The Nutritionist’s Pantry: Bone Broths

The Nutritionist’s Pantry: Bone Broths

  • posted on: November 28, 2015
  • posted by: 21 Acres
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By Amanda Bullat, MSN, RD, CD, 21 Acres’ Sustainable Food and Nutrition Education Coordinator. Adapted from full article written by
Emma Laurie McLeod, Dietetic Intern Bastyr University

It seems like bone broths are all the rage in the alternative health world as of late, but really they’re nothing new– science is just piecing together things that traditional wisdom has known for centuries. Somewhere along the way we abandoned this homemade mainstay, and concurrently found the need to create such things as chondroitin or glucosamine supplements for people with joint problems. As it turns out this may not be purely coincidental. Traditional people have used these compounds also found in food especially broths made of bones and joints for hundreds of years.

That blunt little tidbit either makes you shudder or gives you an epiphany regarding the circle of life. Obscure it if you must, but if you want to build a wooden house, you’re going to need trees.  Coating the end of every bone, is the cartilage that used to form a joint. When boiled, this cartilage unravels and collagen strands disperse throughout the liquid, further unraveling into their amino acid substructures, which will be absorbed. The bone itself is actually the best source of collagen, containing 20% by weight compared to the 1% of that found in the muscles that usually serve as our meat. However this “like makes like” thinking is an oversimplified explanation, and answers unravel like protein strands as we delve deeper into understanding how this traditional healing food works and what it can help to heal.

Our skeletons, and those of the animals we eat, are not brittle static structures, but complex organs of counterbalanced integrity. The collagen supplies the tensile strength, imbuing bones with the flexible quality that keeps them from shattering on impact, while mineral deposits form the solid foundational structure. Both the collagen and the minerals contribute to the touted health benefits of this cloudy liquid of medicinal lore. Having chicken soup on sick days is a carry-over from centuries of medicinal usage in cultures from France to Japan to Africa, and exemplified by the coining of chicken broth as “Jewish penicillin” and the South American proverb “Good broth resurrects the dead.” Did you ever wonder why Jell-O is such a fixture in modern-day hospitals? It’s a relic of the traditional usage of gelatin-rich foods in healing (gelatin is what we call collagen, its culinary application). Unfortunately, current production methods void formerly therapeutic properties.  Now, commercially available gelatin is usually made from skin, which lacks all the minerals and glycosaminoglycans (chondroitin or glucosamine are two) found in cartilaginous bones. Likewise, using diluted, over-processed store-bought stock (a more general term that includes broth) offers a lackluster comparison to the homemade stuff. Making it at home also gives you the power to choose your animal. Choosing local, pastured, grass-fed, and organic animals increases the healing properties of the broth.

Besides the contribution of building materials to joints, cartilage also mends other areas where turgidity is needed. The cells of the gut must be tightly bound because they are essentially a barrier to the outside world. Even though you feel like your sandwich is inside you, it’s really just passing through. The gut is lined with specific proteins that pick and choose what may enter. When our gut health suffers, these cellular connections experience some slippage and these tight systems lose their ability to regulate. This “leaky gut” has been associated with allergies and even autoimmune diseases. Collagen-rich foods are often used to soothe gastrointestinal lining by contributing specific amino acids. These amino acids help make glutathione, which is abundant in GI cells and protects them from mucosal damage. They also help digestion by stimulating gastric acid secretion and by supporting immune cell function (the majority of our immune cells reside in the gut).  Glycosaminoglycans provide lubricating and adhering properties in our gut, our joints, or wherever they’re needed.

As for the hard component of bones, the minerals, they’re a large part of the restorative equation. The main one people associate with bone is calcium, but they also contain a ton of phosphorous, along with magnesium, sodium, potassium, sulfate, and fluoride. These all serve innumerable purposes in the body, from maintaining normal functioning to promoting repair and reducing inflammation. While there are plenty of different food sources of these minerals, bone broth does provide an especially synergistic environment for easy absorption (especially important for people with a stressed out gut). The purpose of using vinegar in making broths, is to free those minerals from the bone making them available for absorption. Whether we’re sipping broth like a medicinal tea or using it as a base for soups and other foods, the bottom line is that it carries a lot of health-restorative potential if made with care, from healthy animals, in the traditional way.

Amanda Bullat MS RDN CD is a registered dietitian nutritionist with master’s degree from Bastyr University and a background in natural and sustainable food systems. Amanda has taught classes for Whole Foods Market, Keene State College in New Hampshire, Seattle Mountaineers, and various other community organizations.  When she is not teaching or coordinating our culinary education program, Amanda supports and inspires clients through her private nutritional counseling practice.