When Bone Soup Promises More Than It Delivers

One of my neighbors was recently diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer. She is rapidly losing weight because eating and digesting food causes her pain, but her weight loss may make recovery from chemotherapy more difficult. She told me she is drinking bone broth in order to obtain the nutrients she needs, and to halt her weight loss.

Why? I asked her when we talked today.Everyone says it is good for me,” she answered, everyone upon further questioning being some relatives and a few friends. “But you need nourishment, I protested. You need to eat protein, you need carbohydrates for energy, and you need vitamins and minerals. You aren’t going to stop losing weight by drinking bone-flavored water.“

Fortunately, her oncologist referred her to a hospital dietician experienced in the nutritional needs of cancer patients such as my friend, and the bone broth is now watering some house plants. But this incident is an example of how popular food fads, health food supplements and neighborly advice may exacerbate, rather than solve nutritional problems.

Bone broth, a soup containing mostly water and the flavor and some nutrients from the bones cooked in it, is a broth that people have been eating for eons. It is, in some respects, like drinking liquid, salty Jell-O. When beef bones are cooked for long periods of time, they turn into a gelatinous mass, as I discovered when I forgot about a pot of water and bones I was simmering in order to make stock for soup. (Washing the pot became a major endeavor.) This gelatin in the hands of competent cooks can be turned into aspic, a translucent covering for pates and cold chicken, or a sweet “Jell-O” type dessert. Proponents of bone broth point to the gelatin as evidence of its vast nutritional value: all the good protein and the collagen from the bones is going to decrease inflammation, fortify your bones, and lubricate your joints. What is not mentioned is that gelatin is an incomplete protein because it lacks the essential amino acid tryptophan, and contains very small amounts of another amino acid, tyrosine.

Both tryptophan and tyrosine are needed for the synthesis of new protein in our bodies. Thus, if my friend depends on the gelatin in bone broth in order to make new protein for her muscles that are wasting away, she will be unable to do so. Moreover, the collagen in bone broth is digested in the intestinal tract, and is no more able to lubricate our joints than the butter or oil we may be eating.

Ironically, if a chicken were simmered along with the bones it would turn into (drum roll please) chicken soup. The chicken is a good source of protein, and although the power of chicken soup to heal the body may be exaggerated, its ability to soothe the distress of a bad cold or flu, or maybe restore the body after a bout of chemotherapy does not seem to be in dispute.

It is disconcerting to find bone broth sold in supermarkets and online for not inconsiderable amounts of money. In the old days, before this fad, people threw a few bones in a pot of water and whatever vegetables they had to make a very cheap soup. Bones also used to be given to dog owners or sold in enormous quantities to be turned into gelatin, or the fertilizer bone meal. Paying $10.00 or more for a box of bone broth containing mostly water seems absurd.

What is so worrisome about this food fad, and the many others that pop up like mushrooms after a wet spell, is that they suggest we don’t have to rely on food for our daily nourishment or to compensate for some nutritional deficit such as lack of vitamin C or iron. The health food store, not healthy foods at the grocery store, is promoted as the path to nutritional wellness. I receive updates from several online newsletters describing the latest supplement entering the health food market. It is often astonishing to read about the promises made, without any evidence, for these products. One of many entering the market this past month includes bitter melon, cinnamon bark, fenugreek seed, olive leaf and artichoke leaf, holy basil herb and lycium fruit. These are presented in a liquid and supposedly will maintain normal blood sugar levels in people with normal blood sugar levels (italics are my own). Apparently the makers of this supplement never heard of insulin that our pancreas secrete (for free) when we eat carbohydrates. Another product also just now for sale is made from Siberian rhubarb roots and promises to help menopausal symptoms like hot flushes. The research supporting these claims and many others is often not real or reproducible, but how would a consumer know this? 

My friend with cancer believed that the bone broth she was drinking, even though her weight was melting off, was nourishing her. Unfortunately, she was getting none of the nutrients she needed. People may hesitate to seek medical advice or ignore it completely because they are convinced that the promises made by the supplements will be the answer to their medical problems. Supplements can interfere with drugs one is already taking. Given the number of supplements on the market, and the sometimes bizarre source of ingredients (who knew that rhubarb could be grown in Siberia?), physicians may not know whether the ingredients are dangerous. Plus the dose of a supplement may be entirely too high. For example, many doses of melatonin range from 3 mg to 10 mg; the dose established by clinical research puts the dose at 0.3-0.5 mg and the higher dose may dampen the body’s own melatonin production.

The FDA has information about the ingredients, function and side effects of many supplements, and it is worth spending time learning about a supplement that has been recommended or advertised before taking it. Some are critically important, such as those providing the vitamins and minerals an individual may not be able to obtain through food. My friend does take a vitamin-mineral supplement because she finds it too painful to eat many fruits and vegetables.

Our health is too important to be left to the sellers of health products. Checking out the scientific validity of a product may not be possible without the help of dieticians or others knowledgeable about the contents and claims of these products. But it is worth making the time to do so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *