When I was growing up, my family would occasionally buy canned or boxed chicken broth, and my mom would always say, “but it’s not as good as the real thing.” The real thing being, of course, homemade: that golden, translucent, endlessly versatile nectar with tiny circles of fat shimmering on its surface.
I was raised to love this liquid, the best versions of which ensure that chicken soup tastes nuanced and complex rather than just salty. I still, as often as possible, make giant batches of homemade stock in the biggest pot I have, then freeze it for future meals. I even wrote about the virtues of homemade chicken stock in my upcoming cookbook, The Don’t Panic Pantry Cookbook. But when I set about trying to explain, in the recipe’s headnote, why homemade stock was better than store-bought, I realized that I didn’t actually know. I wondered, How can two things that are supposed to be the same, taste and feel so wildly different?
My quest to find the answer started simply enough, and in a state of what was, in retrospect, blissful ignorance. I had no intimation of what was to come: the billion-dollar multinational flavor and fragrance companies, the “spray-dried” broth, the “clean label protein solutions,” the “kitchen-like ingredients,” and the corporate dream of a “fully sustainable chicken stream.” A whole new world, at once surreal, banal, and depressingly inevitable, was hidden in the watery depths of store-bought chicken stock, just waiting for me to jump in.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the chicken streams and corporate word salad, there was the grocery store, where I stood in the chicken broth aisle and began reading ingredients lists. Again, simple enough. And yet, no matter the ingredients list, no matter whether the broth came in a box or a can, I discovered a striking common denominator in almost every major brand I looked at: The very first ingredient in chicken broth is... “Chicken Broth.” The only consistent variation? Sometimes the first ingredient would read simply as “Chicken Stock.”
I’m sorry, what?
Why is chicken broth the first ingredient in chicken broth? That would be like if you looked at the ingredients on a bottle of ketchup and it just said “ketchup.” Isn’t the whole point of an ingredients list to let us know what the hell we’re actually eating? Isn’t the government regulating the corporations for our protection? I was understandably confused.
I looked again at the ingredients list on a box of Swanson chicken broth. It said, in full:
“Chicken Stock, Salt, Natural Flavoring, Mirepoix (Carrots, Celery, Onions), Chicken Fat, Yeast Extract.”
This was terribly unhelpful. Why call it “chicken stock” rather than just water and chicken? Was anybody else seeing this? Did anybody care? Did anybody know what was going on?
I started Googling.
I found just one article devoted to this strange phenomenon. Published on Epicurious in 2017, it consulted a corporate chef for Ariake, a commercial manufacturer of broths and stocks. “Most commercial meat broths begin with a highly concentrated stock, made by a company such as Ariake, that’s diluted with water and then mixed with seasonings to each brand’s specifications,” the article said.
In theory, this concentrate should be the good stuff: chicken bones cooked down in water until their purest essence is reduced to a highly concentrated demi-glace. It should be that simple, right — just simmering chicken byproducts, except on a massive scale? Or as Swanson says on its website: “Our chicken stock is made as you would at home, only on a much larger scale.”
Yet somehow it is not. A concentrated stock should still taste like stock after water is added back to it, and it should still act like stock. Why, then, do the homemade stuff and the boxed stuff seem so different?
That answer, at least, was easy to find.
“There are a wide range of differences,” the best-selling cookbook author and New York Times recipe columnist J. Kenji López-Alt told me over email. “The biggest one is the protein and specifically the gelatin content of boxed [versus] homemade stock. Boxed stock has virtually no gelatin, which means that it does not have the viscosity and richness of a homemade stock. A homemade stock will thicken and intensify as it reduces, while a store-bought stock will remain thin and watery until it completely boils away.”
This makes a big difference in dishes that rely on the gelatin content in true stock, he continued; you can’t make demi-glace or a reduced jus with store-bought stock. What’s more, the latter’s flavor is “typically inferior as well,” López-Alt said, “mainly because the amount of actual meat, connective tissue, and bones used to make store-bought stock is much lower than one would typically use for homemade stock.”
From a home cooking standpoint, all of this made sense and was very much in line with my personal experience. It also made me ask what broth manufacturers are doing to make their broth taste, feel, and react so differently? If it really is just “chicken broth,” then why the hell doesn’t it seem like chicken broth?
I should point out that I’m not naive. I’ve worked with humongous corporations and commercial food manufacturers. I’ve also run high-volume restaurants and drowned myself in food costing spreadsheets. I didn’t expect to find someone’s grandma in a corporate kitchen, lovingly scaling a recipe from the old country. Still, something didn’t add up. So I began to reach out to representatives from some of the major stock brands.
Many of them — Progresso, Swanson, College Inn, Kitchen Basics, Good & Gather, Kirkland Signature, 365, Emeril’s — are owned by larger parent companies like B&G, Conagra Foodservice, General Mills, Campbell Soup Company, and Del Monte Foods. Initially, their publicists were happy to talk to a food writer about how great their products are. But then I started asking questions, with the simple goal of having them confirm that their broths and stocks are made by a third-party manufacturer who provides them with a concentrate.
A representative from Target sent a written statement about Good & Gather, its “flagship food and beverage owned brand,” and how its products have “passed rigorous quality and taste tests.” I then asked if they could confirm or deny that its product starts with a third-party concentrate. They responded by phone to say they appreciated my interest but “must refer you to our original statement.”
Costco, when I sent a media inquiry, replied, “Management has no comment at this time.”
B&G (the makers of Emeril’s broths) said, “The FDA sets rules and guidelines for labeling that our organization abides by.” Multiple follow-ups did not result in further information, though I later realized that Emeril’s ingredients do in fact start with this chicken word salad: “Organic Chicken Stock (Filtered Water, Concentrated Organic Chicken Stock Concentrate), Organic Chicken Concentrate (Organic Chicken Broth, Organic Chicken Flavor [Organic Chicken Flavor, Sea Salt]...”
Whole Foods provided some general information about its 365 brand stocks and broths, but further requests for specifics were unsuccessful. “Apologies but our spokesperson isn’t available for your follow-up questions,” I was told. “Best of luck with your story and hope you enjoy your holiday weekend!”
Del Monte (the parent company of Kitchen Basics and College Inn) sent a statement explaining that its College Inn broths are “made the same way a home cook or chef makes a stock ... our goal is to deliver an all-natural delicious broth that is similar to what you’d make in your own kitchen, just on a larger scale.” Several unanswered questions later I was told “this is what they feel comfortable sharing,” and directed to the original statement.
I did not believe I was caught in the crosshairs of some massive corporate cover-up. But still, here I was, a consumer, trying to figure out what goes into a box of chicken broth, and nobody would tell me anything of substance. While I was not surprised by the opacity of flowery corporate hokum, its accumulation over the course of several weeks and dozens of emails was, frankly, starting to piss me off. Broth manufacturers were trying to poison me with banal sedatives and I had an unreasonable determination to fight back. Like a dog with a chicken bone. (To be clear, you’re not supposed to give dogs chicken bones.)
Eventually, I did have a video interview with a very kind woman from Campbell Soup Company’s so-called Culinary Innovation Hub, which covers both the Swanson and Pacific Foods lines of broths. Interestingly, Pacific Foods was one of the few brands that actually lists “water” and “chicken” as its first two ingredients (note: this is actually no longer true, as at some point while I was reporting this story, Pacific Foods changed its first ingredient to “chicken broth”). The Campbell representative was very knowledgeable, and excited to talk about the products as a general concept. However, whenever I pressed her about the differences in those ingredient lists, she glanced over at someone or something off-camera, smiled, and used the increasingly familiar word “proprietary.” The call ended without any real information beyond the spokeswoman’s genuine desire to have everything taste great. Further requests for clarification went nowhere.
Again, I’m not naive. If manufacturers were truly making chicken stock “just like your grandma did,” it would be highly perishable, incredibly expensive, and shelf-unstable. I didn’t expect some kind of miracle. But I did expect these companies to tell me what they’re actually putting in our bodies everyday.
Meanwhile, I also had bone broth to consider. Remember the bone broth phenomenon of the mid-teens, which effectively upcycled stock into a chefly innovation tailor-made for wellness industry exploitation? As part of my quest, I considered the ingredients list of Kitchen Basics Chicken Bone Broth. “Chicken Broth (Made from Bones),” it read. This differs, of course, from the company’s chicken stock, whose first ingredient is “Chicken Stock.” Well, I thought, there must be a difference. Right?
When I asked a spokesperson at the United States Food and Drug Administration for the legal difference between stock, broth, and bone broth, he replied that “the FDA does not have specific regulatory definitions for ‘stock,’ ‘broth,’ or ‘bone broth’ ... it is the responsibility of the manufacturer of a food to comply with current food labeling regulations.” I asked why one label can list water and chicken as the first two ingredients, while another just lists chicken stock. The response was not terribly helpful.
“We note that chicken stock and chicken broth are multi-component foods; as such, in accordance with 21 CFR 101.4(b)(2), an ingredient which itself contains two or more ingredients must be designated in the statement of ingredients on the label of such food by either of the following alternatives:
- By declaring the established common or usual name of the ingredient followed by a parenthetical listing of all ingredients contained therein in descending order of predominance; or
- By incorporating into the statement of ingredients in descending order of predominance in the finished food, the common or usual name of every component of the ingredient without listing the ingredient itself.”
After my wife found me collapsed on the floor from boredom, she resuscitated me and I tried to read the statement again.
The sole conclusion I was able to draw was that there must be regulations on what counts as broth, otherwise someone could just throw a chicken bone in a lake and call it bone broth. Seeking further clarification, I followed up with the USDA, who put me in touch with a spokesperson for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a subsidiary of the USDA.
This, of course, ushered in yet another onslaught of mostly impenetrable bureaucratic hairsplitting: I was informed that the Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book (created by the FSIS as part of the USDA) requires a broth or stock to “have a Moisture Protein Ratio (MPR) of 135:1 or below. The MPR is determined by dividing the percent moisture by the percent protein ... If it is above 135:1 it is under FDA jurisdiction and is labeled differently, e.g., ‘beef flavored broth.’”
Allow me to translate: Essentially, you need a minimum of 135 parts moisture to 1 part protein in order to be legally defined as broth or stock. So again, there is no distinction between the two from a government standpoint. As long as it meets this criteria, it can be labeled as either of them.
To get some context for why this labeling was so confusing, I reached out to Michael Moss, the best-selling author of books like Salt Sugar Fat and Hooked. “The first thing to kind of know about the USDA is it’s not working for us,” he told me over the phone. “It used to be the people’s agency, but it actually works for the food industry and one of its obligations, as it sees it, is its ability to help the companies to make a profit. So it hides things like where they get the ingredients and how they source them.”
Moss learned this first-hand while reporting his Pulitzer Prize-winning story about an E. coli outbreak linked to Cargill ground beef. When he asked the USDA about the sources of the tainted meat, and where Cargill got its meat trim, the agency “considered that to be confidential corporate information and refused to disclose it,” Moss said.
So if the food industry has a track record of being hesitant to disclose something that will hurt its bottom line, even (or maybe especially) if it’s a public safety risk, then why bother telling us anything at all? Compromise. As Moss pointed out, even the FDA-mandated nutrition facts box that has appeared on most packaged food since the ’90s “was conceived by none other than the food industry itself as a way of placating us.” Back in the ’70s, he explained, consumer advocate Ralph Nader was talking “really loudly and publicly about the evil-sounding” chemicals that the food industry was feeding to unknowing consumers. “As a way of countering that attack, [they figured] why don’t we disclose lots of stuff on the labels of packages and if we do so, people will feel comforted by the idea that the government is keeping track and it must be okay,” Moss said. “What I thought was our friend was in fact a conceit of the industry to lull us into complacency.”
Eventually, the industry actually gave me the “concentrate” confirmation I had been hoping for. A very nice spokesman from General Mills, the parent company of Progresso, responded to my questions so casually over email that I assume it did not occur to him to check with whatever department kept telling employees not to answer me.
“Our recipe starts with a broth concentrate and then we add in water and additional ingredients to create the great tasting Progresso Chicken Broth,” he wrote. While he didn’t confirm that the concentrate comes from a third-party manufacturer, he did admit the recipe “starts” with one, which does certainly imply it.
It felt like I’d finally found the smoking gun, if the gun was used to shoot a chicken that was already dead, and nobody cared about it except me. After all the corporate white noise, the opacity, the hairsplitting, I had at least some form of vindication of the thing I knew all along. Because if any one of these companies actually didn’t use third-party concentrate, wouldn’t they be excited to tell me so?
Progresso’s admission was enough to make me feel like I wasn’t completely losing my mind. But it also raised a few questions: Who are these third-party manufacturers? How many are there? How big are they? What are their names? Why have I never heard of them?
I Googled to no avail. It was as if there was a search word I couldn’t quite discover — like when I was trying to research coffee tables online and none of them had what I was looking for until I discovered the term “live edge.” What was the live edge of multinational broth concentrate manufacturing?
The question led me back to Ariake, the company mentioned in that Epicurious piece. As it turns out, it was reportedly purchased along with another company for $367 million in a 2018 acquisition by an Irish corporation called Kerry Group. Per its website, Kerry is “creating a world of sustainable nutrition.” Shockingly, its representatives were willing to talk to me.
“I can’t tell you our volumes,” Melissa Muldowney, Kerry’s Global Marketing Director of Savoury Taste, said over the phone. But she did tell me that Kerry is “the third-largest company” in terms of chicken broth concentrate sold to the United States. “Kerry is very much about quality,” Muldowney said. The other two even larger conglomerates, she continued, “are about yield.”
The largest of the U.S. chicken broth manufacturers is Symrise; the second is Essentia Protein Solutions. Symrise, headquartered in Holzminden, Germany, listed sales of 3.83 billion Euros in 2021; its work encompasses everything from food and beverage products to cosmetic ingredients and “aroma molecules.” Or as Symrise proudly declares on its website, “You may be surprised to learn that people interact with our products on average 20-30 times per day.”
Thus I received my welcome to the wild world of flavors and fragrances. I was immediately fascinated, in large part because of the websites. Whereas consumer-facing brands fill theirs with marketable phrasing (think “plump chicken” and “tender veggies”), Symrise and Essentia (which is headquartered in Denmark and Iowa) suffer no such obligation. They’re not marketing to you, the home cook. They are marketing to corporations like Campbell and Del Monte. Essentia’s idea of seduction is to advertise that its products have “real food ingredients that consumers recognize and understand.” “Liquid is flowable at ambient temperature,” purrs its chicken broth page; if that’s not enticing enough, the broth boasts “brothy chicken notes,” “favorable labeling,” and is “conveniently available in frozen liquid or powder formats.” Meanwhile, Diana Food, Symrise’s chicken stock brand, brags of a “fully sustainable chicken stream” and proclaims one of its main strengths is “delivering culinary taste solutions from kitchen-like ingredients.” Kitchen-like.
But from this thicket of corporate garbage speak, an epiphany emerged: Companies like Symrise and Essentia are the grocery stores for the brands we have heard of. They are another cog in the Gilliam-esque food system hiding in plain sight behind a branded billboard of a happy family, adding microdoses of flavors and fragrances to everything we eat, see, smell, and touch. They are Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, telling us that while we think we’ve made a choice that exempts us from the industrial food complex, we are in fact eating potato chips that were selected for us by the people in this room.
These companies are also, I was surprised to read, very loud about their focus on sustainability. This actually made sense to me. We are a society of massive slaughterhouses, portioning out animals into various parts of varying quality. Each component represents either money or waste, and all of it must be sorted and used somewhere, so why not take your leftover carcass-processing flotsam and turn it into things like pet food, farm animal feed, fertilizer, and commercially condensed broth? Our can of chicken soup is just one of the many stops in a “fully sustainable chicken stream.”
Although I have no idea how truly sustainable Kerry and its ilk actually are, I do believe they don’t want to waste food — food waste is financial waste. What they do with it instead of throwing it away is another question that I might never truly know the answer to. But I tried. Ten emails to Essentia Protein Solutions yielded a sole email from a marketing specialist who asked me to “tell me more about your company and I would then be happy to help you if it’s a good fit for our company.”
Finally, after three weeks of reaching out to every PR-related email address and “contact form” I could find, I got a message from someone on Symrise’s marketing and communications team who acknowledged that my media requests had made the rounds and agreed to have some of my questions answered over email. In regards to my previously unanswerable question of how chicken broth is made, here is what I learned:
“Raw material (chicken frames) are cooked in water to specific solids content,” the representative wrote. “The product is then quickly sterilized and concentrated and standardized (either in concentrated liquid or dry format)” per its standardized ingredients and client specifications. The cook times vary from three to 12 hours.
Symrise, I also learned, is the largest producer of stock and broth in the U.S. (but not the world). The representative disagreed with Kerry’s assessment that Symrise cares more about yield than quality.
So, in sum: Symrise creates and formulates a product according to the needs of its clients while following the requirements of relevant government agencies.
This is multinational corporate industrial cooking in its most pure form. The company is not making soup; it is making, according to its website, “savory taste solutions.” It ensures that it is legally safe and sterile, it separates and process the carcass, fat, broth, and meat, and then sells off the broth concentrate to companies who in turn add sugar, or salt, or carrot juice, or yeast extract, or all of the above. Those companies then put a picture of a farm or a kid eating soup on a website and tell you that their soup is just like mom’s. When I asked my Symrise representative why chicken broth from a box in a grocery store will never reduce down to a demi-glace, his answer was technical and plain. “The difference is the total protein content,” he wrote. “A typical Aseptic single strength broth only has 1-3 g protein per serving. The demiglace which you create is much higher in protein.” But I would humbly suggest that the real answer is “because that’s not what the corporations that hired us asked for.”
I suppose I don’t know what I was trying to find. This wasn’t Dr. Richard Kimble discovering the truth about Provasic, or Michael Clayton finding out about U/North’s carcinogenic weed killer. In a way, maybe I was hoping for a horrifying crime — something nefarious and real, like the Australian horse and kangaroo meat scandal of 1981.
But the truth is actually more depressing because nobody is doing anything that is legally wrong. We’ve created a world in which people want to have everything whenever they want it, and capitalism and global infrastructure have found a way to provide it so that it is affordable, convenient, and omnipresent. We want vaguely chicken-y water, sold to us as chicken broth and confirmed to be such thanks to an ingredients list that states it is, in fact, chicken broth. We want a comforting, familiar brand name to tell us it has made us dinner, and that it even makes the “healthful” version with real bones involved somewhere along the way. We can reach onto a shelf and open a box of water flavored by an amalgam of chickens who died any number of years ago, and be comforted by nostalgia for what we think is our grandmother but in all likelihood is just hollow corporate brand loyalty (“I like how much carrot powder they add to the broth concentrate!”). We walk around tasting and smelling things, wholly unaware that we are, in fact, interacting with the biggest company we have never heard of, 20 to 30 times a day.
This is our true food landscape: a lot of packaging, branding, and marketing whose contents, when placed over a rolling boil, evaporate into nothing. Anyway, click here for my recipe for chicken stock. Or just buy literally any box of chicken stock because they are probably all the same.
Noah Galuten is a chef, author and host of the YouTube cooking show Don’t Panic Pantry. His new cookbook, The Don’t Panic Pantry Cookbook, is out on January 31.
Dingding Hu is a New York-based illustrator who has has worked on projects for Google, MIT Media Lab, and DOT NYC, and whose work has appeared in HuffPost, the New York Times, and TED.
Fact-checked by Kelsey Lannin