Today’s edition of Dear Mark  is a two-parter. First, I dig a bit deeper into the nutrients found in bone broth. A reader’s come across some startling nutritional data that seems to call into question the legitimacy of our community’s collective love affair with hot bone water. Find out if we’ve been overselling the benefits. Then, I discuss humankind’s tendency to (try to) tame, quell, counteract, and otherwise improve on nature’s mysterious workings. Can we come up with a viable alternative to agriculture, often characterized as our most egregious offense?
I know in the primal/paleo world, bone broth is considered a superfood. I always have some in my fridge, and consume it almost daily. I investigated the nutrient content of beef bone broth, and was pretty disappointed. First, there are very few studies that break down the nutrient profile of bone broth. And second, the few that are out there paint a pretty dull picture of bone broth. A one-cup serving provides a measley 9% calcium, 3% magnesium, and on and on ad nauseum. I thought I would bring it up to see if you had other sources of info, and maybe consider doing a post about it sometime. No doubt, the entire MDA community would be interested! Thanx!
Good question, great name, interesting spelling.
I have taken a look at the (limited) research available on the nutrient contents of bone broth. One study  in particular caught my eye where veal bones were sliced open to expose the marrow, placed in water with some acetic acid (vinegar), and boiled for nine hours. As you mention in your question, the mineral loss from bones into the broth was extremely unimpressive – just a few milligrams of calcium and magnesium. Gelatin was the only nutrient of note found. And in the most unexpected turn of events, bones that were placed in room temperature water for nine hours actually gave off more minerals than the boiled bones. Weird, huh?
I was certainly surprised when I first read it, but ultimately not dissuaded from my continual pursuit of delicious bone broth. Here’s why I don’t put much stock  in these results.
Nine hours isn’t enough time to really break down ruminant bones like veal. When you get into 24-hour stock territory where the fork plunges into the femur bone or 36 hours where the knuckle crumbles in your hands and the resultant stock turns cloudy with dissolved bone solids, there’s got to be something more going on than just a few milligrams. Nine hours will get most of the exterior collagen, but that’s about it. Many of the best nutrients are locked within the bones themselves, including minerals and more collagen (used to make bones slightly elastic). Pressure cooking can significantly cut down the required time if you don’t want to have the stove going for two days.
Even if the study’s results do apply to pressure-cooked and long-simmered bones and “real” broth contains very few minerals, broth ultimately isn’t only about the minerals. Bones contain far more interesting compounds than just calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus (besides, we can get all that stuff from our food):
Gelatin – I won’t talk too much about gelatin because I do so on a regular basis . Rest assured, though: it’s probably the most important reason we should take the time to make bone broth. Yes, you can get your gelatin in powder form, but that won’t get you the following bone nutrients.
Hyaluronic acid – Synovial fluid, that slippery lubricant inhabiting our joint capsules and making them glide safely and smoothly together, is mostly hyaluronic acid. Race horses with bad osteoarthritis get intra-articular shots or IVs of synovial fluid to treat their condition, and studies on oral administration  indicate that hyaluronic acid is the main player. You can also find hyaluronic acid in the bones and the connective tissue (usually attached to the bones). Seeing as how a high-hyaluronic acid extract of chicken combs (the fleshy red waddle that sits atop a chicken’s head ) improved quality of life and reduced pain in patients with osteoarthritis , making and drinking broth from those parts (not necessarily the combs, although go for it if you have access to them) should also help.
Chondroitin sulfate – Chondroitin sulfate is a popular joint health supplement, often paired with glucosamine. Does it work? Many people will vociferously claim it’s bunk. I’ll just say that the humans participating in the study  which found that six months of chondroitin sulfate supplementation reduced cartilage loss in patients with osteoarthritis  probably have a different opinion. Except for the folks who got the placebo, that is. Seeing as how those supplements get the chondroitin sulfate directly from animal cartilage, why not just eat the cartilage, or a broth made with plenty of cartilaginous substrate? The stuff works and it’s delicious when you get it right from the bones. The keel cartilage of the chicken  back bone is a particularly rich source of the stuff and highly water-soluble, according to one paper (PDF ).
If only we could figure out a humane, sustainable way to tap the suprapatellar pouch of a live grass-fed steer and draw out the synovial fluid. You have to think that would make the ultimate joint  supplement, right?
You often hear that agriculture was “humankind’s greatest mistake” in this community and I think I agree but what’s the solution now? We’re stuck with it and we have to feed all these people somehow. Are there any viable alternatives?
Another Marc, eh? Weird.
It does seem like we’re in a pickle, huh?
We humans think we’re pretty good at conquering nature. We “tame” it. We put up walls, raze forests, lay down roads and think we’ve figured it out. Only things don’t really work out so great. Unintended consequences always seem to arise.
We forgo the nomadic hunter-gatherer  life to live in close quarters with each other and our livestock  in order to keep death and malnutrition at bay – only to develop virulent infectious diseases  that often originate in the livestock, spread from person to person due to cramped conditions, and continue to plague us to this day.
We sterilize things, manage to avoid the acute germs, keep our homes clean – but then end up with bad immune systems  and imbalanced gut flora  that lead to chronic autoimmune disease  and allergies .
We convert vast reams of prairie teeming with wild grasses we cannot eat into cropland that produces billions of calories – but then end up with nutrient-sparse/energy-rich diets, rampant obesity, and a rapidly disappearing topsoil unfit to grow anything of worth.
We devise genetically modified organisms with immunity to herbicides so that we can blanket the crops with the herbicides in order to boost production and make up for the poor topsoil – only to create herbicide-resistant weeds  that lower production and necessitate the use of more and even stronger herbicides.
Each one of our perfect solutions to the “nature problem” comes with baggage because nature is impossibly complex. It’s the result of billions of years of constant, unceasing refinement in response to billions of shifting variables. We’re discovering new genes, new bioactive plant compounds, new species, new roles for DNA we previously assumed to be “junk .” And really, it’s not that “we’re” discovering it. It’s this team of researchers in Beijing discovering that, that team in British Columbia stumbling upon this, this garage scientist in a Dutch suburb discovering that. It’s individuals, or groups of individuals. Yes, the Internet has made knowledge easier to share and more widely accessible, but the sheer breadth of it all is staggering and only getting more so. It’s hard to account for a bit of data when you’re unaware of its existence.
As far as the agriculture problem, I really don’t know. I am intrigued by the permaculture movement. Rather than start in the lab and force their findings on nature, they start with nature, observe its patterns and laws, and use the lab to enhance them. They rightly acknowledge that the “natural way” – whatever that is – of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other denizens of the soil all interacting is the most sustainable and perhaps even productive way to grow food. They also realize that rather than oppose nature, we can use science to enhance its processes. For example, decomposition of organic materials happens out in the wild but over a longer timescale. Compost piles do the same thing, only faster, without perverting or counteracting the original premise.
I can’t see the world switching over to a permaculture-based system anytime soon, but is that because of entrenched interests and inertia or a lack of viability? Throw in a little holistic livestock management a la Allan Savory  and it seems like you’d have a solid system for producing food .
That’s it for me, folks. I’d like to hear what you guys have to say. Still going to make bone broth? How do you think we should handle food production? I suspect the former will be easier to answer than the latter!