There's nothing all that new about bone broth, which cooks have been calling stock since before the dietary trend du jour. Around the world, home cooks and renowned chefs use animal bones, feet, knuckles, and tendons to make rich broths. In Korea, there's seolleongtang, sopa de lima in Yucatan, "Jewish penicillin" (chicken soup with matzo balls), and of course, good ole' chicken soup.
Then, in the last few years, stock got a Paleo-friendly rebranding as bone broth. Next, because we live in a fast-paced, is-there-just-a-pill-we-can-take culture, we got bone broth supplements.
So, are these one-and-dones worth the hype and money?
What's a bone broth supplement?
Bone broth supplements are produced by dehydrating bone broth (typically made from chicken or beef bones) at a low temperature and turning it into a powder. Since it's a supplement, it's easy to keep on hand and tends to be less expensive per serving than pre-packaged liquid bone broth.
On the other hand, because they are supplements, these products aren't monitored by the FDA and it can be hard to know what you're getting. Most bone broth supplements list "bone broth protein concentrate," as the main ingredient, but not the ingredients that went into the broth itself. Was the bone broth made from bones or a regular broth? Were those bones from grass-fed beef or organic chickens? Is the product gluten-free or grain-free? It can be hard to tell.
Why take a bone broth supplement?
To understand why you might want to take a bone broth supplement, we first have to talk about collagen.
The word "collagen" comes from the Greek word for glue, and that's a helpful way to think about the role collagen plays in your body. Collagen is a structural protein that binds cells and tissues together while helping them maintain shape in your skeleton, tendons, muscles, skin, and teeth. As we age, our bodies produce progressively less collagen.
If you're buying a collagen peptides powder, you're buying "hydrolyzed" type-I collagen extracted from animal hides or bones, or fish scales. Hydrolyzed means that the amino acid chains that make up the collagen protein have been broken down into smaller units. This process allows the powder to dissolve in both hot and cold liquids, like coffee, soup, cold brew or smoothies.
The thinking goes that taking a bone broth supplement or another collagen product is a way to boost your body's levels of collagen.
So what does collagen do?
For centuries, Chinese women have considered collagen a fountain of youth, regularly eating foods like donkey skin in hopes of smoothing skin and juicing aging joints. Now, science is beginning to bear some of this out. There's a small but growing body of evidential research suggesting collagen can improve skin's elasticity, alleviate arthritis symptoms, promote wound healing, and deter muscle atrophy. Consequently, consumers are clamoring for collagen: in 2018, U.S. consumers are expected to spend $122 million on collagen products, up 30% from last year, according to market research firm Nutrition Business Journal.
What do the experts say about bone broth and collagen supplements?
As you can imagine, they don't all agree.
William Percy, an associate professor at the University of South Dakota's Sanford School of Medicine, isn't convinced that the collagen in the bones and joints that go into bone broth will do much for your skeletal system.
"Since we don't absorb collagen whole, the idea that eating collagen somehow promotes bone growth is just wishful thinking," Percy told NPR.
But in their book Nourishing Broth, authors Sally Fallon Morell and Kaayla T. Daniel write that drinking bone broth can help with a panoply of ailments from improving joint function and speeding wound healing, to regulating the immune system and rebuilding bones with collagen.
Ask a nutrition scientist and they'll say one of the biggest misunderstandings about food and supplements is assuming that something you swallow turns into the same something in your body. Digestion and biochemistry don't really work that way.
"The collagen is going to be digested by your GI tract because it isn't built to survive the massive pH changes in the gut," he said.
But ask another expert and get another take. Kantha Shelke is a food scientist and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists and a principal with the food science and research firm Corvus Blue LLC. She told the same magazine that if you want to build collagen, you do need to chow down—and on more than just bone broth.
"Eating a diet rich in leafy green vegetables is ideal," she said. "Plants offer richer sources in collagen building blocks and, in addition, provide nutrients not found in sufficient quantities in meats or broth."
Mark Moyad, MD, director of the complementary and alternative medicine program at the University of Michigan Medical Center and author of The Supplement Handbook: A Trusted Expert's Guide to What Works and What's Worthless for More Than 100 Conditions, attributes the divisive opinions to too few and small in scope studies funded at least partially by industry.
"The science is truly in its infancy," he told WebMD. "There's a lot of conflict of interest, and not enough quality control."
How do you choose a bone broth supplement?
If you want to give a bone broth supplement a go, the Good Housekeeping Institute recommends choosing one with as few simple ingredients as possible, skipping the flavored versions, and looking for a third-party certification.