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Why Do We Still Believe in “Bone Broth”?

The wellness trend is a feat of marketing—and our willingness to pay too much for the promise of health

Illustration of a bone hovering above broth simmering in pot Ringer illustration

“A place like this gives me hope,” a trim middle-aged man told his female companion as they left Brodo—a snug, fragrant West Village kiosk selling $5-to-$12 beef, chicken, turkey, seaweed mushroom, and mixed “bone broths” in takeaway coffee cups. “You don’t go in there unless you have some sense of nutrition,” the man elaborated, getting into his beige SUV. I sat on the wooden bench outside the dispensary one late afternoon on a Saturday in January, clutching an $8.40 small “Spicy Nonna.” Chili oil and pureed garlic lent the broth an aromatic kick. It tasted comforting, though not enough to make me comfortable with how much money the hot carcass water had cost. I didn’t feel hopeful so much as I felt bemused.

Four years ago, chef Marco Canora opened an East Village takeout window as a way to earn extra cash by selling leftovers fashioned from animal bones he was going to throw in the garbage. A genius plan! The booth, and its pricey broth, took off. Canora now offers a bone broth cookbook, Brodo: A Bone Broth Cookbook, and delivery to 48 states, in addition to two Manhattan locations. “If some people want to say I’m raping and pillaging and selling meat-flavored water, that’s fine,” the Italian chef told Grub Street in 2015. (Canora has, to his credit, always been straightforward about the product he is selling.) Business remains brisk.

Unlike cronuts, rainbow-colored bagels, and other Instagram-optimized food fads, bone broth has proved resilient and versatile, and continues to gain steam as a much-hyped health beverage. Bone broth, also unlike many of its trendy counterparts, was not concocted by wily advertising-types specifically to photograph well on Instagram. It wasn’t concocted at all, at least not any time in the recent past. It is simply slickly marketed broth, the same kind that people have been drinking for (at least) thousands of years. Many cultures claim a variation of broth as a dietary essential, from Korea’s milky seolleongtang to British beef tea, which was trendy enough in 1865 to get a New York Times write-up. (“Brodo,” meanwhile, is Italian for “broth.”)

In addition to feeling familiar to wide swaths of people, the commodification of broth dovetailed with the rise of the Paleo diet, which advises followers to adhere to an eating pattern heavy in vegetables, fruits, eggs, healthy oils, seeds, and meat, and to avoid processed foods, dairy, and legumes. There is no one set of dietary restrictions on the Paleo diet, but the emphasis is placed on consuming foods that were available to cavemen. Bone broth fits the bill perfectly, as it is just bones and water, and so many people in the Paleo community have enthusiastically claimed it as a beloved staple.

Brodo now grapples with plenty of competition on the expensive, health-marketed meat-flavored water battleground. Bare Bones, a bone broth company also founded in 2014, ships its product across the United States. Boxed soup brand Pacific Foods sells bone broth at Target and Walmart. A whole sector of the industry markets bone broth products for dogs, from a Canadian “bone broth tea” manufacturer to powdered “bone broth superfood” available on Amazon.

Bone broth is credited as a panacea with an eye-popping array of health benefits, from fixing “leaky gut” syndrome to healing Kobe Bryant’s ruptured Achilles tendon. Gwyneth Paltrow, Salma Hayek, and Shailene Woodley have all praised the beverage’s benefits. The fervor for the soup drink is not restricted to the coasts. It even made it to Madison, Wisconsin, as of January 25, 2018—which means it’s mainstream mainstream, as Madison remains in the thrall of Big Cheese Curd. The most common health claims for bone broth say that it supplies drinkers with a protein matrix called collagen, which may improve joint health, skin health, and gut health. And, owing to the appeal of these claims, restaurants and wholesalers are able to charge more money for a very basic food. The potential for maximizing profits while labeling something “bone broth” is obvious when looking at Pacific Foods: For six packages of 32 ounce organic chicken bone broth, the company charges over $16 more than it does for the same amount of organic chicken broth.

It’s representative of how theories of wellness can update and warp old healthy-living ideas, commodifying the common sense of getting nutrients from the whole animal into an excuse to repackage old kitchen wisdom into an upscale doctrine.

“To me, bone broth is both overrated and slightly underrated. It all comes down to price,” nutritional researcher Kamal Patel, who runs a database of nutritional supplement information called Examine, told me. While Patel notes that bone broth may offer nutritional benefits to some drinkers, there are no clinical studies proving the value of the broth. “There’s been studies on gelatin, there’s been studies on hydrolyzed collagen, which is broken down one more level than collagen, and there’s been studies on amino acids that make up collagen,” he said. “But there’s no evidence per se for bone broth.”

“It is a source of some key amino acids that you get when you cook down bones,” nutritionist Rebecca Mohning told me, although she cautioned people who buy products labeled “bone broth” in stores to check how much of the contents were actually proteins. She also cautioned against buying bone broth in powdered supplement form. “There really aren’t a lot of clinical studies about using it as a protein supplement.”

The bone broth trend converges with a number of other recent cultural fixations. In addition to its Paleo appeal, bone broth is Whole30 approved and available in vegetarian options. It appeals to people looking for comfort food, to people who want to watch their calorie and carb intake, and to people who want to be comforted by low-carb, low-calorie food. On a conceptual level, the bone broth trend shares a sensibility with the modern homesteading movement as well, a reach into the past for a respite from contemporary ailments. It’s the culinary equivalent of hanging muslin skirts on a clothesline, a callback to a simpler time, accessible through a cup of steaming liquid.

Some chefs say the difference between broth and stock is in substantiality; broth is made from bones that have more meat left on them, while stock is made from bones which have been mostly picked clean; bone broth simmers for long periods of time, even days, sapping and breaking down the nutrients from the bones, while weak stock can be prepared in an hour. Marco Canora does not see the distinction as important. “Bone broth is essentially stock” he told Bon Appétit in 2017.

In this admission, Canora hits on the core of bone broth’s appeal. While its actual health benefits are unproven, it’s easy to warm to a product that might make you healthier but definitely tastes good. “Liver is much more nutritious than bone broth, but people think it tastes gross,” Patel said. “Liver is actually worth the money, whereas bone broth isn’t worth the money.”

The audacity of bone broth is that it lays claim to all of the usual gossamer promises of the superfood du jour while doing the absolute least. While it does contain collagen leached from the bones simmered in it, the finished product is less a superfood and more of barely a food. It has been prepared by home chefs for as long as people have made soup. But this is the heart of its enduring appeal—apart from the marketing, it’s a staple, not a novelty. It evokes home-cooking specifically, offering a twist on your grandmother’s chicken soup base or the slow-cooked pho starter. “Bone broth” puts the pedestrian on a pedestal and charges premium prices. It’s worthy of an eyeroll, but if you’re pouring, I’ll take a cup.