We can probably all agree that there’s no single magic pill for good health. We need to eat our fruits and vegetables, get enough sleep, remember to exercise, stay hydrated, the list goes on. But what if we could take a bit of a shortcut? You know, like how we have an extra cup of coffee after going to bed a little too late, or how we might do a 20-minute HIIT workout instead of putting in a full hour on the treadmill? What if there was something that could help us fill in those gaps when our nutrition just isn’t up to snuff?
Enter, powdered greens
If you’ve perused the aisle of your local supplement store, or even checked out the health food aisle of your local grocery store you’ve probably come across this popular supplement which promises all the goodness of those 7 – 10 servings a day in one little convenient scoop.
In my experience they’re certainly one of the more popular nutrition supplements my clients take, because well, why not? Especially for folks who know they sometimes don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables it makes as much sense as taking that daily multivitamin, right?
So, I wanted to take a closer look at this “superfood” supplement, and find out if these powders are really capable of filling a nutritional gap, or are they nothing more than overpriced nutrition BS?
Let’s break down some of the claims…
1. They’re the same as eating fruits and vegetables (and maybe even better!)
Greens powders are marketed heavily as a non-negotiable for health-minded folks, especially people who often fall short of their 7-10 servings per day. They claim to be able to provide enough nutrition in each teeny scoop to meet the equivalent of half your days fruits and vegetables (or even more!) Antioxidants, fibre, vitamins, minerals, you name it- it’s there.
Not. Even. Close.
Take this label for example:
I mean, there’s a lot of stuff in there, all of which sounds reasonably nutritious. But now take a look at the amounts of them.
Total dietary fibre: 2 grams
Fibre blend: 2700mg
Alkalinizing blend: 3847mg
Antioxidant/Immune blend: 1635mg
Probiotic blend: 333mg (1.67 Billion CFU)
Digestive enzyme blend: 67mg
Just so we’re all on the same page- mg means MILLIGRAMS. As in, 1000th of a gram. For reference, it’s recommended that we eat a minimum of 25 grams of dietary fibre per day. That’s equal to 25,000 of those little milligrams that’s listed on the label in their fibre blend. The actual amounts of each ingredient in these products is almost microscopic, hardly enough to confer any legitimate health benefit.
Now how does that compare to say, a real piece of fruit? I chose a common fruit- an orange for a little comparison.
So, a single orange has MORE fibre, and MORE vitamin C than a scoop of this greens powder. Fruits and vegetables are essentially the only place we get vitamin C in our diet, so it’s hard to buy into the claim that this powder is their equal if can’t even meet a vitamin C requirement. Lame.
Same story for the probiotic blend. A therapeutic dose of a probiotic (for someone who actually needs probiotics) is 10 BILLION bacteria (CFU) per dose. This stuff is providing 1/10th of that amount, which is pretty insignificant. A single serving of probiotic yogurt per day would provide almost the same amount.
What about the digestive enzymes? Sorry guys, more bad news. This particular product contains a total of about 2358 units of various digestive enzymes. Common over-the-counter brands of digestive enzymes contain amounts of these ingredients in the 10s of thousands EACH. So, if you’re here for the digestive enzymes, I’d suggest shopping elsewhere.
Unfortunately the antioxidant blend doesn’t exactly save the day either. 1635mg is a little over 1.5 grams. The label doesn’t actually state the “amount” of antioxidant capacity this supplement has, but for only 1635mg worth of it, you’re better off eating a few blueberries instead.
2. They’re ‘alkalinizing’
Now, you might be familiar with this concept of certain foods being “alkaline” while others are considered “acidic”, and it’s this acid/base balance (pH) in the body that is key for disease prevention, especially conditions like cancer, right? The thing that is super important to remember about this entire theory is that it’s complete and total, 100% nutrition BS. That’s right, the whole concept of choosing a diet that is more “alkaline” to offset “acidity” in the body is absolutely not true. It really doesn’t matter how many milligrams of “stuff” is in there, because it means absolutely nothing in the context of our health.
Interestingly, the guy who actually popularized this pH diet is currently serving time in prison for hawking this garbage. That’s how bad it is.
Just to be clear, there IS an acid and base balance that is always taking place in the body. However it has nothing to do with the actual foods we eat. Our lungs, kidneys, and gastrointestinal tract very tightly regulate our pH balance to avoid going too low (acidic) or too high (alkaline). If we tip too far in either direction we’re very sick and need a hospital, not kale.
3. We need to supplement because our food supply is less nutritious than it used to be.
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking- “But Steph, don’t the fruits and vegetables we eat today contain fewer vitamins and minerals than they used to because of bad farming practices and our soils being completely depleted of nutrients?”
You know who says things like that? Supplement sales people. Using the example above even IF your orange’s vitamin C content was cut in half, you’d still get more out of it than in a scoop of greens. That rationale just doesn’t hold up, and while I’m certainly no expert on the nutrition content of today’s produce compared to yesteryears’s, I know the solution isn’t this junk.
I also can’t talk about any supplements without mentioning the price. While it’s true that a greens powder is probably not harmful to most people (useless? yes. Harmful? probably not), it’s a problem if it’s breaking the bank. When I looked online at prices there was a lot of variation in terms of container sizes, brands, store, etc, but on average I found the cost ranged from about $0.14 – $0.20 cents per gram. We can compare that to the oranges at my local grocery store which were priced this week at $0.0028 cents per gram ($2.82/kg). So we’re talking about a product that is not only nutritionally inferior to real fruits and vegetables, it’s also upwards of 1000X the price.
If all that isn’t reason enough to not bother…
At the end of the day, we know that fruits and vegetables are good for us for a few reasons: Fibre, vitamins, minerals, water, etc. But, what about all the great stuff that’s in there that we don’t know about yet? It would be silly and shortsighted to think that we’ve discovered everything there is to know about what’s in the plant foods we eat. Much of the important interactions that take place are doing so in the context of the overall “food matrix”, which is a sum of all of the various components of these foods. Many of these companies market their products as “real food”, but when we take a food- dry it, pulverize it, make it shelf-stable, then mix it with water and drink it can we really claim that it’s the same as taking a bite out of an apple? Are all of those vitamins, phytonutrients, polyphenols, and prebiotics the same as they were before? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m willing to bet we won’t find the answer at the bottom of our veggie greens jar.
So, what’s the final verdict? Are powdered greens a real “superfood?” Or are they a super scam?
I think you already know my answer. And please keep eating those fruits and vegetables!
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About the Author: Stephanie Hnatiuk is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer who specializes in helping athletes reach their peak potential with nutrition.