Chicken Soup for Healing: What Makes It a Beloved Comfort Food, Explained by a Nutrition Specialist

Making a bowl of chicken soup for someone who’s sick is a tradition that has been practiced around the world for ages. Different cultures have their variations of chicken soup, and it’s often seen as a comforting remedy for ailments. In the United States, chicken soup typically includes noodles, but recipes vary.

The use of chicken soup for therapeutic purposes can be traced back to 60 A.D. and the writings of Pedanius Dioscorides, a Roman army surgeon serving under Emperor Nero. However, chicken soup’s origins date even further back, to ancient China.

Now that cold and flu season is here, it’s worth asking whether there’s scientific evidence to support the belief that chicken soup helps when you’re sick or if it’s merely a soothing placebo.

In other words, does chicken soup provide psychological comfort during illness, or does it genuinely have therapeutic benefits?

As a registered dietitian and a professor of dietetics and nutrition, I understand the appeal of chicken soup. It offers warmth from the broth and a delicious blend of chicken, vegetables, and noodles.

What gives chicken soup its distinctive flavor is “umami,” the fifth category of taste sensations, alongside sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Umami is often described as having a “meaty” taste.

The idea that chicken soup has healing properties has been around for centuries.

Improved appetite, better digestion

This all makes sense because amino acids are like the building blocks for proteins. And in the world of taste, the amino acid called glutamate is found in foods that give you that umami flavor.

Now, umami isn’t only about meat or poultry; it’s hiding in things like cheese, mushrooms, miso, and soy sauce.

Here’s the deal: when you get sick, especially with those nasty upper respiratory illnesses, your appetite can go haywire.

Your body’s busy fighting off the sickness, and that can make you not want to eat. But not eating means you’re missing out on the nutrition you need to heal. That’s not great for your immune system.

However, the good news is that chicken soup’s umami flavor might just boost your appetite. In some studies, folks felt hungrier after sipping on soup that had this umami taste.

Umami might also help you digest nutrients better. See, when your tongue’s taste buds detect umami, your digestive system gets a little kickstart. It’s like it’s preparing to absorb protein more efficiently.

And here’s a bonus: it can also help reduce those tummy issues, like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, which often come with being under the weather.

Even though most folks don’t link upper respiratory illnesses with tummy problems, research on kids has shown that the flu virus can bring on tummy symptoms. So, umami is like your friendly neighborhood taste bud superhero, here to save the day

May reduce inflammation and a stuffy nose

Inflammation is like your body’s superhero response to an injury or illness. It’s when white blood cells rush to the scene to help heal things up.

But when this inflammation happens in your upper airway, you get those classic cold and flu symptoms: the stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and thick mucus.

Now, interestingly, if your white blood cells in the nose aren’t super active, it can actually reduce this inflammation. And research shows that chicken soup can do just that. It helps lower the number of white blood cells that head to those inflamed areas.

How? Well, it puts a stop sign in front of those neutrophils, which are a type of white blood cell, so they can’t travel to the inflamed spots. So, chicken soup is like the traffic cop for your white blood cells, keeping things calm in your nose!.

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Key ingredients

To truly grasp why chicken soup is such a soothing and healing remedy, you’ve got to take a close look at what goes into it. See, not all chicken soups are created equal.

Those canned versions, whether with or without noodles, that you find at the store, they’re not packed with all the good stuff that homemade chicken soup has. Most canned soups, well, they lack the hearty vegetables that you need.

Now, what makes homemade chicken soup stand out are the key ingredients. Chicken gives you a solid source of protein to fight off infections.

Vegetables bring a bunch of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to the mix. And if you go the American way, noodles provide an easily digestible source of carbohydrates for energy and recovery.

But it’s not just about what’s in chicken soup – it’s about the warm hug it gives you. Sipping the broth and breathing in the steam raises the temperature in your nose and throat.

That’s like a gentle nudge to loosen up that thick mucus that clogs you up when you’re sick. Studies even say that chicken soup does a better job at this than hot water alone.

Oh, and those herbs and spices, like pepper and garlic, you sometimes find in chicken soup? They help loosen mucus too. Plus, the broth, with its water and electrolytes, keeps you hydrated.

So, if you want to get the most out of chicken soup, go for homemade. You can make it with ingredients like carrots, celery, fresh garlic, herbs, and spices.

But if you’re looking for a quick fix, check out the ingredients on the label, and pick soups with lots of veggies instead of those super-processed ones.

In a nutshell, the latest science tells us that chicken soup, while not a total cure for colds and the flu, really does help with the healing process. It seems Grandma knew what she was talking about all along!


chicken soup, often prepared with care and nourishing ingredients like chicken, vegetables, and warm spices, has a long history of being cherished as a comforting remedy during illnesses. While it may not be a magic cure for colds or the flu, it does offer several benefits for those under the weather.

The combination of amino acids and umami flavor may stimulate appetite, promote nutrient digestion, and reduce gastrointestinal discomfort when you’re sick. Additionally, the warmth of the soup can help soothe respiratory passages and loosen mucus, and certain spices contribute to this effect.

Furthermore, science suggests that chicken soup can have an anti-inflammatory effect, helping to alleviate symptoms such as a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and coughing by lowering white blood cell activity in the nasal passages.

The key to reaping the health benefits of chicken soup lies in choosing a homemade version that includes a variety of vegetables, herbs, and spices. However, when convenience is essential, opt for canned soups that contain a generous amount of vegetables, avoiding ultra-processed, nutrient-poor options.

So, it’s safe to say that the age-old tradition of enjoying chicken soup during an illness has some scientific merit. It’s not a cure-all, but it can certainly contribute to a speedier recovery and provide much-needed comfort.

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FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q1: Is chicken soup a cure for colds and the flu?

A: Chicken soup is not a complete cure for colds and the flu, but it can provide several benefits that aid in the healing process and offer comfort during illnesses.

Q2: How does umami in chicken soup stimulate appetite and aid digestion?

A: Umami, found in chicken soup, can boost your appetite and promote better nutrient digestion. When your taste buds detect umami, your digestive system becomes more efficient at absorbing protein.

Q3: Can chicken soup help reduce gastrointestinal discomfort during illness?

A: Yes, chicken soup with its umami flavor and warm ingredients can help alleviate gastrointestinal discomfort, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, often associated with illnesses.

Q4: How does chicken soup reduce inflammation and alleviate a stuffy nose?

A: Chicken soup can lower inflammation by reducing the activity of white blood cells in the nasal passages, which helps relieve symptoms like a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and coughing.

Q5: What are the key ingredients in homemade chicken soup that make it beneficial during illnesses?

A: Homemade chicken soup contains chicken for protein, vegetables for vitamins and minerals, and herbs and spices like pepper and garlic that help loosen mucus. It also provides warmth and hydration, aiding in recovery.

Q6: Is canned chicken soup as effective as homemade chicken soup?

A: While canned chicken soup can provide some benefits, homemade chicken soup with a variety of fresh ingredients is generally more effective in delivering nourishment and comfort during illness.

Q7: Can I enjoy the benefits of chicken soup if I have dietary restrictions or preferences?

A: You can adapt chicken soup to your dietary needs by using ingredients that align with your preferences, such as choosing vegetarian or low-sodium options. The key is to prioritize fresh and nourishing ingredients.