Ham bone broth could be a tonic for the heart | Science News for Students

Ham bone broth could be a tonic for the heart

Simmering Spanish ham bones releases heart-healthy chemicals
Mar 19, 2019 — 6:45 am EST
a photo of lots of Spanish dry-cured ham hanging in a shop

Broth from the bones of Spanish dry-cured ham, like that shown here, could boost heart health, new data suggest.

Michal Osmenda/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0)

Google the term “bone broth.” You’ll quickly discover people claiming that it’s the latest miracle cure. Broth made from animal bones simmered up to 20 hours can heal your gut, boost your immune system, reduce cellulite, strengthen teeth and bones, tackle inflammation and much more. Or that’s what a host of health and fitness websites claim. But there’s been little research to support those claims — until now. Researchers in Spain report promising signs that broth from dry-cured ham bones might help protect the heart.

Leticia Mora works at the Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology in Valencia, Spain. She didn’t set out to validate health claims of bone-broth fans. This biochemist is merely interested in the chemistry of meat. “The processing of meat involves a lot of changes in terms of biochemistry,” she explains.

Cooking meat releases nutrients that the body can absorb. As we digest meat and related products such as broth, our bodies interact with those compounds. What happens during these interactions interests Mora. She also has a practical reason to investigate the biochemistry of bone broth: The meat industry throws out most animal bones as waste. Says Mora, “I wanted to find a way to use them in a healthy way.”

Many Spanish dishes include bone broth. So Mora had a good idea of how to make it. She turned her lab into a kitchen and concocted a broth with only water and dry-cured ham bones. Most cooks flavor bone broths with vegetables. But Mora wasn’t looking for flavor. She was searching for protein bits known as peptides that had been released by the bones.

The long process of cooking broth breaks bone proteins into those peptides, which are short chains of amino acids. There are many different types of peptides. Some can help the body’s cardiovascular system, that heart and blood-transporting network. Such peptides can help block certain natural chemicals called enzymes that can increase blood pressure. When Mora finished cooking her broth, she analyzed what chemicals it now contained. The “interesting results,” she says, showed the heart-healthy peptides were there.

Her team described its findings online January 30 in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Probing the role of digestion

The researchers also wanted to find out what happens to the peptides when bone broth is digested. Other types of enzymes help break down foods. “Sometimes, the enzymes interacting in the stomach can act on the proteins that we eat, and they can also affect the peptides in the broth,” Mora explains. “We wanted to be sure that these peptides are still there after all the ... conditions of the stomach [act on the broth].”

In other words, she wanted to know if the stomach acids, enzymes and more might destroy any heart-friendly peptides in the broth before the body had a chance to move them into your blood. To test that, Mora decided to simulate digestion in her lab. She gathered all the liquids found in our digestive system and let them mingle with the broth. After two hours, the time it would take us to digest broth, she analyzed the broth again. And the good ham-bone peptides were still there.

This suggests bone broth’s heart-helping peptides can survive long enough to enter the bloodstream. That’s where they need to be to block the enzymes that put people at risk for heart disease.

But Mora can’t say for sure that’s the case — yet. Sometimes, experiments in the lab don’t mimic what happens in the body. That’s why Mora now hopes to study bone broth in people. One idea: Measure people’s blood pressure before and after they drink a certain amount of bone broth for a month. If blood pressures are lower at the end of the month, Mora might infer that bone broth is indeed good for the heart.

So, is Mora’s experiment enough to support bone broth’s status as a miracle cure? Not by a long shot. More research is needed to test each of the claims made by wellness gurus and companies. But her team’s data do show that it’s worth following up to probe any true benefits of slow-simmered bones.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

amino acids     Simple molecules that occur naturally in plant and animal tissues and that are the basic building blocks of proteins.

biochemistry     A field that marries biology and chemistry to investigate the reactions that underpin how cells and organs function. People who work in this field are known as biochemists.

blood pressure     The force exerted against vessel walls by blood moving through the body. Usually this pressure refers to blood moving specifically through the body’s arteries. That pressure allows blood to circulate to our heads and keeps the fluid moving so that it can deliver oxygen to all tissues. Blood pressure can vary based on physical activity and the body’s position. High blood pressure can put someone at risk for heart attacks or stroke. Low blood pressure may leave people dizzy, or faint, as the pressure becomes too low to supply enough blood to the brain.

cardiovascular     An adjective that refers to things that affect or are part of the heart and the system of vessels and arteries that move blood through the heart and tissues of the body.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances.

compound     (often used as a synonym for chemical) A compound is a substance formed when two or more chemical elements unite (bond) in fixed proportions. For example, water is a compound made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O.

digest     (noun: digestion) To break down food into simple compounds that the body can absorb and use for growth. Some sewage-treatment plants harness microbes to digest — or degrade — wastes so that the breakdown products can be recycled for use elsewhere in the environment.

enzymes     Molecules made by living things to speed up chemical reactions.

flavor     The particular mix of sensations that help people recognize something that has passed through the mouth. This is based largely on how a food or drink is sensed by cells in the mouth. It also can be influenced, to some extent, by its smell, look or texture.

gut     An informal term for the gastrointestinal tract, especially the intestines.

immune system     The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

infer     (n. inference) To conclude or make some deduction based on evidence, data, observations or similar situations.

inflammation     (adj. inflammatory) The body’s response to cellular injury and obesity; it often involves swelling, redness, heat and pain. It also is an underlying feature responsible for the development and aggravation of many diseases, especially heart disease and diabetes.

nutrient     A vitamin, mineral, fat, carbohydrate or protein that a plant, animal or other organism requires as part of its food in order to survive.

online     (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.

peptide     A short chain of amino acids (usually fewer than 100).

pressure     Force applied uniformly over a surface, measured as force per unit of area.

protein     A compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. Among the better-known, stand-alone proteins are the hemoglobin (in blood) and the antibodies (also in blood) that attempt to fight infections. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

simulate     To deceive in some way by imitating the form or function of something. A simulated dietary fat, for instance, may deceive the mouth that it has tasted a real fat because it has the same feel on the tongue — without having any calories. A simulated sense of touch may fool the brain into thinking a finger has touched something even though a hand may no longer exists and has been replaced by a synthetic limb.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.


Journal:​ M. Gallego ​et​ ​al. Peptides with potential cardioprotective effects derived from dry-cured ham byproducts. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Vol. 67, January 30, 2019, p. 1115.  doi: 10.1021/acs.jafc.8b05888.