Do your favorites pass the BS test?
By Amber Erickson Gabbey
Bone broth has become passé. Collagen is coming in hot. Elderberry is mostly mainstream, while activated charcoal and blue-green algae are still a bit underground. But regardless of popularity, what matters is whether your favorite food trends work and are safe.
To help you make informed decisions, we’ve taken a look at five common substances that some say work miracles. Jill Carnahan, M.D., a board-certified family medicine and integrative medicine practitioner at Louisville-based Flatiron Functional Medicine, and Nicole Stob, Ph.D., an instructor in nutrition at CU Boulder, share insight to help you determine whether these trends pass the BS test.
Perhaps the most talked-about trend, bone broth has gone mainstream. The irony is that grandmothers around the world have been making it forever.
Claim: Bone broth is a cure-all miracle liquid.
Truth: Bone broth is rich in vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients. It’s especially helpful for maintaining gut health, protecting joints, boosting immunity, and promoting healthy skin, nails and hair. It’s not a cure-all—Stob doesn’t believe anything is a cure-all—but nutrient-rich broth may support health.
“Bone broth” is a great healing remedy for gut disorders; it’s high in collagen and glutamine, which help heal the cells that line the gut,” says Carnahan. It may also help with recovery for serious athletes. Bone broth is believed to be safe to drink daily, or when you need a boost.
Safety: Bone broth is generally safe and most people can benefit, but it’s not for everyone. Bone broth is high in histamines; people with histamine allergies should avoid it (try collagen instead!).
How to use: Simply buy or make your own. Bone broth is exactly what it sounds like—animal bones simmered with water, veggies and spices for 4 to 72 hours. The length of time the bones are boiled is what makes it higher in nutrients than stocks. Drink the broth straight or use it as a base for other recipes.
Elderberry, or Sambucus, is a centuries-old folk remedy.
Claim: Elderberry stops viral infections in their tracks.
Truth: Elderberry is considered an immune-system stimulator, helping your body fight viruses. The medicinal berry contains amino acids, carotenoids, flavonoids, and vitamins A, B and C, and is considered an antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. “Clinical studies have shown elderberry to be effective in reducing the duration and symptoms of colds and flu,” Stob says. “It’s not likely to completely prevent them from developing.”
But if you’re looking for a delicious and natural way to potentially shorten the duration and severity of a virus and boost your immune system, it doesn’t hurt to try elderberry.
Safety: Elderberry is generally very safe, but should only be used for 1 to 2 weeks maximum without a doctor’s supervision. Carnahan cautions anyone with auto-immune diseases to avoid elderberry, because pushing the body to fight when it’s already fighting so hard could do more harm than good.
How to use: Elderberry can be purchased in various forms, including lozenges, syrups and capsules. Read the fine print and follow dosage instructions.
Activated charcoal is everywhere, from beauty bloggers’ websites to model Chrissy Teigen’s juice jar. But it’s one of the most polarizing trends on our list because it’s misunderstood.
Claim: Activated charcoal helps remove toxins and impurities for the best detox ever.
Truth: “Charcoal is a porous binder that attracts impurities,” Carnahan says. So yes, it does remove toxins, but it doesn’t simply reverse the effects of a weekend of bad decisions.
Charcoal is commonly used internally for acute toxic exposure, like food poisoning or travel-related digestive issues. “It collects the toxins as it moves through the digestive system, but isn’t absorbed,” Carnahan explains. In fact, charcoal is used in emergency rooms for acute toxicity, like poisoning or drug overdoses, or at the vet when your dog finds your candy stash. It also helps with excess gas, IBS and bloating.
Externally, charcoal works similarly. Found in exfoliating scrubs, pore treatments and masks, charcoal helps to deep-clean and purify the skin. It may also help with insect bites or minor allergic reactions by drawing out the irritant.
Safety: According to Carnahan, externally applied charcoal is quite safe for the occasional deep cleaning. Internally, charcoal should be taken for short-term, acute needs only, and never in large doses.
How to use: Charcoal is available for internal use as tablets or capsules. Take only as directed. Find topical products in drugstores, or make your own from charcoal powder.
Collagen has grown in popularity over the last year as a miracle anti-aging supplement.
Claim: Collagen is the latest fountain of youth.
Truth: It won’t magically reverse aging, but collagen does support skin, joints, bones, nails and hair.
Collagen is a protein that’s responsible for bone strength, joint mobility and skin elasticity. Your body creates collagen, but aging and unhealthy lifestyles decrease production, causing inflamed joints, brittle nails, saggy skin, cellulite, stretch marks, fine lines and wrinkles.
Supplementing with collagen may help the body regenerate, resulting in firmer skin, reduced joint pain, stronger bones or a more youthful appearance. Carnahan says she uses it for hair, skin and nails.
Safety: Collagen is quite safe. Carnahan says it has many of the same benefits as bone broth, but is safer because there’s no risk of histamine allergy.
How to use: Collagen is easy to incorporate; just add a tablespoon of collagen hydrolysate to your coffee or smoothies, or buy gummies or capsules. The key is quality. “Know where the cows [that it comes from] were raised, and understand the quality of the source of the collagen,” Carnahan says. “Look for grass-fed and hormone-free.”
Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, is a phylum of bacteria that grow in both fresh and salt water.
Claim: Blue-green algae is a miracle superfood and everyone should eat it.
Truth: Algae is nutrient dense, packed with vitamins, minerals and proteins. It’s also an antioxidant, helping rid the body of free radicals; an anti-inflammatory; and an adaptogen, helping the body adapt to stressors.
“Blue-green algae, most notably spirulina, contains a wealth of nutrients like fiber and many other vitamins and minerals, including iron,” Stob says. “Anyone can benefit from nutrient-dense algae, but specifically anyone who’s lacking iron or has an iron deficiency. Vegetarians or vegans who may not consume enough iron could also benefit.”
Beyond nutrition, algae is a chelator, meaning it binds to metals and toxins so the body can release them. Carnahan uses algae to aid in detoxification of heavy metals and environmental toxins. So, yes, algae is highly nutritious and successfully detoxes the body of metals and toxins, but it’s not without risk.
Safety: “I have a lot of concerns about algae,” says Carnahan. Some people are sensitive to metals, and ingesting uncertified algae—from unknown sources—could make them ill. “There are many safer ways to get the same detoxification benefits. Use chlorella, parsley and cilantro instead,” she says. Stob advises anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding to use caution because of algae’s high iron content.
How to use: Find capsules or powders at natural food stores. Consult with your doctor beforehand, and be sure you’re buying certified blue-green algae.
Amber Erickson Gabbey, M.A., RYT, is a content strategist, yoga teacher and freelance health writer. She lives in Rollinsville.