Food

Bone Broth Is Trendy, But You May Be Poisoning Yourself With Heavy Metals If You're Not Careful

If bones from the wrong animal are used, broth could be a source of lead exposure.

For longer than there have been kitchens, people have found ways to boil bones. From rural villages to urban restaurants to grandma’s house, the virtues of bone stock, and its salted cousin, broth, are hardly a secret. But lately, bone broth has boomed into a trendy end in itself. You can pay nearly ten bucks for ginger grassfed beef broth at Brodoin New York. You can drink it at the Jola Cafein Portland, Oregon. It’s available online, shipped fresh to your doorstep.

Outside Magazinecalls bone broth the ultimate sports recovery drink, and the New York Times recently declared it the new coconut water. Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant credits regular consumption of bone broth for helping him recover from some serious recent injuries. In fact, according to the Washington Post, practically the whole team has been on bone juice since the 2012/2013 season.

If you’ve ever been lifted from the depths of exhaustion, hunger, illness or chills by a sip of warm broth, you might be inclined to believe in such restorative powers. Indeed, bone broth is a wonderful thing. But nonetheless, there are some potential downsides to broth, as well as some misconceptions, that are worth keeping in mind.

While broth is often touted as a great source of calcium, supposedly it isn’t. More concerning, if bones from the wrong animal are used, broth could be a source of lead exposure. Lead can accumulate in plants and animals that are exposed to it via food, water or a contaminated environment. As a self-defense mechanism, exposed animals store lead in their bones, where it does less harm. Broth made from such bones could be high in lead.

One prominent 2013 study made waves in the broth community by demonstrating higher lead content in organic chicken bone broth than from the tap water used to make it. This raised fears that bone broth should be avoided.

This research has been challenged on many fronts. Health blogger Chris Kresser pointed out that the lead concentrations the study reportedly found in chicken broth still fell under the EPA’s limit for tap water. In addition, he wrote, that the presence of calcium in bone broth would defend the body from lead by interfering with its absorption in the intestine—a statement that would be correct only if bone broth actually were a source of calcium.

Sally Fallon and Kaayla Daniel, authors of the book Nourishing Broth, addressed this study in an extensive blog post for the Weston A Price foundation. They have issues with many aspects of how the study was conducted, including suspicions that the chickens used were exceptionally contaminated. Still, they acknowledge, bones should be chosen with care, because contaminated bones do exist.

Using organic bones wouldn’t help one avoid this problem, as evidenced by the fact that organic bones were used in the study. In fact, organic products could contain more heavy metals than factory farmed food, because of the use of manure in many organic agriculture practices. Manure can be a concentrated source of heavy metal contamination. If lead-tainted manure were used, for example, to grow animal feed, that lead will end up in the animals who eat the feed.

Amazingly, while lead will leave the bones for the broth, calcium does not, they write. I contacted Daniel to confirm that this bomb they dropped is legit. She responded that they’ve examined data from numerous batches of tested broth. “Every batch tested has shown low levels so it stays in the bone most likely.”

I don’t know what to make of this, personally, having made and eaten stock in which the bones were halfway disintegrated and had become so soft I could eat them like soggy crackers. Given how long stock bones spend dissolving in the hot water, it makes no sense to me that particles of calcium-rich material wouldn’t be consumed along with broth.

But assuming it’s true, Daniel pointed out a simple fix to this calcium void: add veggies, which do contribute calcium.

But calcium is hardly the only reason to consume bone broth, she wrote.

“Bone broth builds bones, and the likely reason is it’s high in gelatin — collagen. And collagen is what provides the framework for good bones. That’s what’s needed to lay on calcium and other minerals. It’s like rebar and concrete.”  

The body’s ability to repair connective tissue such as bone, tendon, ligament, cartilage, skin, hair, and nails diminishes with age and ill health,” Daniel and Fallon write in Nourishing Broth. “Bone broth, with its rich dissolves of collagen, cartilage, bone and marrow, gives the body 'the right stuff” to rebuild and rejuvenate. These components also include vitamins, minerals, and the conditionally essential amino acids glycine, proline, and glutamine.”

High amounts of free glutamine is a big reason why bone broth tastes so good. Glutamine is the molecule responsible for the savory, satisfying flavor known as umami.

Jennifer Goggin is the founder of FarmersWeb, a website that matches small-scale farm produce with buyers. In an article on the Huffington Post recently, she wrote that demand for bones from small local farms is shooting up.

“Since artisanal bone broth has begun bubbling up in the news and small broth entrepreneurs have started to set up shop, we at FarmersWeb receive multiple requests every week for bones—from cows, lambs, and even goats. Just a few months ago, the farms we work with weren't able to sell any of their bones unless they practically gave them away.”

This is great for farmers, she notes, offering them “a new market for pieces that would have otherwise been headed for the trash.”

There are many variations on bone broth, with a diversity of finished outcomes attached to each. Vietnamese pho, made from cow bones, is very different from Japanese tonkatsu ramen broth made from pork bone, or veal bone-based demi-glace in a fancy French restaurant, or mom-style chicken bone soup. Thus, I’ll leave you with, not a recipe, but:

Boneman the Brotharian’s Bone Broth Basics

At its bare essence, making bone broth entails little more than cooking bones in hot water for 12-36 hours. A slow cooker is a great brothing device for many reasons. Using one isn’t as dangerous as leaving a stove burner on for days at a time, and the broth cooks slowly enough that you don’t need to keep adding water. It’s very convenient to have a crock pot going at all times with broth that’s at the perfect sipping temperature, and available to be used in whatever’s cooking. If the stir-fry is drying out, add a ladle of broth. Looking to make a soup or sauce? Use broth as a base.

The bones should be cut, which releases the marrow and other inner bone materials, and allows more surface area to contact the broth. When I make stock with the bones of a store-roasted chicken (lead alert!) I use a scissors to snip the soft bones to bits. With mammal long bones, ideally the butcher will cut them; otherwise cut them at home, or whack them with a hammer.

If whacking the bones, make sure the resulting bone splinters don’t enter anyone’s mouth—unless cooked to absolute softness. Some people simmer their bones in a fine mesh bag to keep them out, or pour the finished broth through a sieve. In my case the broth just sits in warm mode in the crockpot. The bones settle, and as long as I use a ladle to serve it there’s no danger of bone fragments.

I usually use deer, cow, and chicken bones. Lamb and goat are good too, but be warned they make a gamier broth.

For best flavor, begin by roasting the bones in the broiler, turning them as necessary, aiming to brown but not burn. Add the bones to the stock pot, and make sure to deglaze and scrape the roasted bone drippings into the pot as well. Cook on the lowest setting you’ve got.

After about 12 hours, consider adding carrots, onions and celery. Don’t get too fancy with your veggies; broccoli and cabbage will backfire if cooked too long, so use these and other calcium-rich veggies to make soup with, after the broth is done.

Also at this time, remove any cooked meat and store separately. If you leave it in the crock pot it will disintegrate, but you can add it back to the broth when serving, if you wish, or use the meat for other purposes. Keep the broth warm and unsalted in the pot until time of use. Then, season appropriately. If sipping, I like a splash of soy sauce, and a sprinkle of garlic powder.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.
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