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Hot soup may be just what the doctor orders

A bowl of steaming soup on a cold winter day might be just what the doctor ordered. It appears grandmother was right when she claimed chicken noodle soup is a good remedy for colds and influenza. While many people believe benefits of soup may be largely psychosomatic—it is after all the ultimate comfort food—laboratory analysis has found evidence that soup contains properties that may, indeed, help prevent miserable side effects of a cold, and in addition offers substances that support the digestive system, and strengthen bone and blood health. So what is it that not only makes soup a much favoured lunch item especially in winter, but also a healthy food one would be wise to include regularly in the diet?

It is not complicated to figure out why vegetable soup is considered a highly nutritious food. Vegetables are good for us and one understands why the Canadian food guide recommends three or four servings a day. A robust soup containing a variety of vegetables offers a wide range of vitamins and minerals, both from the vegetables and the broth which contains leached out water-soluble vitamins.

Potent antioxidant

Most vegetables contain vitamin C with particularly high amounts found in tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage and sweet peppers. In addition to being a potent antioxidant that helps prevent damage to cells caused by highly reactive free radicals, vitamin C works at the molecular level in preventing the formation of compounds involved in abnormal inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which can alter cells in ways that set the stage for chronic disease. Of course people don’t have to necessarily eat soup to get an adequate amount of vegetables—and thus vitamin C—in their diet, but soup is an easy way to ingest a wide variety which may provide a synergistic effect.

Since colds are caused by viral infections in the upper respiratory tract which the body responds to with inflammation to trigger white blood cells, it makes sense that vitamin C as an anti-inflammatory agent would help mitigate the condition. The steam from soup also clears congestion and provides the body with necessary hydration to flush out viral bugs.

However, what many people are not aware of is that broth prepared from chicken, beef or other meat bones—a practise which goes back to ancient times and is still followed in many cultures around the world—is in itself a nutritious product. Making one’s own broth has fallen out of favour in the modern world where “fast food” seems to be the norm, but it was common in grandmother’s day so she was perfectly right in saying soup had healing benefits for sick people.

Bone is made up of collagen, amino acids, marrow and minerals—all substances that are released when bones are steeped in water to make broth. Basically collagen is the same as gelatin—which congeals when the broth cools—containing a range of vitamins and minerals. Gelatin has been found to help heal the membranes of the gastrointestinal tract in cases of inflammation such as irritable bowel syndrome. Gelatin or collagen also supports hair growth and helps keep nails strong.

Formation of blood cells

Bone broth contains a number of amino acids including glycine and proline that are important in the formation of blood cells, support the digestive system and are necessary for healthy bones, skin and ligaments. Bone marrow has a definite role in the formation of platelets (important for clotting) as well as red and white blood cells.

Bones are, of course, an excellent source of calcium and phosphorus—minerals which are extracted in the broth, and used in turn to strengthen our bones, generate energy and help with muscle contraction.

It can be said that soup—be it one rich with vegetables, lentils, grains or pasta or a combination—is wholesome and should be included in the diet. Soups are not created equal, however. Many canned soups are high in sodium and preservatives and are not necessarily based on bone broth, so read labels before purchasing.

To get the full nutritional value of soup, cook your own broth using meat bones purchased from the neighbourhood butcher or supermarket. To get an even greater health boost, look for soup bones from animals that are antibiotic-free, grass-fed and free-range.

For chicken broth, place in a heavy pot 1 whole chicken, 2 medium onions (quartered), 3 stalks celery (chopped), 2 large carrots (chopped), ½ cup parsley sprigs, 6 whole cloves, 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper and 3 quarts water. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. Remove chicken and cut off meat, returning bones to broth, and simmer for another 1 to 2 hours. Strain broth through a sieve, discarding vegetables and refrigerating broth.