Most health experts will tell you that the more greens you eat, the less likely you are to develop chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. The problem? Most Americans don’t eat nearly enough nutrient-packed dark-green vegetables, so they can’t take advantage of their myriad health benefits, which include reducing inflammation, enhancing detoxification and helping maintain a proper acid-base balance in the body.
One easy way to get more greens is to take supergreens supplements. “Consuming greens supplements, such as powders and juices, can be a convenient and reliable way to help you get your necessary daily intake of green vegetables — and then some,” says Michael B. Wald, MD, PhD, ND, director of nutritional services at Integrated Medicine & Nutrition in Mount Kisco, N.Y.
In recent years, supergreens-based products have become something of a trend. Juice companies and retailers such as Naked, Odwalla and Jamba Juice increasingly use supergreens in their concoctions; natural markets and retailers like Trader Joe’s are devoting more shelf space to green drinks; and Hollywood starlets like Gwyneth Paltrow and Christy Turlington are popularizing supergreens detox drinks.
Get Your Greens Here
So what, exactly, are supergreens? The most common types include young cereal grasses, including wheat, barley and alfalfa, along with algaes, such as spirulina and chlorella. Most are edible in their natural, unprocessed form, but since most American eaters are disinclined to chew on barley grass or add sea greens to their salad bowls, they are commonly offered in powder, capsule or juice form.
Such greens products are typically made from grasses and algae harvested at their peak nutritional state. They are then dried at low temperatures and powdered. Sometimes, in the case of grasses, they are picked fresh for processing in juicing machines.
“At the early grass stage of their growth, grasses are actually closer to vegetables than grains in nutrient composition,” says Kelly Morrow, MS, RD, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash. As the cereal grasses mature into the grains used to make bread, says Morrow, the nutrient makeup of the plant is altered: “There is a loss of some vitamins, such as A and C, and a rise in starch levels.”
Most algae products on the market are now grown under strictly controlled conditions — most often on inland ponds in sunny areas such as Hawaii and California — to minimize risks of contamination by bacteria and environmental toxins like mercury.
Because more than a pound of greens may be used to make a mere ounce of powder, cereal grasses and algae can offer a greater nutrient density by volume than the various green vegetables you’ll find in the supermarket produce department, according to Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, medical director of the Nutritional Magnesium Association.
Cereal grasses and algaes are superabundant in chlorophyll, a chemical that lends plants their emerald hue and various nutritional benefits.
“Chlorophyll can help escort cell-damaging toxins like dioxin from the body via the liver,” says Victor S. Sierpina, MD, Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “Additionally, it’s a key compound for improving the function of essential detoxification pathways,” he says. Also, many experts believe that chlorophyll can assist healthy blood flow because the chlorophyll molecule is similar in structure to hemoglobin.
Similar to their leafy green and cruciferous counterparts, cereal grasses and algae are notable for their stellar oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score — a test-tube analysis that measures a food or chemical’s ability to squelch nefarious free radicals.
As free radicals or oxidants bounce around the body, they wreak havoc on cells, raising the risk for a number of chronic maladies including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. “A daily shot of greens can provide an arsenal of phytonutrient antioxidants to help neutralize these free radicals, thus preventing cell disruption,” says Dean.
That healthy dose of antioxidants may also reduce or help repair the oxidative muscle damage associated with exercise, making supergreens helpful for improving recovery from high-intensity workouts.
Chugging down a green drink also has the potential to quell inflammation. “It’s now recognized both clinically and scientifically that chronic inflammation in the body leads to cell, tissue and organ degeneration, and is thus implemented in all diseases,” says Wald. “Green powders contain literally hundreds to tens-of-thousands of plant compounds suspected or well-established to reduce inflammation.”
Further, greens are very alkalinizing, meaning they help restore a healthy acid-alkaline balance in the body.
Brendan Brazier, author of Thrive Foods (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2011), says that the modern American diet, replete with acidifying foods such as coffee, soft drinks, fast-food burgers and jumbo muffins, disrupts the body’s preferred alkaline state. “An acidic environment within the body can play a role in a number of diseases and could lead to the leaching of calcium from bones, promoting kidney stones and osteoporosis,” Brazier says.
So, what’s the best way to get your supergreens: a powdered greens product, a capsule or fresh juice?
According to Wald, the upside of choosing a powdered product is you’ll get a larger dose of the good stuff. “Taking a scoop of a green powder might be the equivalent to what is found in 30 to 50 capsules,” he says. But if you’re not smitten with the taste or consistency of powdered green products, he says that capsules are a good option: “Taking capsules is way better than taking no greens at all.”
For most people, says Wald, dried cereal grasses are far easier to deal with than fresh cereal grasses, which must be juiced and consumed shortly afterward to obtain all their healthful compounds. “The dehydration process used for powders actually maintains much of the original nutritional and enzyme content,” he says.
Premixed green juices and smoothies are convenient, but will generally contain less variety and total quantity of greens than what you could make yourself at home.
“A store-bought greens juice could be mostly apple or some other basic fruit juice with just a speck of greens. Many of the greens juices actually have as much sugar as do sodas,” says Morrow. Greens smoothies, she adds, may also contain prodigious amounts of sugar and an unknown amount of greens. Morrow suggests reading the ingredient list to make sure greens are one of the first few items listed.
“To get the maximum benefit, it’s best to make your own greens drinks using fresh greens or a reputable powder brand mixed with water,” she says. If you’re looking for a flavor boost, Morrow suggests including a splash of lemon or other juice. (For more ideas, see the “Tasteful Strategies” sidebar.)
So, what is the recommended daily dose of supergreens? Wald suggests “consuming anywhere from 1 to 6 grams per day of a supergreens product in order to provide a really solid level of plant-based nutrition, one that can cover many healing bases.”
Keep in mind, though: While supergreens can provide powerful nutritional benefits, they aren’t a replacement for other vegetables in your diet. “No single group of greens can provide the full breadth of necessary nutrients and antioxidants,” says Morrow. So it’s still vital to consume a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits.
Matthew Kadey, MSc, RD, is a Canada-based dietitian and food and nutrition writer.