Why nothing beats a bowl of chicken soup

1 December 2013


It’s getting chilly outside and as we spend more time indoors the viruses which cause colds and flu begin to multiply. Yes, it’s winter cold and flu season again – and unless you’re very lucky you’ll find it hard to dodge a dose of the sniffles, a sore thoat or a hacking cough.

In a recent competition when we asked what makes you feel good when you’re ill – chicken soup topped the poll of soothing family remedies – so many of you swear by a comforting steaming bowl of it to stop a cold in its tracks.

Other health fads for fighting off colds and flu may come and go – whether it’s echinacea, zinc, black elderberry or vitamin C supplements – but chicken soup has been a worldwide favourite for centuries.

Whatever the science behind it we thought we’d take a closer look at the nation’s favourite cold pick-me-up.

Brief history of chicken soup

Most countries have their own version, whether it’s the Scottish Cock A Leekie version ‒ a thin watery broth of chicken and leeks ‒ or the creamier versions served in England, or the chicken noodle soup popular in the US.

The Polish add almonds to their chicken soup and the French a sprig of thyme or bay leaves.

Chicken soup known as “Jewish pencillin” has been popular as far back as the 12th century when European Jewish people began cooking it to use leftovers from chicken used for Shabbat, the seventh day of the week and the day of rest. Maimondes, a famous rabbi of the times, who also trained in medicine, wrote about its health benefits. There are even earlier references to it in Ancient Greece.

It was also a staple dish amongst families who kept hens for laying eggs as older stringier birds were considered unsuitable for roasting.

What the science says

There are a number of scientific studies which suggest that chicken soup may help the body fight off infection.

  • Anti-inflammatory effect: One study in the journal Chest found chicken soups may have an anti-inflammatory effect on upper respiratory tract infections. The author says this may be because chicken soup helped prevent the movement of neutrophils (a type of immune cell) which causes some of the symptoms of a cold by stimulating the release of mucus.
  • Increases nitric oxide levels to fight off infection: Research in the American Journal of Therapeutics showed that a compound found in chicken soup – carnosine (a protein) – helped the body’s immune system fight the early stages of flu. The carnosine helped increase nitric oxide levels in the blood. But the authors pointed out this benefit ended as soon as the soup was excreted by the body, so you’d need to drink it constantly to benefit.
  • Improves function of cilia: Cilia are microscopic hair-like cells found in the respiratory tract, lungs and middle ear, which move rhythmically to flush out mucus. There’s some evidence that chicken soup (and hot tea) may improve their function.
  • Boosts mental fatigue: New research published in 2013 by the University of Osaka in Japan found that patients fed daily essence of chicken rich in carnosine and – a popular fatigue remedy in Asian countries ‒ in a placebo controlled trial, recovered better from mental fatigue than those given a placebo.

Is chicken the magic ingredient?

“Chicken is a good source of protein and zinc both of which are beneficial for the  immune system,” says Priya Tew a registered dietitian of the British Dietetic Association.

“But it also contains vegetables which are rich sources of vitamin C and other antioxidants which can also help the immune system – these are probably more beneficial for the immune system than chicken,” she adds.

“The studies looking at the effectiveness of chicken soup in fighting off a cold have only compared chicken soup to hot water and not to other types of soup – so there is no way of knowing for sure which ingredient is most beneficial.

“What we do know is that warm liquids are very good for clearing mucus from the airways,” says Priya.

Priya says the typical chicken soup ingredients provide protein, vegetables and carbohydrates (if you include potatoes or root vegetables), plus fluid and it provides an easy to digest all-in-one meal at a time when you probably don’t feel like eating.

“We get a third of our daily fluid intake from food so it’s important to keep fluid intake up when you’re ill and lose your appetite – drinking hot fluids like soup definitely helps – whether it matters if it’s chicken or not is something we just don’t know yet. We need more research.”

Here are a couple of especially designed soup recipes to give you all the healthy nutrients of a traditional chicken soup – there is even one for vegetarians just so they don’t miss out.

For more information on colds and flu read our factsheets or why don’t you post any questions you have on this topic to one of our health experts who will respond within a couple of days.