How we tested
Once a niche offering found in trendy cafés and touted as a cure-all by wellness bloggers, bone broth has become more mainstream. You can now find boxed versions from brands such as Swanson and College Inn sitting alongside the traditional chicken broths on shelves in the supermarket soup aisle.
While cooks have been making broth from bones for centuries, the term “bone broth” saw a huge surge in popularity around 2015 at the height of the paleo diet trend (a movement that advocated eating only foods that our prehistoric ancestors would have eaten). After all, what’s more caveman-like than sipping on bone water? However, instead of using it as an ingredient for cooking, it became popular for sipping plain, in the same way you might drink coffee or tea. But if you’re confused about what bone broth is and how it differs from plain old chicken broth, you’re not alone.
What’s the Difference Between Broth, Stock, and Bone Broth?
Bone broth doesn’t have a monopoly on bones. Both traditional chicken broth and stock are also made using bones. While the distinctions between stock and broth are a bit blurry, chicken broth is typically made with meat, bones, and vegetables, while stock is usually made with a higher proportion of bones and simmered longer to extract the collagen (a structural protein found in bones and connective tissue), which turns to gelatin and thickens the stock slightly. We suspected that bone broth, which is purportedly made with a high proportion of bones, might be a clever marketing term for stock, though some proponents claim that it's simmered even longer than stock so that it has more collagen, which allegedly provides numerous health benefits. But when it comes to product labeling, one thing is clear: Manufacturers are free to call their products whatever they want. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees product labeling, makes no distinction between “broth” and “stock,” and we found in our previous tasting of supermarket chicken broth that manufacturers use these terms interchangeably to refer to the same product. (For simplicity, we’ll refer to regular broth and stock as “stock” throughout this story.) Another point of confusion: The FDA doesn’t regulate the term “bone broth” at all.
Does Bone Broth Have Health Benefits?
Proponents of bone broth claim that it is a nutritional superfood that can prevent or relieve bone- or skin-related diseases. One brand, Kettle & Fire, claims its co-founder used bone broth to speed his recovery from an ACL injury and that bone broth can improve gut health, make your skin, hair, and nails shine, and even help you sleep better. These claims mostly center around how the longer simmering time of bone broth extracts more protein and nutrients from the bones than the shorter simmering time of traditional stock. However, little scientific research has been done into the actual health benefits of bone broth. While there is some evidence that chicken soup of any kind (not just bone broth) can clear nasal passages, reduce inflammation, and help with hydration, most experts agree that the health benefits of bone broth are either unsupported or exaggerated.
Many manufacturers also use the long cooking time and purported health benefits of bone broth to justify making it more expensive than regular chicken stock. While there are reports of people sipping $14 cups of bone broth at boutique cafes in Brooklyn, we’ve seen a wide variety in the pricing of supermarket bone broth—from prices that are on par with our favorite regular chicken stock (about $0.10 per ounce) to up to four times that amount. What are you getting for the extra money, and, from a cooking perspective, is bone broth really all that different from regular stock? To find out, we tasted five top-selling supermarket chicken bone broths, priced from about $0.10 to about $0.50 per ounce. Since manufacturers suggest heating it before sipping it, we tried all the broths warmed and served plain in a blind tasting with 21 tasters, and then we used the top-rated bone broth in recipes that call for chicken stock to better understand how (and if) bone broth can be used for cooking.
Bone Broth Flavor and Texture
While all the bone broths in our lineup were similar in consistency—”slightly thicker” than regular chicken stock—they varied greatly in flavor, which ranged from “deeply savory” and “meaty” to “lean” and “acidic.” For sipping, we wanted a full-flavored broth with no funky off-flavors. However, some of the products were “overly vegetal,” “sweet,” and even “sour.” Package labels revealed that lower-ranked broths contained a plethora of added ingredients such as tomato paste, poblano pepper, and even apple cider vinegar. While they sounded nice on paper, they surprised our tasters, who preferred “simpler,” “more meaty-tasting” bone broths. Our higher-rated products used traditional chicken stock ingredients: vegetables such as onion, celery, and carrot and only one or two herbs and spices such as black pepper and bay leaf. These products had a “cleaner,” “more savory,” “balanced” flavor.
Sodium levels also varied greatly between the broths—from 240 milligrams to 560 milligrams per 1-cup serving. Broths with less sodium tasted muted and lean. Our top-rated bone broth had the most sodium—560 milligrams per cup—just a bit more than the 510 milligrams per cup of our favorite regular chicken stock, Swanson Chicken Stock. Tasters noted that this bone broth was “deeply savory” and just “robust” enough for sipping plain.
Comparing Bone Broth with Chicken Stock
In the end, we were surprised by how much our tasters loved some of the bone broths, and two of the products earned our coveted “highly recommended” rating. But we still wondered: How does chicken bone broth compare with regular supermarket chicken stock when it comes to sipping and cooking?
To find out, we warmed our two top-ranked bone broths along with our favorite chicken stock by Swanson and sipped all three. The flavor of the chicken stock was pleasant, but it wasn’t quite as rich and savory as the bone broths. Also, the bone broths were thicker than the regular chicken stock. All three products had similar ingredients and sodium levels, so why the differences?
Looking at the nutrition labels, all the chicken bone broths we tasted had at least twice as much protein per serving as our favorite regular chicken stock—8 to 10 grams versus 4 grams of protein per cup. Our science research editor explained that the higher protein levels indicate that the bone broths had significantly more gelatin than the regular chicken stock. How are those higher levels achieved? Either by using more bones or simmering the bones for longer to extract their natural collagen, which becomes gelatin in the process and acts as a natural thickener and adds savoriness. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that bone broth is different from traditional supermarket stock and that its dietary claim of having more protein is true.
So, if we liked our top-rated bone broth so much when we tasted it plain, could we substitute it for chicken stock in recipes? Not exactly. When we made two batches of chicken noodle soup using our top bone broth and our favorite chicken stock and compared the two, the potent flavor and thick consistency of the version made with bone broth was overpowering. We preferred the subtler flavor of the soup made with the thinner, clear chicken stock. In that soup, we could taste the other components more prominently. However, when we pitted the bone broth against chicken stock in our Basic Rice Pilaf, we loved how the bone broth added a deeper chicken flavor to an otherwise simple rice. Our takeaway: Bone broth is great for sipping on its own or using to cook and season very simple foods such as rice, but for most recipes we prefer regular chicken stock, which provides a more neutral base for building more complex, nuanced flavors.
The Best Chicken Bone Broth: College Inn Chicken Bone Broth
Our favorite bone broth was College Inn Chicken Bone Broth. It had a bold, meaty flavor; a relatively thick body; and the highest sodium level per serving of all the products we tried. While its flavor is a bit too bold for most cooking applications, it’s ultracomforting when sipped, and it can also be used to punch up the flavor of basic recipes such as rice pilaf. And unlike the jaw-dropping prices we’ve seen reported for some products, College Inn Bone Broth is roughly the same price (about $0.10 per ounce) as our favorite regular chicken stock.
- Taste five supermarket bone broths, priced from about $0.10 to about $0.50 per ounce
- Taste plain, warmed until simmering
- Top two products only: Taste plain against favorite supermarket chicken stock
- Top product only: Taste against favorite supermarket chicken stock in chicken noodle soup
- Top product only: Taste against favorite supermarket chicken stock in Basic Rice Pilaf
- Sodium and protein levels and ingredient lists taken from package labels, with sodium and protein levels based on a 1-cup serving