Yesterday I became aware of a study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses called “The risk of lead contamination in bone broth diets.” (1) The authors mention that consumption of bone broth may be increasing because it is recommended by advocates of both the GAPS and Paleo diets. It’s well-established that farm animals (and humans, for that matter) can be exposed to lead via food, water, air, dust and soil, and that it progressively accumulates in bone. The researchers wanted to find out whether the bones of farm animals might sequester lead, which would then be released into broth during its preparation.
To find out, they prepared chicken broth (using organic chickens) three different ways:
- using chicken bones;
- using cooked chicken meat without the bones;
- using chicken skin and cartilage without the bones after the whole chicken had been cooked.
In each case the same tap water, cooking utensils, cookware and cooking time was used. They also included a fourth control preparation, where they followed the same procedure but used only tap water heated for the same length of time. The lead concentrations in the four different samples were as follows:
- chicken-bone broth: 7.01 µg/L
- bone broth from chicken meat (without bones): 2.3 µg/L
- bone broth made from skin and cartilage off the bone: 9.5 µg/L
- control (tap water): 0.89 µg/L
As you can see, the levels of lead in bone broth made from chicken bones was a little over 7x higher than the tap water, and a little over 10x higher in broth made from chicken skin and cartilage. As the authors point out, lead has “adverse medical effects on the central nervous system, peripheral nervous system, haemopoietic system, gastrointestinal tract, renal system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system and reproductive system”. In short, too much lead wreaks havoc on every system of the body.
Does this mean it’s time to quit the bone broth? Not so fast.
How much lead is safe?
The authors of the study express alarm about the “high” levels of lead found in the bone broth preparations they made. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established a safety threshold of 15 parts per billion (ppb, which is equivalent to 15 µg/L) for lead in drinking water. On their page discussing lead and water, they explain that:
Most studies show that exposure to lead-contaminated water alone would not be likely to elevate blood lead levels in most adults, even exposure to water with a lead content close to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) “action level” for lead of 15 parts per billion (ppb). Risk will vary, however, depending upon the individual, the circumstances, and the amount of water consumed. For example, infants who drink formula prepared with lead-contaminated water may be at a higher risk because of the large volume of water they consume relative to their body size.
If drinking water consistently throughout the day with lead levels of 15 µg/L (ppb) does not pose a problem for human adults (and children with the exception of infants drinking formula), then why would drinking 2-3 cups of bone broth with lead levels of 9.5 µ/L pose a problem? I don’t think it would.
That might be the end of the argument right there. But there are additional factors to consider that may make lead in homemade chicken broth even less of a concern.
The importance of nutrient synergy
There’s no doubt that it’s smart to minimize exposure to toxins as much as possible. But in an environment where toxins are found in foods that also contain beneficial nutrients, we must always balance the benefits of those nutrients against the potential harms of the toxins. What’s more, some nutrients protect against the harmful effects of toxins.
For example, I’ve written on the blog and talked on my podcast about how selenium protects against mercury toxicity in fish. More specifically, the reason mercury is toxic is that it damages selenium-dependent enzymes that play a crucial role in protecting us from oxidative damage. This is why you’ve heard so much publicity about the dangers of consuming fish with mercury. However, what these reports neglected to consider is that if a food you consume contains more selenium than mercury, or if background selenium intake is high, mercury won’t be able to destroy all of your selenoenzymes and you’ll be protected from its toxic effects.
As it turns out, certain nutrients like calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin C and thiamin (B1) have a similar protective effect against lead toxicity. These nutrients are abundant in Paleo and GAPS diets, and in the case of calcium, abundant in bone broth itself. Let’s take a closer look at how two of these nutrients, calcium and iron, protect against lead toxicity.
Both animal and human studies have shown that low calcium intake increases the risk of lead toxicity. In one rat study, researchers found that rats ingesting a low calcium diet had blood-lead concentrations four times higher than rats on a normal calcium diet, although the quantities of lead ingested were equal. The mechanisms by which calcium protects against lead toxicity involve complex interactions among lead, dietary calcium, intestinal calcium binding proteins and vitamin D, especially 1,25 D (the active form). (2) In fact, the interaction between calcium and lead is quite similar to that of selenium and mercury: one of the ways lead causes harm is by interfering with the beneficial effects of calcium. Lead is known to mimic calcium in biological systems or to alter calcium-mediated cellular responses, compete with calcium in enzyme systems, impair calcium metabolism, or inhibit 1,25-D-mediated regulation of calcium metabolism. (3) Calcium has also been shown to reduce the absorption of lead in the gastrointestinal tract. (4)
Studies have also shown that susceptibility to lead toxicity is influenced by nutritional iron status. A study in the early 70s found that rodents fed an iron-deficient diet experienced increased susceptibility to lead toxicity. In humans, low iron status of adults has been reported to increase gastrointestinal absorption of lead. (5) As is the case with the lead-calcium and mercury-selenium interactions, lead has been shown to interfere with iron’s physiological functions. For example, lead inhibits three major enzymes that are involved with the production of heme, the ferrous (iron-based) component of hemoglobin, which is the protein that transports oxygen to the cells and tissues of the body. (Mahaffey) Studies also suggest that insufficient iron intake increases the gastrointestinal absorption and soft tissue concentration of lead. (6)
What about vitamin D, vitamin C and thiamin? Though less is known about how these nutrients protect against lead toxicity, vitamin D appears to modify lead distribution once it has been absorbed, preventing its incorporation into bone. (Cheng). Vitamin C has been shown to have chelating properties which help remove lead from the body. And thiamin (B1) appears to inhibit the uptake of lead into cells and promote lead excretion. (7)
We are what we eat — and animals are no exception
It’s also plausible that the diet and living conditions of the animals we use to make bone broth will significantly influence the levels of lead their bones, and thus the broth, contain. Food, water, soil and dust are the largest sources of exposure to lead in farm animals. It appears that cereal grains contribute most to dietary exposure to lead. (8) Although I have not seen any comparative data on this, it’s thus reasonable to assume that pasture-raised chickens who eat a combination of forage and grain-based feed would have lower lead levels than conventionally-raised chickens that eat only grain-based feed.
I hope to have some data that will help answer this question in the coming weeks. Jessica Prentice, one of the worker-owners of the Three Stone Hearth community-supported kitchen in Berkeley, CA, has sent samples of their bone broth in to get tested for lead. They make their broth with pasture-raised chickens, so we’ll have at least one example of lead levels in pastured chicken broth to draw from.
That said, given that the levels of lead in the chicken broth tested in the Medical Hypotheses study were below the EPA established safe upper limit for drinking water, and given the protective effect of several nutrients abundant in Paleo/GAPS diets (and even in broth itself), it seems to me that it’s quite safe to consume 2-3 cups of bone broth per day. This is likely to be even more true if your broth is made from pasture-raised chickens.
I’ll continue to investigate this issue and report back if I learn anything that changes my opinion.