Food trends are an easy thing to hate. They immediately conjure up thoughts of "foodie" culture, $6 cupcakes, and the insufferable idiots who invented kale. But some trends are important and genuinely advance the way we eat. Twenty years ago, cheap Mexican food meant Taco Bell, ramen was $.02 worth of salt and scurvy, and high-quality beer meant Heineken. Today, people outside L.A. can get great burritos from a Mexican lady in a truck, and Cleveland exports more than just unemployment.
So yes, some food trends have merit. Bone broth is not one of them.
What is bone broth? It's stock, or water boiled with animal bones, meat scraps, and vegetables. You know it as the liquid part of pretty much every bowl of soup you've ever had. But when you call it "bone broth," it's 2015's hottest way to separate you from your money! If you're not sure, tweet the words "bone broth" and wait for this bot from Serious Eats to correct you.
How did bone broth become a thing,then? People have been consuming broth for centuries, both for taste and for health reasons, since long before the advent of modern medicine. The current trend took off last November when chef Marco Canora opened Brodo, a broth-focused take-out window next to his East Village restaurant, Hearth.
Arrested Development predicted broth's current rise during this famous exchange back in 2006:
Lindsay: Check it out, I found that canned ham, and I put it in a pot of boiling water, and guess what I'm calling it.
Lindsay: Hot ham water!
Since then, paleo dieters (the same people who eat like cavemen by avoiding the bread aisle at Whole Foods) have claimed the stuff promotes "intestinal and joint health" and healthy skin. It also allegedly prevents and reverses "osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, digestive distress, autoimmune disorders, cancer," and some made-up, allegedly autism-causing disease called leaky gut syndrome.
Even Kobe loves the stuff! According to the Washington Post, he credits it for helping him get back to sucking for the Lakers after rupturing his Achilles tendon in 2013. (Until the very next day, when Kobe was out for the season with a torn rotator cuff.) Anti-vaxxer/wife of Jay Cutler/reality star Kristin Cavallari is a fan, too.
Meanwhile, any self-proclaimed "wellness expert" profits off the hype by selling paleo cookbooks, providing pseudo-medical services, and making TV appearances on behalf of this putative invincibility potion. Dr. Oz, a man whose career is based on willful ignorance of the word "facts," recently hosted "holistic dietitian" and author of Cavewomen Don't Get Fat (they just die at 35) Esther Blum on his TV show to talk about bone broth. She claims that her "go-to morning elixir" can boost immune function, help you sleep better, and can replace your morning cup of coffee. She then proceeds to make soup and act like she's cured all disease. With leftover bones, Blum adds, each cup costs only $.15 if you make your own.
At the same time, restaurants like Brodo (and all these other stupid ones), are charging $9 for a 16-ounce cup of soup without any solid food in it. That's three times as much as Starbucks charges for coffee. Fucking Starbucks, the place that launched America's love affair with overpriced burnt coffee, is a good value by comparison. In the same clip, Canora touts more imaginary benefits to gut health, while one bored-looking Brodo customer boasts "superhuman energy." In this quasi-advertorial he wrote for Munchies, Canora further sells bone broth as a cure-all and credits it for his own improved health, ignoring the fact that literally anything is healthier than his previous diet of weed and caffeine.
In a recent piece, NPR sized up some of bone broth's supposed health benefits. Several scientists agreed that they're overblown, and only come as part of a balanced diet. William Percy, an associate professor at the University of South Dakota's Sanford School of Medicine, addresses the claim that consuming collagen improves bone health ...
"Since we don't absorb collagen whole, the idea that eating collagen somehow promotes bone growth is just wishful thinking," Percy says. Instead, he says, the digestive system will break down the collagen into amino acids, and the body will use these building blocks wherever they're needed.
In short, eating collagen won't improve bone health, just like eating paper clips won't cure an iron deficiency. And this is where bone broth's health claims, like most pseudoscientific health claims, begin to fall apart on a fundamental level. The sales pitch says consuming collagen must be good for your bones, because collagen is already in your bones; the scientific reality is much more complex, but try explaining that to a general public constantly looking in vain for the next quick health fix.
People have been drinking broth to feel better for thousands of years. Chicken soup (which is "bone broth"—broth—plus actual solid food) was "Jewish penicillin" long before anyone discovered actual penicillin. When you have a head cold, consuming any hot drink will make you feel better—mostly because it's warm, and warm things feel nice. This study even notes chicken soup's mild anti-inflammatory properties. But it's not a cure-all by any means. That's what medicines are for.
But, as the health-huckster community well knows, if you take something that people know makes them feel good, tell them it'll cure all of their ills, and let confirmation bias do the rest, you can make a lot of money. It works even better when, instead of making something new, you just take something as old as time itself, give it a new name and a vaguely exotic aura, and sell it to silly white people with lots of money to burn on everything but vaccinating their children. Never mind that no empirical evidence proves "bone broth" cures anything—anecdotal evidence is enough, and anyone who says otherwise belongs to the Medical Mafia™ that puts "toxins" in the water supply. The key demographic is, as usual, conspiracy theorists and real-life Lindsay Bluths.
Even apart from the phony health claims, bone broth has fed into the worst aspects of hollow, overpriced, trendy food marketing. At this bone broth festival in New York last month, a $33 ticket got you an hour and a half to taste stock. This bar in L.A. serves broth cocktails that charge $22 for the privilege of ruining perfectly good scotch. Panera's new "Broth Bowl" line is just expensive soup with a fancy new name. The ramen joint two blocks away from Brodo sells a product that technically contains "bone broth" for just a dollar more, but theirs has roast pork and noodles in it. That product, once again, is soup.
People have been selling bullshit for as long as they've been drinking soup, and guys like Marco Canora are just modern-day snake oil salesmen. And that's all bone broth is: snake oil, miracle tonic, or quite literally, hot ham water. The hype has no more substance than the ham water itself, which Buster so eloquently described upon his return from the Army: "So watery, and yet there's a smack of ham to it."
Ben Jay is a freelance journalist and photographer based in New York. He's done work for Gothamist, Eater, Serious Eats, the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, the Village Voice, Edible, and more. He's also on the Tweetstagrams.