo community, as part of the GAPS diet (used to naturally treat autism, depression, and other conditions), and increasingly as a trendy health food. However, there is little in the way of formal scientific studies on the nutritional content of bone broths. This article will consider what science there is.
First, we need to clarify a few points about the quality of broth. Certainly, commercially prepared broths available in grocery stores have little in the way of nutrition. This is especially true for canned stocks that are intended to be used as a base for a soup or enhancement for a culinary dish. These liquids often contain added sugars, MSG, flavoring, and other artificial ingredients. Stay away from these, and stay away from stock cubes or bouillon powders. They are not healthy and they are certainly not real bone broth.
Grocery stores also carry higher quality, sometimes organic stocks or broths, typically in tetra pak cartons. While the best quality of these are okay for occasional use in cooking, they are not bone broth.
Before I explain how real bone broth is made, I want to note I will use the terms “broth” and “stock” interchangeably in this article. They are essentially the same thing, although true chefs will note there are subtle differences in how they are prepared. For our purposes though, the terms broth/stock will suffice.
The bone broth we will discuss in this article, and that you should be consuming, is the freshly kitchen-made variety. Actual animal bones are simmered for hours, usually with a dash of an acid (such as vinegar) to help them break down. The quality of the broth is dependent on the quality of the bones. Bones from an animal who lived in an ethical and organic environment will yield a higher quality of broth than those of its sickly, factory-farm raised cousin. Homemade bone broth made from the best quality of bones is much tastier, richer and simply better than anything found in a grocery store.
Now, Paleo blogs expound the nutritional value of bone broths. Animal bones and cartilage are full of minerals (such as calcium and magnesium) and some proteins that leach out of the bone and into the broth as they are simmered. Therefore, the best broth comes from animals with the healthiest bones and connective tissues—those who eat well and get regular exercise. Good quality broth can therefore provide some minerals and protein, as well as being delicious.
The gelatin exception
In the fridge, healthy, homemade broth will take on the consistency of Jell-O, owing to the collagen content of animal joints (cartilages-rich bones and connective tissues, such as knuckles, ox tails, necks, wings, etc.) Gelatin is the cooked form of collagen, and it can help soothe your joints,[i] strengthen bones,[ii] and (via glycine) improve the quality of your sleep.[iii]
However, although gelatin contains several important, non-essential amino acids, it is not a complete protein (it doesn’t have all essential amino acids).[iv] Gelatin contains a lot of proline and glycine but is low in methionine, histidine, tyrosine and tryptophan.[v]
My beef with broth
Here’s where I get concerned about the fanfare that bone broth receives. First, it has been insufficiently researched. Yes, it is a traditional food that has been used for hundreds of years, and therefore is likely to be healthful. However, bone broth has not been well studied in modern times, and I would therefore urge caution when considering it as an all-around panacea for every ailment, as some claim it to be.
It is much discussed on food blogs and in traditional cookbooks, but bear in mind the science behind these claims is, as of yet, pretty sparse, particularly when it comes to broths made in a traditional manner with well-documented, controlled recipes and utensils.[vi]
(Interestingly, one of the few studies out there—a 1934 study on traditional, homemade broth—concluded that the nutritive value of broths is low. Since animals in the 1930’s were not raised on factory farms, this study, while arguably limited by the non-modern scientific practices of its era, presents more interesting food for thought on the subject.)
Certainly, bone broth offers some protein in the form of certain amino acids, but it does not provide a complete protein profile. In contrast, there are plenty of ways to get all nine essential amino acids into your diet: meat, poultry, seafood, and so on. To build muscle and maintain energy, you need all nine essential amino acids in your diet, every day.
We do have some recent data, however, on the nutrient content of certain broths. So, let’s compare a swish of broth against a few bites of steak.
A 100g serving of homemade beef broth (roughly half a cup) contains about 96 grams of water, 13 calories, 2 grams of (incomplete) protein, 8mg of calcium, 7 mg of magnesium and 185 mg of potassium.[vii]
Compare this to a 100g serving of beef round steak, which has about 57 grams of water, 223 calories, 34 grams of complete protein, 8 mg of calcium, 22 mg of magnesium, and 271 mg of potassium. Two versus 34 grams of protein… it just doesn’t compare! (Studies on chicken[viii] and fish stock[ix] yielded similarly unimpressive numbers).
Now, as we previously discussed, the quality of the broth and the meat one compares will impact results. The above figures are from the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. The exact broth you cook up in your kitchen may well be better than the one that researchers used to come up with the USDA numbers. But I find it a real stretch to say that 100g of even the best quality beef broth will come close to the protein content of 100g of any cut of meat!
So what should you eat if you don’t have time to sit for a steak? There are plenty of on-the-go food options that provide a complete protein profile. You can’t get that from a cup of bone broth, but you can get it from the proteins used in our bars and protein powders: Grass-Fed Beef Protein (with a whopping 93 g of complete protein per 100g serving;) Egg White Paleo Protein™ (83g of protein per 100g serving) , or vegetarian and Pegan® options such as Organic Pegan® Sacha Inchi Protein (60g protein per 100g serving) or Organic Pumpkin Seed Protein. Also Grass-Fed: Primal Protein Powder™ (Grass-Fed Whey Protein) is 80% Protein with an ideal amino acid profile for building lean, defined, hard muscle.
Bone broth is not junk food, it’s just a lower quality protein source than many other options. It is, however, an excellent source of gelatin and it does have some trace minerals and vitamins. Think of bone broth (with its excellent gelatin content) as a special supplement used to balance out a diet based mostly in complete proteins.
Again, my beef is not against broth, it’s against mistaking the many blogs write-ups on broth as an endorsement of its protein profile. Broth has its place. Consuming connective tissue and bone (as you do with quality bone broth) is an important part of nose-to-tail eating, which has deep roots in the Paleo lifestyle. Moreover, many people anecdotally report that they feel broth helps them feel healthier. If this is you, then drink up and enjoy.
Just make sure you are not forsaking the real prize—the muscles and organs of an animal—in favor of only sipping broth! You need all essential amino acids in your diet, and broth alone won’t deliver them.