First it was juice cleanses, then it was (and still is) butter coffee, and now the newest (though actually ancient) drinkable cure-all is bone broth or, as I like to call it “stock.”
All three of these have been marketed as the liquid solution to all of your bodily woes. These drinks will change your life. They will make your mind clearer and your bowels more regular. You will finally have energy.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with adding grass-fed butter to your coffee or sipping on collagen-rich broth. Neither is bad for you and both seem to have large legions of fans that find them beneficial. The problem lies in how they are presented. The moment something is marketed as a cure-all that seems too good to be true, my "snake oil" spidey sense goes crazy.
There is no one magic-bullet solution to bodily health. Eating whole, minimally processed foods is a good start, and things like organic stock and grass-fed butter can be incorporated in a healthy diet, but when one looks to one beverage to fix everything, they may end up ignoring things that are actually adversely affecting your health. (Though, if there is one beverage you should be drinking above all others, it's plain water.)
I've used this analogy before, but drinking bone broth or buttered coffee as part of a diet that is otherwise comprised of fast food and Diet Coke (which I love but gives me headaches) is kind of like clipping your dog's nails when he/she is on fire; you're focusing on the wrong thing.
Both trends have old roots. Dave Asprey, CEO of the Bulletproof Executive, has appropriated the Tibetan practice of fortifying tea with yak butter and packaged it as a way to “power your busy day . . . for energy and mental focus, and free yourself from unwanted food cravings.” Though bone broth is being hyped and sold like espresso, this isn't a new culinary invention, nor is it the first time the meaty elixir has been pushed as a cure for "what ails you"; back in the 1800s, "meat teas" were sold as a remedy for “all cases of weakness and digestive disorder” and as something that "allayed 'brain-excitement' when served as a nightcap."
Butter coffee is a cousin to Tibetan butter tea, a drink made with tea leaves, yak butter, and salt as part of a morning ritual that provides energy in the way of calories for those living and working at high altitudes. Asprey has taken that everyday part of Tibetan life and made it into a brand. But Bulletproof Coffee isn't "just coffee with butter in it." Not only does Asprey have his own “Upgraded” coffee (more on that in a bit), he also sells a coconut and palm kernel oil blend under the name of “Brain Octane Oil.” Asprey doesn't have his own butter to sell, but recommends you buy the grass-fed variety. With these three ingredients, Asprey shows us how to make his now-famous Bulletproof Coffee.
In the above video, Asprey claims that his beans are better because he has "removed the toxins that rob performance from you every single time you drink most coffee." In a separate article, he goes on to explain that the toxins he's referring to are ochratoxins (OTA), "a class of several different chemicals belonging to the fungal toxins known as mycotoxins. Unlike other fungal toxins, such as mushroom poison, mycotoxins are toxic secondary metabolites produced by mold, and we unintentionally ingest them in food."
To his credit, Asprey does provide studies to back up his claims. Two are very old (20 years and older), but a 2003 study does indicate that 91.7 percent of the coffees tested were contaminated with molds. However, the study also says that "all positive samples showed OTA levels below the limit suggested by the European Union (8 microg kg(-1))." Just so we're clear, that's 0.000008 grams of OTA for every kilogram of coffee. If that's all it takes to "rob performance from you," there may be bigger issues.
In an ironic twist, Asprey then mocks the study he just used to support himself:
In my world, “good enough for government standards” doesn't get me going. I drink coffee that is designed for human performance, far exceeding those standards.
He very well may, but it's hard to know because his process is proprietary. To me, this reads as Asprey picking and choosing bits of science to back up his narrative and sell his product and — in an unexpected turn of events — I find myself agreeing with Joe Rogan.
The comedian and UFC commentator had Asprey on his show a while back. Rogan alleges that Asprey came on his show and "used his platform" in a way that Rogan didn't think was "totally ethical." Apparently Rogan was originally on board, and even agreed to sell Asprey's coffee, but later came to feel that Asprey had kind of swindled him.
In the above portion of his podcast, Rogan says that he had four types of coffee tested for mycotoxins: Upgraded, "one random bag" from Whole Foods, a bag of Starbucks, and a bag of Caveman Coffee. According to Rogan, none of the coffees tested positive for mycotoxins, thus disputing Asprey's claim that 70 percent of the coffee out there contains mycotoxins. Rogan then goes on to say that "his friend Tate" found trace levels of mycotoxins in "Dave's coffee" (Upgraded).
I don't hold this podcast in the same regard as a peer-reviewed journal paper, and I don't know how sensitive the instrumentation Onnit Labs (where Rogan had the coffee tested) are, but one thing is for certain: Rogan feels that some of things Asprey said on his show "seem to be bullshit."
But even if David Asprey's coffee was absolutely mycotoxin free and superior to every other coffee in existence, I'm still not convinced that it's a recipe for a "bulletproof" existence. I think Rogan's guest — Dr. Rhonda Patrick — summed it up best:
Some people have good information, but they also have some bad information. Yeah, I agree with you. You gotta be careful. I mean anyone that's offering you, like, a magic bullet. 'This is it. This is the cure.' It's complicated and there's trade-offs."
The current "bone broth" fad is also irking me, but for different reasons. As I mentioned earlier, you can't exactly say that stock (which contains more bones than typical broth) is anything new, but mainly, it's the fact that proponents of this broth craze ("brothers," if you will) are taking something that people have been making cheaply for literal ages, and selling it as something "artisinal" and "detoxifying" for $4 to $9 per cup.
Like kale and Spam before it, "brothing" is another foodie trend that consists of elevating "common" food. In her article "The Cost of Kale: How Foodie Trends Can Hurt Low-Income Families," Soleil Ho explains what "food gentrification" is and why it's a bigger problem than having to deal with annoying hipsters:
The phrase “food gentrification” is a lightning-quick synthesis of complex values and ideas into a compact form. Though it may seem unduly weighed down by its provocative nomenclature and its association with the plagues of coffee shop Columbuses that have descended on places like Brooklyn, Oakland, and New Orleans, gentrification’s original meaning holds true: it represents renovation, refurbishing, rebranding — and, some would add, rebirth — seemingly for the purpose of accommodating WASP tastes. At times, food gentrification and neighborhood gentrification can be seen to work in tandem, as in cases where community gardens have attracted wealthier residents to working class neighborhoods.
Beef bones are fairly cheap now, but if kale has taught us anything, it's that hype can drive prices up. As Ho later points out the word superfood is part of the problem:
In the European Union, it is illegal to sell a product as a “superfood.” According to a BBC article on the subject, the marketing of an item as a “superfood” has correlated with price increases. In the United States, we can see this at work with kale, which has been heavily marketed as a superfood since 2011. Since then, the average price of a bunch of the hardy green has increased by 25 percent: from $0.88 a bunch to $1.10.
Though it may be regulated in the E.U., in the U.S. "superfood" is just a marketing term. In the case of bone broth, calcium, collagen (which begets gelatin), and amino acids are the three pillars on which its healthy reputation rest, but Erin Brodwin of Business Insider is skeptical that these are enough to make broth "super."
Both proline and glycine are nonessential (meaning our bodies can produce them on their own) amino acids that are critical to the synthesis of collagen. However, as Brodwin points out, you're probably getting plenty of both already. According to the people at Barrington Nutritionals, proline can be found in dairy, meat, and even some soy products. Bone broth certainly is a source, but it's far from the only. Too much of either isn't usually a problem (though it can be for those with liver or kidney issues). According to Brodwin, "Any extra glycine, as with anything you eat that you don't use, just ends up in your urine."
In terms of calcium, you're better off with dairy (unless you're lactose-intolerant, obviously). According to Jane Lear of TakePart, milk is a superior source:
Bones are a major repository for calcium, and when it comes to that mineral — which is well-known to decrease lead absorption in the intestines, by the way — you might think that bone broth would be especially high in that regard. But no. The amount of calcium in one cup of beef stock is far less than that in a cup of milk, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database.
One true benefit of drinking stock may be a healthier GI tract. According to the above Business Insider article, it has been shown to alleviate colitis symptoms in mice:
A recent study in mice with acute colitis, for example, found that rodents given a gelatin powder for seven days stopped losing weight. The lining of their intestine, which had been depleted by the disease, also appeared to regenerate enough to be seen under a microscope. When the researchers examined the mice given a placebo instead of the gelatin, they didn't see any alleviation of their symptoms.
I don't know if that's enough to warrant the "moment" that bone broth is currently having, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Of course, none of the above information about amino acids or calcium indicate that you shouldn't be drinking stock. It's certainly not bad for you (Bulletproof Coffee probably isn't bad for you either), but it illustrates how food hype works. Body chemistry is complicated and the presentation of any one thing — be it juice, yak butter, or coffee — as a kind of magic bullet solution oversimplifies the conversation we should be having about food and health, not to mention how food fads affect food accessibility.
I'm going to keep putting cream in my coffee and I'm going to keep making stock out of bones. I do these things not because I think they have huge affects on my health (good or bad) but because I like doing them. As someone whose diet is unpredictable at best, it would be absurd to expect switching up the dairy in my morning caffeine or chugging beef stock to suddenly make me a healthier person.
That would be magical, but it's just not likely.