Chris Sandel is a nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. He specialises in helping clients ending dieting, reproductive issues and disordered eating and he’s on the blog to talk about bone broth – in particular gelatin.

If you pay attention to diets over a long enough period of time you will see that things are cyclical. A diet will ride the wave of popularity for some length of time, before it wanes and is forgotten about (or is even mocked for how silly we were to believe such nonsense). Wait long enough and this diet then comes back into popularity only to follow the same pattern as before. The same is often seen with certain foods, where they become hugely popular and make it on most people’s “must eat” list.

One such food that is currently riding the crest of popularity is broth. While it has been championed by many nutritionists for a long time, it’s now hit the mainstream. The fact that you can now get it in Pret and Crussh shows just how mainstream it really is. So what exactly is broth and why is it claimed to be so “healthy”?

Broth is made using the bones of animals, usually land animals but can also be made with fish bones. The bones are cooked in water with a selection of vegetables often including things like onion, celery, and carrots. It is brought to the boil and then simmered for anything from about 2-48 hours, depending on which recipe you follow. The bones (and often the vegetables) are then discarded and the liquid is consumed like a soup or warm drink.

It’s claimed that broth provides high amounts of vitamins and minerals, which comes out of the bones and the bone marrow. Minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and other trace minerals, as well as vitamins, especially the fat-soluble vitamins.

While we typically think about protein coming from the meat or flesh of land animals or fish, protein also comes out of the bones and the connective tissue. It’s actually the more gelatinous cuts that tend to provide the highest amounts of this protein (something like oxtail for example). It’s this gelatin that is so important as the protein source.

When protein gets broken down, it breaks down into amino acids. Different protein sources contain different types of amino acids and each of them has a range of processes they are used for in the body. Gelatin contains high amounts of a number of amino acids, particularly glycine, and proline. These are amino acids that aren’t so abundant in nature and only appear in decent amounts in a limited number of foods (well at least a limited number of the foods we eat these days).

Glycine is helpful in promoting natural sleep and as an anti-stress substance. It helps with wound healing (including healing the gut) and supports liver detoxification, especially in the area of breaking down hormones. Proline is needed for cell protection and preventing cell damage. It is needed for the production of collagen and cartilage so could be supportive with everything from joint health to improved skin.

So in theory this should make broth a health food but there is a slight hitch. These benefits are largely based on how much gelatin and other vitamins and minerals are actually in the broth you are drinking, and this can vary widely. Because in reality most of the research that has been done has been looking at gelatin powder (in hydrolyzed form, which is much easier to absorb) or looking at the individual amino acids, but not necessarily from broth.

So in theory broth, when made correctly, should be a nutritious food but it all depends on what actually comes out of the bones.

And this is why I am a little suspect of places like Pret and Crussh and the quality of product someone is getting. The more water and the less bones that are used, the smaller amounts of the different amino acids and vitamins and minerals are going to be in the broth. And with economies of scale I would imagine they are trying to get this ratio to help with the bottom dollar, not maximising health.

(A good test would be to put the broth in the fridge and let it completely cool down. If it sets like jelly or gets at least a thicker, gelatinous consistency, then you are definitely getting some good gelatin. If it stays as a liquid, it’s going to be in more minimal amounts – if at all.)

When working with clients I do recommend that they eat broth regularly. But this is broth they make themselves so they can get the right ratio of bones to water and for it to be cooked long enough to give the best chance of increasing the gelatine content.

In reality, lots of clients are busy and don’t have time to make broth so I regularly recommend the Great Lakes gelatin supplement. They do two different types. One is in an orange tub that congeals like normal jelly so you can make jelly based snacks – homemade gummy squares, panna cotta, or just regular old jelly.

The other is in a green tin, which is the hydrolyzed form, that doesn’t congeal and can be put in hot or cold liquids. It is tasteless and completely dissolves so you can add it to tea, coffee, orange juice, yoghurt, soups, and porridge…basically anything with liquid in it. It is the green tin version that I use the most, with nearly all clients using it in varying amounts.

Broth is a food source that has been eaten by nearly all-traditional tribes. While the research on it is still limited, I do believe, and have experienced with clients, the benefits of using broth. But quality really does matter and if it is just watered down stock, any health-promoting substances are going to be limited.

Image credit: Eater/ Bares Bones Broth