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Chicken soup for your…cold?

Benjamin D. Schultz

October 24, 2008

I. Purpose


Mothers are said to always be right, and, in the case of eating chicken soup to help get rid of the common cold the evidence may just support the claim.  The common cold, or acute viral nasopharyngitis, is caused by a variety of viruses, including the rhinoviruses, which affect the upper respiratory system in humans.  The symptoms include the initial sore or scratchy throat followed by a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, and coughing.  More severe cases include fevers, muscle aches, fatigue, headaches, and extreme exhaustion.  These can persist for about two weeks.  These viruses cause infections of the mucosa in upper respiratory tract, which causes a cascade effect in the body that ultimately activates an inflammatory response involving neutrophils.  Neutrophils are the most abundant type of white blood cell; they are responsible for the phagocytosis (the process of engulfing and destroying) of foreign agents.  Research has been conducted that supports mother’s notion that eating chicken soup to relieve the symptoms of the common cold in an anti-inflammatory manner, but its absolute curative powers remain somewhat unclear.


II.  History of Chicken Soup


There is an anecdote that tells of a peasant farmer with two chickens: one sick and one healthy.  The farmer decided to kill the healthy chicken, make a soup out of him, and fed him to the sick chicken.  Upon consuming the soup, the sick chicken was cured.  While this may represent an extreme of the healing qualities of chicken soup, people have been using chicken with warm broth as a means to heal since the time of the Greeks when Galen, the Greek physician, had the idea to use the gizzard of chicken, a warm juice of juniper, and other ingredients to heal a chronic bed wetter.  The famous Arabic philosopher, Avicenna, made the claim that the best cure for leprosy was the broth made from “a young fat hen”.  The most referenced origin of the use of chicken soup comes from the Egyptian physician and philosopher Moshe ben Mainmon (Mainmonides) in the 12th century.  Chicken soup has served as a remedy for cold symptoms in the Jewish tradition since, and is even referred to as the Jewish penicillin. (


In 1975, two physicians described a very peculiar case study involving pneumonia in which a 47 year-old physician diagnosed with pneumonia was prescribed chicken soup.  He then denied further administration of the soup after feeling better, and subsequently had a severe relapse (  Whether or not this gives any support to the healing power of chicken soup is not fully supported; however, it is an interesting anecdote of how it has permeated into the medical world and sparked the interests of researchers like Dr. Stephen Rennard.  It wasn’t until Dr. Rennard did his research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center that the physiological effects of chicken soup were outlined.  It is this research that the majority of this paper will be addressing. 


III.  Overview of The Chicken Soup Experiment


Dr. Stephen Rennard’s experiment to test the effects of chicken soup as an anti-inflammatory agent has been widely accepted and acclaimed for its unequivocal evidence.  The targeted cells were Neutrophils, a type of white blood cell involved in the inflammatory response immune system.  These cells are responsible for phagocytosis (consumption) and destruction of foreign bodies or antigens.  In his experiment, Rennard demonstrates how the ingredients in his “Grandma’s Soup” recipe inhibit the activity of Neutrophil chemotaxis (the movement of a motile cell). The following is a list of ingredients used in Rennard’s “Grandma’s Soup”:


1 5-6 lb Stewing hen or baking chicken;

1 Package of chicken wings;

3 Large onions;

1 Large sweet potato;

3 Parsnips;

2 Turnips;

11-12 Large carrots;

5-6 Celery stems;

1 Bunch of parsley;

Salt and Pepper.

Throughout the preparation of the soup, which lasted approximately 486 minutes, a total of 19 samples were taken to test the activity of the soup (whether or not it was actively inhibiting the Neutrophil activity).  The results of the samples show that in the early stages of preparation, the chicken broth alone was not active.  Once the first group of vegetables was added, the soup began to have inhibitory activity (51st minute).  As the preparation continued, there was a slightly less amount of inhibitory activity of the chemotaxis of neutrophils.


Also, Dr. Rennard attempted to determine which of the individual components of the soup were responsible for influencing the neutrophil activity.  He ultimately found that they all individually inhibit neutrophil chemotaxis, especially the chicken. 


As a control for the experiment, Dr. Rennard purchased thirteen different brand-named soups in order to determine whether or not the different ingredients would have similar effects.  He found that five of the store-purchased soups were actually more effective than “Grandma’s soup,” with Campbell’s Ramen noodles with chicken flavor being the most effective, and the rest were not as potent.  This was attributed to their different recipes.  (

IV.  Discussion and Scientific Response       


Dr. Rennard does provide possible flaws and problems with his research, but a few issues need to be discussed deeper.  The first issue that needs to be addressed with Rennard’s research is that it was merely a laboratory experiment that attempted to identify how chicken soup influences the body and reduces cold symptoms.  Therefore, it is necessary to acknowledge that this experiment was performed in vitro (taking place outside of a living organism) rather than in vivo (taking place inside of a living organism).  Clearly this is a very serious issue when discussing the effectiveness of any treatment because in vitro experiments often are unable to recreate the precise conditions under which such an anti-inflammatory response takes place.  In addition, Rennard claims that his study may have clinical relevance because it has solidified the effects of chicken soup on the inflammatory response.  However, without performing an experiment on human subjects, the actual corollary between eating chicken soup and curing a cold cannot be fully validated. 


Dr. Rennard also makes a claim that is a little unnerving: he states that having an anti-inflammatory effect may actually be more harmful than helpful because of the suppression of the immune cells.  This could lead to secondary inflammation including anaphylaxis and aspiration.  It seems a bit hypocritical to say that chicken soup may have clinical relevance and at the same time pose a possible threat. 


Because chicken soup has existed for centuries, it is impossible for it to be patented; as such, research groups cannot get the money to cover the costs needed to perform tests on its effects on the body. Rennard’s paper provides discouraging reasons why it would be difficult to create an in vivo study.  However, this does not mean that no one should attempt to pursue the issue further.  In 2000, right before Rennard published his findings, a team of researchers at the Sinai Medical Center in Florida performed a test on 15 individuals with cold.  They were divided into three groups: one who drank warm chicken soup, one that drank warm water, and one that drank cold water.  They clearly found that the warm chicken soup was the most effective.  This is a simple example of how more in vivo studies could be implemented. (


There are several factors that need to be addressed when creating a study that would solidify the actual effects on people with a cold.  First, such an experiment would be difficult to start with because, as Rennard showed, the recipes for chicken soup vary greatly, as well as their potency.  This means that any confounding ingredients would need to be isolated and tested.  Second, the common cold shares many of its symptoms with other ailments, so test subjects with a definite common ailment would also be needed.  Third, a question of ethics would be raised with regard to whether or not the control group should be deprived of the chicken soup.  And finally, chicken soup has served as a therapeutic treatment for so long that it would be extremely difficult to find any evidence to change its current status.  This therapeutic sentiment may be attributed to a placebo effect, especially considering the fact that most people are told to drink warm chicken soup by their mothers.  (


V. Conclusions


This paper has addressed a brief look at how chicken soup might be an effective treatment for the symptoms associated with the common cold.  Dr. Rennard’s work has clearly outlined a possible mechanism through which chicken soup influences the activity of neutrophils in vitro, and it does in fact serve as a significant contribution towards the further understanding of how it has become known as a remedy for the cold.  However, the fact remains that more research is needed in order to classify chicken soup as a cure. 


Ultimately, chicken soup may not directly cure the common cold, but it certainly will make you feel better. 




Rennard, B.O., Ertl, R.F., Gossman, G.L., Robbins, R.A, Rennard, S.I., et. al. (2000). Chicken Soup inhibits Neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro. Chest, 118(10), 1150-1157.


Caroline, N.L., Schwartz, H., et. al. (1975). Chicken Soup Rebound and Relapse of Pneumonia: Report of a Case. Chest, 67(2), 217-218. 


Farney, T.J. (2007).  Chicken Soup for the common cold.  The (Colorado Springs) Gazette)


Ohry, A., Tsafrir, J., (1999).  Is chicken soup an essential drug? Canadian Medical Association Journal, 161(12), 1532-1533.


Saff, R.H., Fink, J.N., (1992). Anaphylaxis to chicken soup: A case report and a brief history of the chicken in medicine.  Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 88(4), 1061-1062. 



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