The Current

Some homemade soups may actually help fight malaria, study suggests

A new study has found that some homemade broths may have antimalarial effects. Jake Baum, the study's co-author, says the findings suggest there may be some wisdom behind traditional home remedies.

It'll be difficult to identify specific ingredients with malaria-fighting properties, says Jake Baum

Some previous studies have found that chicken soup may have cold-fighting properties. (Photo: David Bagosy, Styling: Melissa Direnzo)

In kitchens around the world, from China to Mexico to Canada, there's a belief that has held strong through generations of families: soup heals. 

It turns out that may be more than just a hunch. A new study in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood has found that certain homemade soup broths may have anti-malarial effects. 

"The fact that any soups had any [anti-malarial] activity was heartwarming and surprising," co-author Jake Baum, a professor of cell biology and infectious diseases at Imperial College London, told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

Baum got students from his kids' primary school to bring a traditional broth from their homes — the kind of soup their parents would give them when they were sick. 

He was already aware that some studies have shown that certain homemade soups may help fight colds. He said that initially, the purpose of the exercise was just to get kids to discuss "this idea of what's a real medicine."

A soup at Mi Tienda Latina, a restaurant and store in Kitchener, Ont. (Andrew Coppolino/ CBC)

Then he and his colleagues tested the 56 broths in their lab to see if they could stop the growth and transmission of malaria. 

We shouldn't be blind to the idea that there might be wisdom out there in traditional remedies.- Jake Baum

They found that five of those broths were very potent in stopping the growth of the malaria parasite, while another four broths were able to help block transmission of malaria from mosquito to mosquito. 

Baum cautioned that they were "dealing with an experimental setup in a lab," and that it would be very complicated to figure out which ingredients in the soups may be responsible for the apparent malaria-fighting properties. 

"In the limited setting of the experiment, a couple of the soups were pretty potent. What does that mean? Not sure," he said.

But Baum said the findings do point to the fact that some traditional remedies "certainly do contain very active potential drugs."

Chanterelle mushroom soup. (Amanda Bulman/CBC)

He pointed to the anti-malarial remedies quinine, which comes from the bark of the cinchona tree, and artemisinin, which comes from the sweet wormwood plant, as examples. 

"I think we shouldn't be blind to the idea that there might be wisdom out there in traditional remedies," he said. 

"The challenge, actually, is isolating it and really defining it, synthesizing it, formulating it, testing it. ... That's the long road."

It was important to the researchers to share credit with their young colleagues, so first on the author list of the new study are The Children of Eden Primary School.

To help simmer down the arguments over the healing properties of homemade soups, The Current also spoke to: 

  • Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society. His latest book is A Grain of Salt: The Science and Pseudoscience of What We Eat.
  • Bonnie Stern, a Toronto-based food writer. Her cookbooks include Friday Night Dinners and Heart Smart.

In the meantime, you can enjoy this soothing Vichyssoise soup recipe from chef Marc Miron, who has cooked for the royals and the Rolling Stones.

Chef Marc Miron with one of his favourite soups. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Sweet potato, leek and bacon soup

By Marc Miron

Ingredients:

2 tbsp

Grapeseed oil

4 slices

Bacon, chopped

½ pc

Leeks, washed and cut in small slices

1 ½ (390g)

Sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in a small dice

½ can (170g)

Chickpeas, drained

1 clove

Garlic, chopped

To taste

Salt and pepper

1 litre

Vegetable broth

½ litre

Water

 

Method:

  • In a small soup pot (5 litres), pour the oil and heat to medium heat

  • Add the bacon and cook halfway

  • Add the leeks and cook until soft

  • Add sweet potatoes and cook for 2 minutes

  • Add chickpeas and garlic and cook until fragrant

  • Season with salt and pepper

  • Add vegetable broth and cook until the potatoes are soft

  • Add water if needed

  • Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth

  • Adjust seasoning and serve


Written by Allie Jaynes with files from Reuters. Produced by Peter Mitton, Amanda Pfeffer and Cameron Perrier.