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Originally published Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 5:02 AM

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Chicken soup: a cure for what ails you?

Sure, a steaming bowl of chicken soup is comforting when you have a cold or the flu, but can it legitimately be considered “food as medicine”?

Special to The Seattle Times

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When you’re feeling under the weather with a cold or the flu, is a steaming bowl of chicken soup just comforting, or does it actually help you get better? The answer is both!

Many of us instinctively crave chicken soup when we’re stuffy, sniffily and sneezy. Some of that may simply be due to childhood conditioning. If your parents served you chicken soup when you were sick, and it made you feel better, you’re likely to reach for it when you’re an adult.

Chicken soup has been around for centuries, and for much of that time it’s been used as a remedy for everything from the common cold to leprosy. While no scientific studies have randomly fed chicken soup or a “placebo” soup to humans, a study a dozen years ago did examine chicken soup in a lab.

Researchers found that chicken soup has anti-inflammatory activity, which may ease cold symptoms two ways. One, by reducing the swelling in sore throats and nasal passages. Two, by reducing mucus production, which can help ease coughs and stuffy noses.

Rather than just one part of the chicken soup having a beneficial effect, it appears that the various ingredients — the chicken, the broth, the vegetables — have a synergistic effect. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s of course no secret that sipping hot liquid — whether that liquid is soup, tea or hot water with honey and lemon — can help thin virus-laden nasal mucus so it’s easier to get rid of — with the help of a box of tissues. The fluids also help prevent dehydration.

Let’s not forget that chicken soup is simply nutritious, chock full of protein and vegetables. Yes, chicken soup can legitimately be considered “food as medicine.” Grandma and centuries of healers before her knew what they were doing.

You can find dozens of chicken-soup recipes, from basic to elaborate, online and in cookbooks. The recipe below is one of the simplest, quickest ways I know to get a pot of homemade-chicken soup simmering on the stove.

EASIEST CHICKEN SOUP

Base Ingredients:

6 cups chicken broth

1 carrot, sliced thinly

1 celery stalk, sliced thinly

½ cup white rice (optional)

1 cup (or more) raw or cooked boneless, skinless chicken, cut into small cubes

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Optional Ingredients:

½ cup white rice

1 cup extra vegetables, into ¼-inch cubes

1 teaspoon (or more to taste) minced ginger

1 teaspoon (or more to taste) minced garlic

Chopped fresh parsley or cilantro for garnish

Directions:

1. Pour the chicken broth in a large, deep pot and heat it over medium-high heat. When the broth is just beginning to boil, turn it down so that it bubbles gently. Stir in the carrot, celery and extra vegetables or white rice (if using). Cook until tender (about 20 minutes), stirring occasionally.

2. Stir in the cubed chicken. If using raw chicken, cook until it is cooked through (about 5 to 8 minutes). Also add the garlic and ginger (if using). If using cooked chicken, cook just until heated through (about 2 to 3 minutes). Taste the soup and add salt and pepper as needed. Garnish with the fresh herbs (if using) and serve.

Note: In addition to their great flavor, garlic and ginger are great for you. Both have antiviral and antimicrobial properties, along with numerous other healthful qualities. If you are a garlic lover, indulging when you have a cold could have some benefit. Another popular comfort measure is a simple cup of hot ginger tea with some honey and lemon.

Carrie Dennett writes about nutrition for The Seattle Times; her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com.

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