Wage war on the flu season by soaking up the immunity-boosting goodness of soup.
When I was little, my mum would make me soup at the first hint of a runny nose. And now I do the same for my children. Wolfing down a bowl of steaming soup when feeling poorly has long been the custom in many cultures, but it turns out there’s actual science to back up the practice, with a number of studies showing soup, particularly chicken, can help to clear congestion.
The most cited research, by Dr Stephen Rennard of the University of Nebraska, was published in 2000 in the medical journal Chest. Rennard’s studies found his wife’s chicken soup (a family recipe including chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery, parsley, salt and pepper) had an anti-inflammatory effect by reducing the movement of the body’s white blood cells so they focused on healing the upper respiratory tract, helping to decrease the amount of mucus in the lungs.
Chicken soup is known in America as Jewish penicillin, but its healing reputation goes back way before the States existed. The Chinese considered it had energy-giving ‘yang’ properties as long ago as the second century BCE, and in modern Chinese families it’s often the first food given to babies, women after giving birth and the elderly – essentially those with lowered immunity.
In Jewish culture, the tradition of chicken soup dates back to the second century CE, but it got into full swing in the 15th century when, like the Chinese before them, the practice of giving it to women after childbirth and to those who were sick began.
The studies can’t pinpoint the exact ingredients that help reduce mucus, but several of the items typically thrown into the stockpot are thought to boost the body’s natural cold-fighting abilities.
“Our immunity is related to a number of things, but a protein in soup is probably one of the most important ingredients. Foods like chicken and meat contain high levels of iron and zinc – both of which boost our immunity,” says Aloysa Hourigan, an accredited dietitian and spokesperson for Nutrition Australia.
And while meat is the best source of those minerals, “vegetarians can get similar benefits by including a good source of protein like lentils or tofu”, Hourigan adds.
Vegetables, meanwhile, also have healing properties because they’re loaded with antioxidants. “In particular, vegetables high in vitamin C increase our body’s ability to absorb iron, which in turn raises our immunity,” she says.
“So things like tomato and pumpkin or other yellow and red vegetables offer betacarotene and vitamin C, which are both helpful. Also include the brassica family, things like broccoli and cauliflower, which are good sources of vitamin C and other key antioxidants. Onions have antibiotic properties so are also great.”
Herbs and seasoning also contribute to a healthier winter, and they add that other wonderful component, flavour.
“Dried and fresh herbs promote warmth by increasing our circulation,” says Anthia Koullouros, a naturopath of 24 years and founder of Ovvio Organics. “And things like chilli, cinnamon, hot paprika and black pepper are all circulatory stimulants.”
She cites thyme, oregano, basil as having antimicrobial and antiseptic properties, along with fresh ginger and garlic also for their antimicrobial properties as well as antibiotic.
Another good thing about soup is the vitamins and minerals that leach out into the water aren’t lost – you eat the lot unlike when you boil vegetables, for instance, and drain them. “So it doesn’t really matter how long you cook the soup for,” says Hourigan. “Some people start with the bones of chicken or meat, which have some antibiotic benefit and also make a great stock.”
Koullouros usually bases her soups on a bone broth. “They yield a lot of nutrients that are excellent for inflammation and infection and contain things like glycine, an amino acid that has calming properties to help the body rest. It also has minerals which are known electrolytes and aid hydration, so are excellent for fever. And then there’s gelatine in bone broth, which is an anti-inflammatory and good for gut immunity.”
Koullouros also advocates including unpasteurised fermented miso. Unlike powdered miso, she says, the paste is rich in probiotics, vitamins and minerals.
So relish tasty soups this winter, not only for their comfort, but also their immunity-boosting goodness.