To flavor soups and sauces, many cooks traditionally use broth derived from simmered bones of fish, fowl, or four-footed critters. In recent years, bone-broth bars have appeared and offer patrons a non-caffeinated, nutritious alternative to coffee or tea. In the more health-conscious of these establishments, the proprietors tout these elixirs for their filling, cleansing, and de-toxing capabilities.
I wanted to decide whether a daily cup of bone broth should be part of my annual January resolution for a healthy life. On the internet, I found four broth-serving establishments within a bike-friendly five-mile radius of home. Within the same range there were three Vietnamese cafes that serve pho, a traditional soup of spiced bone broth, rice noodles, and meat. Off I went.
I started at a broth “bar” that was an eight-foot square kiosk in a country mart’s passageway. The cheerful teenage attendant offered me a sample, which she poured straight from a refrigerated bottle. I was her only customer, so we chatted while I sipped. With my game face on, I thought, “Definitely don’t drink this stuff cold.” She touted broth’s virtues, which on the business’s website include increased energy, sharpened focus, optimization of vital functions, and body fat reduction. She also explained how the owner obtained the bones and prepared the broth. Having picked her brain, I felt it only decent to buy a pint bottle of beef broth. She heated several ounces on a hotplate but had to go to a coffee shop down the way to get a paper cup. I took the rest home for my wife to taste. We shared our doubts about the long-term viability of this particular bone broth business.
A week later I decided to have pho for lunch preceded by visits to two bone broth bars and followed by a stop at another. The first was a store large enough to walk into. It had both chicken and beef bone broths that were already hot. There were also frozen packets for take-home. Again, I was the only customer, and the clerk was helpful although mistaken in her belief that broth contains collagen. In fact, bone is collagen-rich, but heating it degrades the collagen into gelatin. Then when swallowed, digestive enzymes break gelatin into its constituent amino acids before they are absorbed. It is beyond belief that our bodies would then reassemble these molecules into gelatin, much less collagen. (Consider this analogy: bald men eating hair.) This store’s website, in addition to repeating the kiosk’s claims, indicates that “collagen and gelatin found in bone broth build and help repair the GI tract” and are also good for immune support and joint pain relief. The vegetable soups I sampled tasted better than the broths, which I considered bland and certainly not a substitute for coffee. Maybe their bone broth blendies (hot) and collagen smoothies (cold) would be better, but I had miles to go.
The next stop was a burger café, which also had frozen whole chickens, quarts of refrigerated broth, and two urns of hot broth: traditional (beef/pork) and poultry (duck/chicken/turkey). The latter was as bland and unappealing as my previous tastings. The traditional blend was delicious. It was if I was gnawing the last crispy bits of steak off a T-bone. The cook explained that he roasted the bones for about an hour before simmering them for 48 more. Condiments enhanced the pleasure. My favorite was a stirred-in spoonful of parsley-garlic pesto.
Lunch time! I found a counter seat at a bustling hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese café. The meatball pho came in a huge bowl with cilantro, onion, and bean sprouts garnishing the rice noodles and broth. Good, and certainly filling, but since all the ingredients complicated my quest for tasting bone broth, I decided to pass on the other nearby Vietnamese eateries that day.
I next cycled to a health food café. In addition to “Classic Chicken or Beef Broth” I could order either one with added ingredients such as turmeric, ghee, schizandra berry, cabbage, and jalapeno to produce “Anti-Inflammatory Broth,” “Butter Broth,” “Immunity Broth,” “Gut Broth,” or “Skinny Broth.” They all cost $10-$12 for 12 ounces, and for $2 more, I could “add collagen with 10 grams of protein.”
While sipping my Classic Beef, I browsed the foyer bookshelf and flipped through Dr. Kellyann’s Bone Broth Diet, which claimed I could lose up to 15 pounds, 4 inches (didn’t say from where), and my wrinkles in 21 days. Despite those remarkable claims on the cover, inside Dr. Kellyann did note that boiling bone converts collagen to gelatin. She went on, however, to extol the purported health benefits of gelatin. Like many other advocates, she cherry-picked research results that supported her claims while ignoring the abundance of literature that has found no significant benefits of bone broth over eating a generally healthy diet. Also, I am typically wary of products claiming to cleanse and detox. How did these health trendistas let themselves get soiled and toxed in the first place?
Now at the end of my bone broth adventure, I had an uneasy feeling, perhaps caused by sudden weight loss or immunity gain. I knew for sure, however, that a whole class of taste buds had gone unstimulated all day. Before hopping back on my bike and heading to the office, I stopped at Burger King for a soothing Oreo milkshake.