Chicken soup is one of our favorite foods to eat when we're not feeling well. But was grandma right—is it actually good for you? Here we took a closer look at why a bowl of chicken soup is comforting and healthy.

Chris Mohr, Ph.D., R.D.
October 30, 2020
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It's that time of year again. Leaves are changing, temps are dropping—snowfall is not far behind. With the changing seasons and cooler temps also comes a higher likelihood and risk of colds and flu. And with that brings up the talk of boosting immunity through our lifestyle—foods, exercise and sleep—as a start to offer at least some layer of protection, so you show up ready to battle anything that comes your way.

Then specifically, from a nutrition front, there's one dish that emerges more than any other. Chicken soup. Is it truly good for the soul or is it simply an old wives tale that's been passed down for generations?

Let's look at what the science says and if, yes, your mom (grandma and grandma's grandma) were right all along. In fact, chicken soup has been "prescribed" for the common cold for centuries. Cure is probably a bit aggressive of a word, but there are some data I'll share that at the very least makes it super healthy.

The real question starts with, "How it is made," says John Whyte, M.D., M.P.H., Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. "The best and healthiest chicken soup is usually the one you make yourself. The key is ingredients. All the vegetables and herbs are great sources of vitamins and minerals, so that's a huge advantage." (Our Classic Chicken Soup recipe, pictured above, fits the bill.)

And certainly better than most canned soup options available on most grocery store shelves, which can be loaded with sodium but very little in the way of added vegetables (or flavor, for that matter). In addition to the vegetables themselves though, there's actually some research to support the benefits of a little chicken soup.

Health benefits of chicken soup

Helps break up congestion

In one 1978 research study in the journal Chest, 15 research subjects were provided with either cold water, hot water or hot chicken soup. The researchers then measured nasal mucus velocity (um, yuck) and found the soup was superior to either the hot or cold water in increasing the movement of nasal mucus. That means the hot chicken soup can help clear your airways and easing congestion. (Try more of these 8 foods to soothe a sore throat.)

May reduce inflammation

There have been a few more studies that are more recent that support that theory as well; one in 2000 in the same journal, Chest, suggested a mild anti-inflammatory benefit of chicken soup, which could also come from adding in plenty of quality ingredients that can certainly boost the nutritive value as well. Make your chicken soup with garlic and lots of veggies—especially dark, leafy greens—to boost up the inflammation-fighting compounds.

Rich in nutrients

Chicken noodle soup can be made with a variety of ingredients but the healthiest pots will have lots of vegetables and include whole grains. The chicken itself delivers protein, which is an important nutrient for satisfaction, immunity and your muscles. Chicken also delivers zinc, a key immunity nutrient. Most chicken soup recipes starts with onion, carrots, celery; but any vegetables you add will deliver fiber, vitamins and minerals. Lastly—the noodles you choose are important. Whole-grain noodles will add more fiber and protein than white noodles, but most pastas deliver some protein, fiber and iron.

How to make healthy chicken noodle soup

The broth

Starting from scratch might be easier than you think. Cookbook author, Dana Angelo White, M.S., R.D., A.T.C. has a DIY-broth trick that starts with rotisserie chicken. "Making your own chicken stock is ridiculously simple. After eating a rotisserie chicken, toss the carcass in a pot with some carrots, celery, onion, garlic and herbs—add some salt and fill the pot with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer (uncovered) for about 2 to 3 hours. Strain and store in the fridge for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 3 months." Get inspired by these healthy recipes for broth and stock.

If you're not making broth from scratch, though, use a store-bought stock or bone broth. Try to pick one that's lower in sodium and with a simple ingredient list (I'm partial to Pacific Foods' Organic Free Range Chicken Broth). The best store-bought broth will be just like you would make at home but without the mess and still rich and full of flavor so it can be used as a base for your favorite chicken (or any) soup.

Add veggies

Once you've figured out your broth, it's time to up the veggies. Choose nutrition powerhouses like garlic and ginger to add flavor and nutrients. Include carrots, celery, onions and handfuls of spinach or baby kale and plenty of fresh or dried herbs, like parsley and basil (and sometimes a dollop of pesto at the end). More veggies means more color, more flavor and the better for you.

Go whole grain

Growing up, my mom always served her chicken soup soup over orzo. We now opt for other, more fiber forward grains that are also rich in plenty of vitamins and minerals to add to the nutrition (and give a flavor boost to boot). And, let's face it, fiber itself is great for gut health, which in turn is a powerful way to strengthen immunity. We love using hearty, nutty farro in place of noodles, like Bob's Red Mill Farro, which offers 5 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein per serving, making it a nutritional gem that helps fill us up as well. Get creative with whole-wheat pasta, quinoa, bean-based pasta, barley or wild rice.

The one time you may want to hold off on too many veggies and not use whole grains is if you need something easy to digest—like after a stomach bug or GI symptoms (learn more about easy-to-digest foods here).

Top it right

Finally, think about what you top and serve your soup with. For a protein-rich crunch try a cheese crisp, like Whisps Parmesan cheese crisps, which are made with real cheese. If you are a fan of crusty bread with your soup aim to make that whole-grain as well.

Heck, outside of all of this, even all those colorful, vitamin and mineral rich veggies and ingredients – the simple fact that soup is an easy way to add fluids to your daily routine is important and considering hydration is an important part of health and immunity, it's another check in the win column for chicken soup!

What about store-bought soup?

Most canned and boxed soups at the store are going to be higher in sodium and lower in vegetables. Plus, you likely won't find whole grains or a whole lot of chicken in the options you can buy. Compare labels for sodium content and read ingredient lists to find an option that feels close to homemade.

If you're short on time, buying a quality broth and adding noodles, pre-cooked chicken and a few vegetables is a nice shortcut. Or, when you make a batch aim to freeze it so you have some on hand during busier nights.

So go ahead, make up your own pot this winter and you can be assured your chicken soup truly is good for the soul!