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“Eat your greens” is one of the most commonly stated idioms for health and wellness. Packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, greens are some of the healthiest, most nutrient dense foods on the planet. But—and I say this as a chef as much as I do as a nutritionist—they’re not really all that thrilling to eat. One of the things that makes greens so nutritious is their bitter quality, which stimulates digestion, and another is their chlorophyll (the chemical that makes them green) content, neither of which are exceptionally exciting to the average eater.
Because greens can be difficult to eat regularly, the supplement market has become saturated with pills and powders made of green vegetables. They often contain additional nutrient perks, such as probiotics, functional mushrooms, spices, seaweed, fruits, grasses, adaptogenic herbs, and/or protein, and tout themselves as one-stop shops for your nutritional needs. They may claim to be raw, cold processed, and/or freeze dried, thus leaving all the vital components intact despite the industrial processing required to render them shelf stable. Typically they’re vegan, gluten free, and organic or non-GMO, as well. But are greens pills and powders anywhere as healthy and effective as actually eating green vegetables?
Short answer: no. Greens pills and powders are not anywhere as nutritious as actual green vegetables. A lot is lost in the translation from head of broccoli or bunch of chard to scoop of powder or tiny pill. The main thing lost is fiber, which you’re likely familiar with as a key component of our diets. Fiber slows the absorption of less healthy food components like sugar and alcohol, sweeps through our intestines and keeps them running smoothly, and helps us use the bathroom on a much needed daily basis. Because much of our immune systems resides in our guts, and it’s the place where our bodies make the bulk of the serotonin that keeps us cheerful, gut integrity is hugely important—and fiber is a golden key to gut integrity.
You may be familiar with the question of whether vegetables are still valuable without fiber from the subject of juicing. Many nutritionists, dietitians, and doctors speak poorly of juice cleanses because drinking juice is basically eating vegetables and fruits without the fiber. Vegetables are one of our main dietary sources of fiber, and while juice still contains the other nutrients in vegetables outside of that main element, it isn’t nearly as valuable to consume. Some greens add fiber back in, but it’s from other sources and is a minimal quantity compared to what vegetables have naturally.
In addition to missing fiber, some greens powders and pills have faced scrutiny, as well as fines, for their heavy metal contents. Possibly the most famous brand of greens, Amazing Grass, had excessive levels of cadmium and lead well beyond what’s allowable by law in food or supplements. This problem is, of course, a non-issue in vegetables themselves.
Now for the more uplifting answer if you’re a fan of green supplements: They definitely do have value. Greens pills and powders are full of nutrients that our bodies need and love. Let’s look at what you are getting out of them, knowing that they cannot whatsoever replace eating your greens.
Immune System Support
Most greens contain selenium, which helps modulate our immune systems and prevent autoimmune attacks, as well as vitamin A, which has an anti inflammatory effect on our immune systems that is protective. If your greens powder also contains mushrooms like turkey tail, cordyceps, or lion’s mane, which boost our natural defenses and prevent illness.
Blood Pressure Reduction
The minerals in green powders, such as potassium and calcium, are beneficial for high blood pressure (aka hypertension). In fact, when a group of people took a greens supplement for three months, their blood pressure improved. The study notes with the green powder, “taking the nutritional supplement for 90 days reduced blood pressure.”
Greens powders are full of vitamins, such as C and K, that keep us healthy long term and stave off chronic diseases. These vitamins fight disease by fighting against oxidation, which is the damaging of your cells (which leaves them vulnerable to outside intruders). The jury is still out in regard to exactly how well antioxidants can protect us from illnesses and aging, but wellness experts generally agree antioxidants are healthful to consume and offer a level of protection from illness.
Getting more greens in your diet increases your chances of your brain aging well. One study concluded "consumption of green leafy vegetables was associated with slower cognitive decline.” Specifically, “the decline rate for those in the highest quintile of intake (median 1.3 servings/d) was slower by β = 0.05 standardized units (p = 0.0001) or the equivalent of being 11 years younger in age.” While one can’t expect to shave eleven years off their brain’s age just by eating greens or taking a pill, their effect on our brains’ health is pronounced and shouldn’t be understated.
I don’t need to take a multivitamin too, right?
Wrong, unfortunately! Greens supplements are not formulated with the RDA of vitamins and minerals in mind. There are numerous vital nutrients they might not contain, and for those they do have, there are no rules around the quantities of each. Greens pills and powders cannot be considered a substitute for vitamins any more than they can be considered a substitute for eating your vegetables.
The Bottom Line
Knowing greens supplements don’t have the fiber of vegetables but can offer you health benefits like immune system protection, disease prevention, and cognitive enhancement—the choice of whether to take them should be based on if you’re already supporting the areas of wellness they can contribute to, or not. If you’re someone already focused on eating healthfully—including regularly consuming green vegetables—and you also take a multivitamin and/or other supplements, there’s likely little to be gained from a greens combo. In that case, you might as well save your money (side note: Greens pills and powders can be very pricey!). However, if you find yourself rarely eating veggies, and if you don’t take any supplements either, a greens powder or some pills is an excellent idea to help you get more of those much needed vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients into your diet.
If you strive to eat more greens but have a hard time making them appealing, you can always try blending them into foods: Baby spinach blends seamlessly into a smoothie without adding flavor or color if mixed with dark, rich fruits like cherries and blackberries. And chard, collards, or kale can be cooked in chicken or beef bone broth then whirled up into a warming soup. Either of those will cost a fraction as much as a greens supplement, and provide you with significantly more nutrition.