Ask a hundred random people, “Is clam chowder healthy?” and I guarantee that around ninety percent would say “no.” Let’s face it, anything that includes cream and bacon is automatically perceived as unhealthy by the majority of people. Overly rich and sludgy canned clam chowder furthers the perception that all clam chowder is unhealthy.
As a result, food bloggers and even chefs sometimes create so-called “healthy clam chowder” recipes that substitute low-fat milk for whole milk or cream. But is this really healthier? I can tell you it won’t taste very good!
Generally speaking, this is about as far as the conversation ever goes. It’s pretty much about the fat and that’s it. But when it comes to healthy clam chowder, there’s a lot more to it than that. After all, there’s more to clam chowder than just bacon and cream. So in order to answer the question, “Is clam chowder healthy?” we need to understand each ingredient, not just one or two!
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Good question! First, to be clear, there are many types of clam chowder, but this discussion refers to New England-style clam chowder, the most popular version that includes bacon and cream. Any authentic New England clam chowder recipe will include 5 basic ingredients – onions, potatoes, bacon, dairy, and clams. Beyond that, there are minor differences in herbs and seasonings. Many recipes also include celery. Some use salt pork instead of bacon.
But for simplicity’s sake, let’s stick with the 5 most common ingredients. I will group them into 3 categories because each category brings up different concepts and ideas around health. Each category will answer the question, “Is clam chowder healthy?” in a different way.
These are the least controversial ingredients. But it at least should be mentioned that not all vegetables are created equally. Vegetables grown without pesticides are better for you and the planet. Organic vegetables grown locally are even better as they benefit your local farmers and community. OK, easy enough, right? I doubt anyone would disagree with that (except Big Ag and the pesticide industry). Now let’s look at the most controversial ingredients.
For many people, bacon and cream equate to “saturated fat and cholesterol.” And that means “unhealthy.” Fortunately, many people no longer believe this. The theory that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease (known as the “diet-heart hypothesis”) and other health problems have been thoroughly disproven in recent years.
Millions have woken up to the new research that vindicates saturated fat and cholesterol. Others have not. The diet-heart hypothesis theory is still heavily promoted by those who stand to profit from it, namely, pharmaceutical companies, and of course, the food industry. The conditioning in our culture has been so thorough that many people still believe it, no matter the evidence to the contrary.
Modern-day nutrition has become like politics and religion. It’s almost impossible to change people’s minds. Trust me, I understand it can be hard to believe that bacon and cream could actually be healthy, especially after decades of so-called “experts” telling us they’re unhealthy. I’m a former vegetarian who believed it for many years as well.
But again, it’s not just about the fat. More importantly, it’s also about the source of that fat.
Milk from grass-fed pastured cows is higher in nutrients than conventionally raised cows. Cows raised on pasture are better for the planet. They help build topsoil, sequester carbon, and promote a diversity of other animal life, such as insects and birds. This is not exactly breaking news anymore.
Furthermore, it’s the cream portion of milk that’s the most nutrient-dense. Because it contains the fat, it also contains the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K. And of course, let’s not forget the ethical considerations of cows raised in their natural environments as opposed to the CAFO model (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation), which is just industry jargon for a factory farm. Similarly, the fat quality from pasture-raised pigs is significantly higher than CAFO-raised ones.
Bottom line: when you source good quality bacon and cream, yes, they can be healthy! Now let’s take a look at the one category NOBODY talks about.
Nobody discusses clams because everyone assumes clams are healthy. From a nutrient standpoint, it’s hard to argue it. Clams have many health benefits and are especially good sources of iron, choline, selenium, iodine, omega-3s, vitamin B12, and protein.
However, there are different species of clams and different ways of harvesting them. If I had a dollar for every chowder recipe that says, “take a can of canned clams,” I’d be living the good life on a beach somewhere in Thailand.
Look, canned clams are certainly convenient. I’m not denying that. But just know that virtually all canned clams are sea clams (also called “surf clams”).
Sea clams are harvested by fishing vessels that dredge the ocean floor. While they are considered a sustainable fishery by the federal government, I am a little suspicious that dredging the ocean floor is without some negative consequences. Certainly, there is more that lives on the ocean floor than just sea clams. As this article points out, Clam Dredging: A Path to Destruction, there are reasons for concern. It includes videos of damaged seafloor habitat due to sea clam dredging. Unfortunately, there’s very little information on this industry. If anyone can further enlighten me, please share your thoughts in the comments.
Fortunately, there’s a much more environmentally friendly (and tastier) alternative to canned sea clams, that being, quahog clams.
Quahogs (pictured to the right) are the quintessential hard-shell clams of New England. Most sold in markets are farm-raised, which, as opposed to shrimp and fish farms, have positive impacts on water quality.
Furthermore, farm-raised quahogs are not dredged (and there is no issue with bycatch). They are sold fresh and whole in seafood markets. Purchasing whole quahogs more likely support community-based fisheries, as opposed to canned clams, which more likely supports massive fishing corporations, like Bumble Bee.
So if we look at health from not just the health of the individual but the health of the planet, then we can easily answer the question…
Of course! Good quality potatoes, onions, bacon, dairy, and clams are what dictates a healthy clam chowder. Where your food comes from, how it’s grown or caught, matter just as much, if not more than just the nutrient content.
In my new cookbook, New England Soups from the Sea, all six clam chowder recipes are made from good quality ingredients. The same goes for the six fish chowder recipes and the six shellfish chowder recipes.
Yes, I know it can be overwhelming at times to source everything sustainably. Your budget, time, or access to good quality food may not allow you to make truly healthy clam chowder. But I think it’s important to explore what “healthy” really means beyond simply analyzing a food’s calories, proteins, fats, etc.
At the very least, I hope this post broadened your perspective of what it means to make healthy clam chowder. And I hope it might encourage you to consider making an authentic New England clam chowder. Besides using good quality ingredients, another benefit of authentic New England clam chowder is that you’ll get clam juice (also called “clam broth”) as a byproduct of steaming fresh quahogs. This will make your clam chowder taste absolutely AMAZING!
A homemade clam broth is much cleaner and fresher tasting than using the overly clammy clam juice from canned clams. Most online recipes call for the latter in their ingredients. But the liquid in canned clams is not the same as the liquid from freshly steamed clams.
Finally, if you’re still not convinced that a healthy clam chowder can possibly include heavy cream, please understand that a homemade clam chowder does not use a lot of it. It’s more about the clams and clam broth. Only a little cream is added at the end and you get to determine how much to add.
Want to learn to make it?
Yes, that’s my picture and my homemade clam chowder with real quahogs, fresh clam broth, and of course, pastured bacon and good quality cream. Doesn’t it look delicious?
Want to learn to make it?
Just click this link which includes both a video demo and a printable recipe:
How to Make an Authentic New England Clam Chowder
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.