Are Green Powders a Waste of Money?

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Last Updated: Jul 07, 2020

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Clever brands have seized the opportunity to market green superfood powders to health-conscious consumers who want to increase their vegetable intake because they’re afraid they’re not getting enough nutrients through regular food.

Green powders promise to fill that gap by delivering the recommended daily serving of vegetables through the convenience of a drink.

The premise of liquid superfood sounds exciting and almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding such products, and most of them aren’t as healthy as the label claims.

The purpose of this article is to take a closer look at these chlorophyll-rich powders and to provide answers to a number of common questions, including:

  • Are these supplements as nutritious as real food?
  • Can green drink powders improve athletic performance and improve your energy levels?
  • What should you look out for in green powders?
  • What are the health benefits of liquid veggies?
  • Are there potential side effects to “drinking” vegetables?
  • What is the best green powder?
  • Why are most greens food powders contaminated with heavy metals?

So stick with me as we explore everything you need to know about superfood powders. If you’d like to find out what brands and products I recommend, check out this round-up of the best superfoods powder I’ve used.

What Is Green Food Powder?

What is green food powder?

Green powders are dietary supplements consisting of powdered fruits, vegetables and other plant-based compounds that can help you pack more nutrients into your regular diet.

All you have to do is mix a scoop of the powder with a few ounces of water, nut milk or your favorite protein shake.

Most of the time, I just mix green powder with water but my wife likes to make post-workout smoothies with it.

Manufacturers of green powders claim that their products can help detox, reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases, improve your energy levels and mental clarity, support your immune system, lose weight and more.

So let’s learn more about the potential benefits of green powders and find out if there’s sufficient scientific evidence to back up those claims.

But before we get into the weeds, let’s talk about how these products are manufactured and what types of green powders you can find on the market.

How Are Green Powders Made?

How are green powders made?

A common technique for making green powders is to dry the ingredients and then grind them. In some cases, manufacturers first extract the juice of plants (juicing) and then dry the juice to make it into powder.

There are different drying techniques, and each comes with its own pros and cons.

These techniques include:

  • Air drying
  • Freeze drying
  • Spray drying

You can read this article if you’re interested in learning the details of, and differences between, these methods. But in a nutshell, freeze drying uses low temperatures and thus preserves the nutrients in food much better than spray drying or air drying. It’s also more expensive.

While air drying sounds natural and relatively straightforward, it also uses higher temperatures (which can destroy some of the nutrients in the food).

As a result, I recommend green powders from brands that use freeze-drying during their manufacturing process.

There is also a new trend of sprouting and fermenting ingredients, which can remove some of the antinutrients commonly found in plants.

That helps with improving the absorption rate of micronutrients. We’ll get more into that in a bit when we talk about “superfoods,” so stay tuned.

Popular Green Powder Ingredients

Mushroom extract is a popular green powder ingredient
Mushroom extract is a popular green powder ingredient.

Green powders often contain 20 to 75 different plant-based ingredients, but the exact number varies by brand.

Common ingredients include:

  • Antioxidant-rich fruits and leaves such as blueberries, citrus bioflavonoids extracts, goji berries, moringa, pineapple and raspberries.
  • Digestive enzymes such as astragalus root powder extract, bromelain and burdock root powder.
  • Extracts such as green tea extracts (including matcha), cocoa bean polyphenol extract, grape seed extract and ginkgo biloba extract.
  • Grasses such as alfalfa grass, barley grass, oat grass and wheatgrass.
  • Leafy greens such as kale and spinach.
  • Mushrooms such as maitake mushroom extract, reishi mushroom extract and shiitake mushroom extract.
  • Natural sweeteners such as monk fruit extract or stevia.
  • Nutrient-packed veggies such as broccoli, cabbage, carrots and red beets.
  • Prebiotics and fiber such as apple fiber, inulin (from artichokes) or tapioca starch.
  • Probiotic bacteria such as bifidobacterium bifidum and lactobacillus acidophilus.
  • Seaweed such as chlorella, kelp and spirulina.

Types of Superfood Powder

If you walk through the supplements aisle of your local Whole Foods Market, or search on Amazon*, you’ll find countless plant powders to choose from. So let’s talk about some of the different types of superfood powders.

While this article focuses primarily on dried superfood powders, which consist of a mix of different plants (green and otherwise), you can also find powdered versions of individual fruits, veggies, roots and mushrooms*.

For example, for my testing I got a container of organic moringa leaf powder*. It’s a plant native to South Asia and its leaves have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for at least 4,000 years.

If you decide to make plant powders part of your dietary lifestyle, I’d recommend going with a product that contains a wide variety of ingredients — especially those that you would not normally put on your plate.

Unless, of course, your goal is to supplement with a specific plant, herb or nutrient.

What to Look for in a Greens Powder

Considering the overwhelming amount of products on the market, let’s look at some of the key requirements you should have when it comes to green powders.

By applying these requirements, you can quickly weed out unhealthy or ineffective products and focus on those that provide the most potential benefits.

Look for
  • Organic and non-GMO
  • Freeze-dried
  • Naturally sweetened
  • Dairy-free probiotics
Avoid
  • Added sugar
  • Grains and soy
  • Artificial ingredients
  • Fillers
  • Chemicals

Ingredient Quality

When it comes to green powders, ingredient quality is just as important as when you’re shopping for fresh produce.

That’s why I recommend sticking with brands that only use organic and non-GMO ingredients that have been carefully processed using a freeze-drying or cold-pressing method.

Avoid any products that include cheap fillers like wheat, corn, soy, unnecessary starches or other artificial ingredients.

Sweeteners

As a rule of thumb, I avoid products that include added sugars.

The problem is that nutritive sweeteners exist under dozens of different names, including fructose, maltodextrin, dextrose, rice syrup, corn syrup and others.

So it’s not always easy to identify added sugars in processed foods without reading the label very carefully.

In addition to nutritive sweeteners, I also stay away from artificial sweeteners that don’t have any calories, such as sucralose.

The few exceptions to this rule are stevia leaf extract and monk fruit extract, because they’re from truly natural sources.

You can read more about that rationale in this article.

Chemicals

You don't want heavy metals in your green powder
You don’t want heavy metals in your green powder.

This one seems like a no-brainer, but the reality is that almost all fresh produce contains trace levels of heavy metals and other chemicals from the soil and water. As a result, so do organic green powders.

California has established a law known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (commonly referred to as Proposition 65).

The law requires manufacturers of supplements to add a “Prop 65” warning on a product label if the product in question contains any ingredient that tests over 1/1000th of what the World Health Organization terms as “Safe Harbor Levels.”

Virtually all green powders violate those limits. Whether or not you see a warning on the label depends on where you live. If you live outside of California, you might not see such a warning, because manufacturers use different (less scary) packaging.

Considering that natural plants grown in “clean” soil — such as spinach — contain higher levels of chemicals than what California’s law allows, you might consider ignoring such warnings altogether.

I don’t recommend that. Instead, look for products that have been third-party tested for heavy metals and make sure they contain the lowest amount possible. For instance, Athletic Greens and Ketōnd test their products.

Ketōnd wrote an excellent article* on the subject, explaining how the company handles testing for heavy metals.

Why “Superfoods” Is a Misnomer

Superfoods  aren't as super as you might think
Superfoods aren’t as super as you might think.

You’re probably familiar with the term “superfoods,” which describes foods that are incredibly nutrient-dense. The assumption is that the more nutrients a food packs, the healthier it is.

Examples of “known” superfoods include chia seeds, dark leafy greens, most berries, blue-green algae, etc.

Here’s the problem: the superfood label is bullshit. Nutritionally, there is no such thing as a superfood.

In fact, many of the so-called superfoods include (natural) compounds that are either inflammatory or hamper the absorption of other nutrients.

For example, many dark leafy greens, including Swiss chard and spinach, contain antinutrients (such as oxalates) that significantly reduce the food’s nutritional value by hampering mineral absorption.

Also, studies have shown that Vitamin A is 15 to 20 times more bioavailable in meat than in plant sources, while iron is three times more bioavailable in meat than in plants.

That’s why I don’t like the label “superfoods.” What good is a nutrient-dense plant food if the body can’t absorb most of it?

That doesn’t mean high-quality food powders don’t deserve your consideration. Just don’t expect miracles from individual ingredients.

Who Should Use Green Powders?

Green powders are meant to supplement a healthy lifestyle
Green powders are meant to supplement a healthy lifestyle.

Green powders — much like vitamin supplements or pre-workouts — offer an excellent way to fill small gaps in an otherwise healthy dietary lifestyle.

That means you should do everything you can to fulfill your body’s nutritional needs with pastured meats, wild-caught seafood and organically-grown fruits and vegetables.

I realize that fulfilling one’s nutritional needs is sometimes easier said than done given our stressful, modern lives. That’s where green powders can help to fill those dietary gaps.

However, don’t mistake green powders or other supplements as a replacement for real food.

Also, if you’re an athlete and consistently put high physical strain on your body, you might have a higher demand for both macronutrients and micronutrients than what you can meet with regular food.

As a result, consuming natural protein supplements and green powders might be a necessary evil.

Health Benefits of Green Powders

Health benefits of spinach
Health benefits of spinach.

There are two ways of looking at the benefits of green powders. Some sites, such as Healthline, list the scientifically-relevant benefits of individual ingredients you can commonly find in green powders.

Such benefits include:

  • Reduced oxidative stress and inflammation, thanks to the actions of plant compounds. That may reduce your risk of developing a chronic disease, such as cancer or heart disease.
  • Improved energy from ingredients such as green tea extract, which is a natural source of caffeine.
  • Detoxification, by including alkaline plant compounds or alkalizing greens that are supposed to increase your blood pH. (Note: You cannot influence your blood pH with food.)
  • Weight loss, by controlling your appetite and blood sugar levels.

The reality is that most of these claims stem from poorly-designed or observational studies that don’t necessarily prove cause and effect.

That’s why I think it’s a waste of time going down the rabbit hole of trying to match individual ingredients to health benefits.

Instead, focus on the bigger picture. I hope we can all agree that our bodies need nutrients and the best source of such nutrients is fresh food.

However, if you feel like you’re already doing the best you can but it’s not good enough — maybe because of lifestyle factors that are difficult to influence — consider using supplements such as green powders.

I work out five or six times a week, and I have a stressful job and two kids who demand my constant attention.

To meet those demands and to excel at what I do, I maintain an excellent sleep regimen, follow a paleolithic ketogenic diet and intermittently fast every day for 16 to 20 hours.

Additionally, I use supplements such as green powders to fill any potential gaps — especially those I might not be aware of.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are all green powders vegan-friendly?

No, not all of these products are vegan friendly because some contain vitamins that were derived from animal-based sources. So unless the label says “vegan,” you can’t be certain that the product doesn’t contain any ingredients from animals.

My nutritionist told me that food from plant-based sources is healthier than that from animal sources. Is that true?

While I don’t argue that plants have a place in the human diet, evolution doesn’t back up the hypothesis that plants are the better source of nutrients for humans. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that humans can absorb micronutrients from animal products at a much higher rate than they can from plants.

Is a plant-based diet better than the Standard American Diet?

The Standard American Diet is among the worst things you can do to your body, as is evidenced by the exploding rates of metabolic diseases in this country.

A plant-based diet, such as a vegan diet, is often “less bad” because (among other things) vegans are usually more health-conscious and pay better attention to food quality.

However, just because a diet is “less bad” doesn’t make it good. From both an evolutionary and scientific perspective — I’m talking about clinical trials and not observational studies — the human body isn’t made for eating only plants.

But that’s an entirely different discussion and a subject for another blog article.

In what cases would you consider green powders a waste of money?

If you follow the Standard American Diet (SAD), have an inconsistent sleep cycle, don’t exercise and have no plans or desire to change these behaviors, I’d consider supplementing with a green powder to be a colossal waste of money.

Can a green powder help protect against the coronavirus?

No dietary supplement or health food can make you immune to COVID-19, but the better in shape your immune system is and the healthier you are overall, the less likely you’ll suffer from severe complications of an infection, regardless of what virus we’re dealing with.

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are atoms or molecules that are highly reactive because they’re missing an electron. In your body they can damage cells, and they’re linked to aging. Their counterparts are antioxidants that chemically react with those free radicals to “neutralize” them.

What does ORAC stand for?

ORAC means Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, and it was a method of measuring the antioxidant capacity of different foods. The USDA even used to publish a database of foods and their ORAC score.

Unfortunately, marketers abused those scores to make up claims about health benefits that had no scientific basis. So, if you see a product boasting a high ORAC score, just ignore it.

Are Greens Supplements Worth It?

The highest quality green powders don’t come cheap because they’re expensive to manufacture. So the question remains if it’s worth spending $50 to $90 dollars every month on a green powder.

Frankly, I think such products are only worth the money if you’ve already taken care of the basics.

That means you:

  1. Follow a low-carb high-fat diet — such as a ketogenic or paleo diet — that includes nutrient-dense foods.
  2. Sleep well and have consistent bed/wake times.
  3. Fast intermittently (it’s free).
  4. Exercise regularly.

If you don’t do #1 through #4, green powders might still provide benefits but they are certainly not the lowest-hanging fruits when it comes to improving your health and well-being.

If you’re a businessperson, think of it from a return on investment perspective. What’s the biggest bang for your buck? I’d argue that diet, sleep and exercise offer a higher ROI than supplements.

Once you’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit, supplements can certainly give you an edge! Continue reading here to find out what are the best superfood powder brands and products you could consider!

Final Words

I recently read a statement in the new book Keto Answers* that if you’re concerned about not getting enough micronutrients from food, you should eat more meat. That sounds corny and funny (not to mention disturbing if you’re a vegan), but it’s absolutely true.

The caveat to that statement is that the parts of animals that are most nutrient-packed are the organs. The problem is that most of us don’t eat nearly enough organ meat. When was the last time you had heart, liver, kidney or spleen on your plate?

I’m “pretty good” with liver. But in reality it makes up a negligible part of my diet. That’s a problem, and it means that I have to get my nutrients from more convenient and/or socially acceptable sources of food.

That’s where low-carb fruits and non-starchy vegetables come into the picture.

But as I mentioned above, the nutrients in plants are notoriously hard to absorb. And unlike gorillas, who spend half of their day gathering and eating plants, I have neither the time nor the desire to sit around chewing plants for hours to get the nutrients I need.

In my opinion, that’s the gap green powders can fill by providing a convenient delivery mechanism of micronutrients. Just don’t view such products as a shortcut to adopting an otherwise healthy (dietary) lifestyle.

What’s your take on greens supplements? Do you use them? And, if so, what’s your favorite brand? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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