Ancient Nutrition bone broth protein powder

Are Bone Broth Protein Powder Benefits Exaggerated?

[toc]Used for making gravies, stews, and other flavorings, bone broth is a concoction of body parts that historically was considered to be more of a peasant food. Not a superfood.

Today, some say otherwise…

“It’s the number one superfood I recommend to my patients.”

That’s a quote from a video on Dr. Axe’s website. He’s a purveyor of a powdered protein supplement made from it, sold under his brand Ancient Nutrition.

Now as far as his “patients” it’s worth pointing out that he is not a medical doctor.

Josh Axe has a Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic and is a naturopath. Not something many people realize until reading his bio.

What is bone broth protein?

Bone broth is made from leftover body parts. These may include bones, marrow, tendons, ligaments, skin, feet, and gizzards from birds, cows, pigs or other livestock. These parts are simmered in water for 6 to 48 hours. What remains is a liquid rich in amino acids. When dehydrated and in powder form, it’s called bone broth protein.

bone broth
What the homemade version looks like before dehydrating. Photo by jules via Flickr [CC by 2.0]
Obviously, bone broth protein is not vegan. Ancient Nutrition and most other brands will be dairy free, gluten free, and paleo friendly.

Unless a product is made using the genetically engineered “Frankenfish” salmon (and none are) then they should also be non-GMO, assuming plants and grains are not added to them. Chicken and beef are the two animal sources most often used.

Ancient Nutrition say their broth powder is made from the “ligaments, tendons and bones of U.S.-sourced chickens.”

Their website is silent on the topic of whether it’s organic chicken or if added growth hormones are used. At least the latter should be a non-issue, because even though rBGH is common with cattle, in the United States, hormone usage on poultry is actually banned. (1)

10 health benefits

There are a plethora of claims being made about this protein, yet research specifically for it is limited. You can search the nearly 30 million pieces of medical literature in the PubMed database and you will come up empty handed. There are no clinical studies, let alone research papers on the powdered form.

That means the claims being made appear to be based largely on circumstantial evidence.

For example, product marketing may claim it contains collagen and then they will take that and run with it, based on general claims about collagen and studies which are not specific to the product or even bone broth sources.

From a scientific perspective, this leaves little room for truly vetting the health claims and even some of the basic nutrition facts.

Is bone broth protein good for you? To answer that question, let’s take a look at several of the benefits that Dr. Axe and/or Ancient Nutrition claims in their marketing material.

1. Each serving offers 20g of protein

The nutrition facts state that one heaping scoop of the unflavored provides 20g of protein and clocks in at 90 calories.

bone broth nutrition facts label

On a per calorie basis, the grams of protein in bone broth is comparable to whey, pea, and brown rice powders. While the exact numbers do vary by brand, all of those competing sources offer approximately 18 to 20 grams of total protein per 80 to 100 calorie serving.

2. Contains 19 amino acids

Is bone broth protein a complete protein?

It’s complete in the sense that it contains all of the nine essential amino acids, however the ratios are probably not ideal. Ancient Nutrition does not disclose their amino acid profile but we know it’s subpar for bodybuilding since they say 50% of the content is collagen. That’s primarily glycine, proline and hydroxyproline.

Based on data from the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board, the following has been proposed as an “optimal profile” for a complete protein. (2)

Essential Amino Acid Amount (mg/g)
Tryptophan 7
Threonine 27
Isoleucine 25
Leucine 55
Lysine 51
Methionine+Cystine 25
Phenylalanine+Tyrosine 47
Valine 32
Histidine 18

Since collagen is 50% of the content in this product, obviously that limits how much of the essentials and other non-essentials can be in the remaining 10 grams.

Is bone broth better than whey?

Whey is prized for its content of branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). Per 100 calorie serving it has 1.16g of isoleucine, 1.94 of leucine, and 1.09 of valine. Depending on how it’s made, it’s theoretically possible for bone broth protein to contain similar but there is no evidence it does. Whey, pea, soy, and brown rice are more reliable sources.

3. Supports healthy skin, hair and nails

benefits list on bone broth packagePay attention to the word “support” in this claim. You will see this used in numerous marketing claims when a given manufacturer is talking about basic nutrition.

Because when you talk about essential nutrients, really they “support” almost anything in your body, right?

The high collagen content might lead you to assume that’s the reason why it can help your skin look beautiful.

It’s not that simple.

Yes, prior to the invention of modern injectable fillers like Juvederm, dermatologists and plastic surgeons would inject faces and lips with actual collagen to plump them up and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. It offered a temporary fix but even if it could be permanent, it’s not the same as eating collagen.

When you eat protein your body breaks it down into its constituent amino acids before absorbing them.

So yes, Dr. Axe’s product is a rich source of type 2 collagen but after digestion, it’s no longer collagen. It’s separated into glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.

Those 3 are all non-essential in the human diet. That means your body can make them on their own.

It’s true that glycine and proline can be conditionally essential, such as for prematurely born infants and catabolic distress, but aside from the extreme scenarios, your body makes these. (3)

Lastly, it’s collagen types 1 and 3 that are found in hair, skin, and nails. Type 2 makes up the cartilage in your joints.

4. Supports lean muscle tissue

Similar to claim #3, the word “support” here is true but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better.

Consuming these same amino acids and nutrients elsewhere should provide the same “support” for lean muscle growth. In fact, you could easily argue that whey pea protein powders offer better “support” since they contain high ratios of the essential aminos, which includes the BCAAs.

5. Glucosamine and chondroitin

Both glucosamine and chondroitin are naturally found in your body as structural components of cartilage. They’re also two of the most popular ingredients marketed for arthritis and knee joint pain.

Most dietary supplements use glucosamine derived from shellfish, particularly shark cartilage, and chondroitin that is synthesized. It is true that potent natural food sources are not common in the human diet, which means this really is a noteworthy bone broth benefit. You won’t be getting this with whey or plant-based protein powders.

It is a source, but does it work?

Many people are firm believers that it reduces joint pain and inflammation, however the science to support that is mixed.

A meta-analysis, which is a pooling of results from different studies, looked at 3,803 patients from 10 different clinical trials. Here was the conclusion (4):

“The differences in changes in minimal width of joint space were all minute, with 95% credible intervals overlapping zero. Compared with placebo, glucosamine, chondroitin, and their combination do not reduce joint pain or have an impact on narrowing of joint space.”

Worse yet, it may have side effects. One study suggests that glucosamine increases the risk of glaucoma. The worsening of asthma and in diabetics, raising blood sugar, are two others which have been brought up. Chondroitin may be a blood thinner which would place it among supplements to avoid before surgery and/or if you are on anticoagulant medications. (5) (6)

Glucosamine is also notorious for causing gas and bloating.

Even if it really does reduce joint pain and inflammation, the amounts needed might be a lot higher than what’s found in these protein supplements.

In 2017, a double-blinded and placebo-controlled trial was published by the American College of Rheumatology and found “no superiority over placebo” in patients with knee osteoarthritis given relatively high dosages of 1,200 mg of chondroitin and 1,500 mg of chondroitin everyday for 6 months. (7)

In short, even if you personally find glucosamine and chondroitin to help your joints, you don’t know how much you’re getting with Ancient Nutrition. As of the time of this review, we could not locate that information in their marketing materials.

6. Supports metabolism

Jarrow Beyond Bone Broth
Other brands, like Jarrow Formulas, don’t make the same health claims as Ancient Nutrition.

Yes, these essential nutrients “support” metabolism. That should not be misconstrued as boosting metabolism, or weight loss benefits that are above and beyond other dietary sources of these nutrients.

7. Supports detoxification

Again, this is another claim being made that is not clarified. We cannot locate any scientific data or studies on bone broth “detoxifying” the body.

As with non-medical activated charcoal uses, this may be a scenario where “detox” is not well defined and therefore, could mean something quite different than what you have in mind.

8. Allergy friendly

Ancient Nutrition label touting its free of common allergensIt’s free of several common food allergens since it’s dairy free, gluten free, nut free, and soy free. However it does contain glutamic acid, which is a non-essential amino believed to trigger migraines, headaches, and other neurological problems in some people.

That proposed danger is because glutamate is a powerful excitatory neurotransmitter. (8)

Too much might trigger neurological side effects. Things such as brain fog and mood swings by affecting GABA levels in the brain, and for those who are prone to them, epileptic seizures, are cited concerns. (9) (10)

A quick Googling will yield many negative reviews of bone broth where people allege some of these adverse reactions.

While it’s true there is research about these reactions correlating with elevated glutamate levels in the brain, those studies are not specific to bone broth.

For now these pseudo-allergic reactions people are claiming remain theoretical and unproven. Perhaps they are real, but they may not be. After all, many foods are a potent source of glutamic acid.

What is a reassuring fact is that developing allergies to chicken meat, without having an allergy to their eggs and feathers, is very rare phenomenon. So yes, the evidence to date supports that this is an allergy friendly protein source. (11)

9. Improves digestion

In a video by Dr. Axe this advantage is claimed, though it’s not clear to us as to why or how he believes it helps.

Theoretically speaking, you could make the argument that this and almost all other protein powders are digestive friendly since they don’t require chewing.

On the flip side, you could also argue bone broth is worse for digestion since there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that glucosamine and chondroitin causes gas and GI distress.

Of course, that’s based on taking those separately, but without even one human clinical study on bone broth, it’s hard to argue the opposite – that these powdered products containing it don’t cause an increase.

10. Cost efficient

The Ancient Nutrition website claims that their powder equates to $2.25 per serving for 1-5 minutes of work versus $5.50+ per serving for 12-48 hours when making it from scratch.

Of course the cost of making it yourself can vary greatly. Since it’s made using left over body parts, you might be able to obtain those raw ingredients for a very low cost, or even free, if you have a friendly butcher/farmer who will provide them.

But let’s be honest here… that sounds like a lot of work that’s also messy and disgusting! You can’t deny that this powdered form is convenient and the most practical way for 90% or more of the population.

Sunwarrior Classic Plus chocolate 1 kg sizeWith 20 servings per tub, it means the $2.25 estimate is assuming you pay $45 per tub without sales tax.

While it’s cost efficient for bone broth, it’s very expensive when compared to many other protein supplements such as whey, pea, rice, hemp, etc.

For example, the high-end vegan protein powder brand Sunwarrior retail for $40 to $50 per tub, but each tub has up to 47 servings and they are USDA certified organic (Ancient Nutrition isn’t).

Each serving of Sunwarrior protein has a comparable amount of total protein content too (17 to 20g) and you can easily make the case that it’s a better amino acid profile for building muscle and exercise recovery.

Side effects of bone broth protein

  • Red meat and pork sources contain potentially dangerous Neu5Gc
  • Consumption may increase exposure to lead
  • Increase in headaches, including migraines
  • More gas and bloating
  • Excess glutamates may exasperate ADD/ADHD, autism, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological disorders
  • People with MSG sensitivities may suffer similar reactions

It’s important to emphasize that many of these adverse reactions people proposed remain theoretical and unproven.

For example, it is primarily the free glutamate content which is why some speculate it’s bad for your brain, because the free unbound form may pass the blood-brain barrier.

As the biochemist Katherine Reid points out, no one really knows how much ends up in the free form when you make  broth. Though in theory, longer simmering times and adding apple cider vinegar or another type might increase that amount. (12)

UK researchers published an analysis of liquid bone broth made using organic chickens and found that the body parts released large amounts of lead; 9.5 µg/L when made from their skin/cartilage and 7.01 µg/L when made from only the bones.

They said these were “markedly high lead concentrations” compared to the 0.89 µg that was naturally present in the water used. (13)

That is troubling news but you can’t extrapolate and assume that all protein powders made from bone broth have the same problem. Plus even in the UK study, the lead content in the broth was still below the EPA’s limit for drinking water, which is 15 ug/L. Though no amount of lead is good for you. (14)

There are scientific reasons why protein farts are a prevalent problem, regardless of source. Whey and casein may be the worst but you can experience this side effect with any rich source of protein.

That said, bone broth might be worse than average since it also contains glucosamine and chondroitin, two compounds which are frequently associated with increased gas.

Neu5Gc is a sialic acid sugar molecule not produced by humans. Dietary sources of it are believed to increase the risk of tumor formation. It’s believed to be one of the reasons why red meat causes cancer at increased rates. (15)

Taken from a UCSD study, the following diagram summarizes how and why Neu5Gc is harmful. (16)

diagram showing why Neu5Gc is bad for you

The good news is that chicken bone broth protein powders like the brand Ancient Nutrition won’t be a source of Neu5Gc. It’s the brands which source from cows and pigs you need to be concerned with.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Although different than naturally occurring glutamic acid, some people claim side effects with high levels of either. Neither have been conclusively proven to cause the side effects often claimed but the FDA says: “The glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from glutamate present in food proteins.” (17)

Final verdict

Is bone broth protein good for you?

Even though it offers some essential minerals like potassium, magnesium, calcium, and selenium, the amino acid profile of bone broth in liquid or powdered form leaves much to be desired, since roughly 50% comes from non-essential aminos in the form of collagen type II. Athletes and bodybuilders would be better off choosing a more complete source.

Just as the benefits seem overhyped, the same can be said about the naysayers who purport its bad for you or has unhealthy side effects. Neither side has much research specific to bone broth to make a case for or against its daily use.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.