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TODAY contributor
updated 1/23/2008 5:10:58 PM ET 2008-01-23T22:10:58

In most parts of the U.S. these days, the wind is frightful and the temperature is hovering in the high teens. And if you're like me, you're trying to stay clear of a cold or flu. My secret weapon is a clear broth or bouillon. It’s tasty, easy-to-digest, soothing and adds a touch of elegance to the beginning of a meal.

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These days the supermarket shelves are loaded with bouillon products in all types of packaging. Here’s what to look for:

Broth and bouillon come in vegetable, poultry (chicken and turkey), meat (beef, lamb or veal) and fish. Words to look for are stock, broth, bouillon and concentrates of stock. All have some sodium, with concentrates having the least and bouillon cubes the most. And most broths also have sweetening added, so read those labels carefully, especially if you are diabetic, as many brands contain sugar or high fructose syrup. Many canned broths not only can be diluted with water, they can be enhanced with herbs, lemon and spices.

Bouillon cubes and jars
Purists call these flavored salt cubes, but when mixed thoroughly with boiling hot water, adding your own fresh parsley or herbs, this is a quick solution when you absolutely have to have a bouillon or broth to drink or use in a dish.They're available in vegetable, beef or chicken flavor.

Cans and aseptic containers
For pure convenience, there’s nothing like opening up a container, pouring out the broth and adding a punch of flavor to a savory dish. Sodium is generally quite high, but low- to no-sodium products are readily available. These products are excellent either as a broth soup or for use in cooking. Available in regular and organic. Usually available in vegetable broth, beef, turkey or chicken flavors.

Concentrated stocks
My favorite! These are generally found in the butcher section and are very pricey, but a little goes a long, long way. These are concentrates of freshly made stock from fish, beef or veal, or chicken and excellent for cooking where you want homemade flavor. Unlike canned concentrated broth, these are not a liquid; they have the consistency of jelly and you need only to use a little to perk up a gravy, stew or soup. They're best used for cooking rather than as a broth soup. Most popular as a cooking aid in restaurants, these products have now found their way into the grocery in a variety of flavors. Most are low to non-fat and have much less sodium.

Kitchen must-haves
Despite the fact that most of these products are high in sodium, they’re essentials in the well-stocked kitchen. If low- or no-sodium products are not available, put a raw potato in the broth as it heats, then remove it. Potatoes absorb excess salt very well. Another concern is the inclusion of MSG (monosodium glutamate) that many contain. Even when a product says “no MSG added” it may contain the substance because so many common ingredients — like autolyzed yeast, carrageenan, sodium casseinate, enzymes, hydrolyzed pea proteins and others — contain or give off free glutamic acid during the manufacture. While these may be trace amounts for the average person, for those with a sensitivity or allergic reaction, it is a concern.

Bouillon cubes have an incredibly long shelf life. Canned broths last up to a year, however always note expiration dates on aseptic packages and on concentrate containers, as they tend to have much shorter codes. Store in a cool dark cupboard until ready to prepare. Store opened cans and aseptic packages in the refrigerator or pour leftovers into a jar and tightly seal it before placing in the refrigerator. Remember these will spoil quickly, so best bet is to make just what you are going to use.

And if you were wondering about just how effective my secret weapon is against the cold and flu season, it’s not so secret. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), found that 87 percent of doctors agree that it is important for people to increase fluid intake when they have a cold. Two out of three of these doctors agree that eating soup is an effective way to improve hydration when experiencing cold symptoms. Chicken broth especially sparked scientific interest in 2000, when a study, published in the medical journal CHEST, indicated that chicken broth had potential anti-inflammatory effects in laboratory studies that potentially could ease the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

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