Nutrition Specialist at the Aspen Club
Green powders and supplements seem to be a growing health food trend, and they’ve become a billion dollar industry. Made from fruits, vegetables, and herbs, as well as “superfoods” such as barley, kelp, Spirulina, algae, and even probiotics, they claim to give you that extra boost of energy, as well as vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, without having to eat “all those vegetables and fruits.”1
But I’m skeptical. First, let’s take a look at history. When vitamins were first discovered and marketed from 1912 – 1940’s, it was thought that they would dramatically lower the risk of some of the major diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.2,3 Yet, the opposite happened. From the 1930’s to the present, cancer rates have continued to increase, and autoimmune illnesses and heart disease have skyrocketed. The supplements did not seem to make us healthier. It wasn’t until about 20 years ago that nutritional scientists first realized that vitamins and minerals weren’t the only micronutrients in natural foods. Phytochemicals also play a crucial role.
As it turns out, it’s not just the phytochemicals. They’re working in combination with the thousands of other nutrients and chemicals in whole foods and have synergistic effects. Can isolated nutrients and phytochemicals do that?
According to T. Colin Campbell, PhD, author of Whole, “Although touted as “natural”, there’s nothing natural about consuming these nutrients in isolation. Oftentimes, the combination of nutrients is more or less than the sum of its parts, and the body plays a crucial role in determining how many nutrients from the foods we consume are actually used.”4
One recent study compared broccoli sprouts, noted to have some of the highest concentrations of ITC’s (Isothiacianates, which are potent phytochemicals being studied for their anticancer and stem cell effects) to broccoli supplements, made up of isolated ITC’s.5, The product advertises, ½ head of broccoli in each pill, and recommends 6 pills/day. In the study, they measured amounts of ITC’s absorbed and excreted in the urine. The results showed a significantly smaller spike in phytochemicals (almost negligible) in those that consumed the supplements when compared to the broccoli sprouts. Certainly not worth the extra money and all those pills.
In a separate but related study done on rats, researches showed that when tomatoes and broccoli combined was compared to either using tomatoes or broccoli alone, vs the powders made from extracts from either tomatoes or broccoli, the combination of tomatoes and broccoli was dramatically more effective at shrinking prostate tumors (52% shrinkage). 6,7 This demonstrates the power of using combination foods over isolated nutrients or supplements for cancer prevention and treatment.
So, they may not be as beneficial as they claim. But, could they actually be harmful?
I did a search on ConsumerLab.com, which is an independent agency that looks at whether health and nutritional products really are as they say. I found nearly one third of powdered “greens” or “whole foods” either didn’t live up to their claims, or worse, were contaminated with lead, arsenic, or harmful bacteria. According to Tod Cooperman, MD, president of ConsumerLab.com, “Greens and whole foods powders and pills can provide a range of vitamins and natural antioxidants. But because these products include ingredients like kelp, Spirulina, and many other unusual plants and herbs, contamination is a problem.”8 And remember, the FDA does not regulate supplements, so they aren’t FDA-approved.
My thought is, it’s always best to eat real, whole foods. There’s just no substitute to consuming vegetables and fruit, and history has proven this time and time again. But, if you’re traveling or find yourself in a pinch, search ConsumerLabs.com for a brand you trust, and use them at these times. They may even contribute some added nutrients. Just, don’t replace them for your daily doses of veggies and fruit.
4. Campbell, T.C Whole, 2013, p156
5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21816223. Clarke, JD, Hsu, A, Bioavailability and inter-conversion of sulforaphane and erucin in human subjects consuming broccoli sprouts or broccoli supplement in a cross-over study. Pharmacol Res. 2011 Nov;64(5):456-63. doi: 10.1016/j.phrs.2011.07.005. Epub 2011 Jul
7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17213256, Canene-Adams, K, Lindshield, BL, Combinations of tomato and broccoli enhance antitumor activity in dunning r3327-h prostate adenocarcinomas, Cancer Res. 2007 Jan 15;67(2):836-43. Epub 2007 Jan 9.