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These days, there’s a potentially maddening amount of conflicting opinions on what constitutes a healthy way to eat. But there’s one thing virtually every diet agrees on: You should eat more greens. For very few calories, and also few carbs if that macro is not your jam, you get a payload of antioxidants and micronutrients from spinach, broccoli and the like.
However, if you struggle to eat enough or simply want to top-up the nutrition you’re already getting from your daily kale salad, it can be tempting to add a scoop of greens powders into your life.
The promises are lofty. Glowing skin, a hardy digestive system, a revved immune system, supercharged sports performance, and never-ending energy. All benefits attributed to a daily greens powder habit. But do these supplements really deliver?
Greens powders have an undeniable appeal, so we sifted through the hype to determine whether they’re worth blitzing into your smoothies.
Greens powders are made by dehydrating various vegetables, fruits and other compounds, then crushing them into a fine powder. They also can be produced by extracting the juice from the whole form of the ingredients, drying it out, and then crushing it into a powder. Sometimes both production methods are used to make the final product.
Don’t be fooled by the name. Many greens powders also contain plenty of non-greens ingredients too. Formulas vary by brand, but here is what you’ll commonly find in a green powder.
Greens: Wheatgrass, kale, oat grass, spirulina, barley grass, broccoli, chlorella
Fruit: Pomegranate, cherry, blueberry, elderberry
Mushrooms: Reishi, cordyceps, turkey tail
Rhizomes: Ginger, turmeric
Seeds: Chia, flax
Priobiotics: LactoSpore (Bacillus coagulans)
Spices: Cinnamon, black pepper, cayenne
Sweetener: Stevia, monk fruit extract
Although most of us know that it’s important to eat plenty of vegetables, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that only 1 in 10 Americans gets enough of them on any given day. So a greens powder can be a practically no-effort way to help bridge the gap, especially if traveling somewhere with limited access to fresh produce.
With so many beneficial ingredients (upwards of 30 or more) it’s hard not to consider most greens powders as nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich products that can help ensure you’re getting all the nutrition you need for good health and to support your training efforts.
Ingredients like broccoli and barley grass will deliver vitamin K for improved heart health, seaweed (such as spirulina) is rich in beta-carotene that may help elevate brain functioning, and powdered fruits such as berries give your diet a shot of immune-boosting vitamin C. An extra dose of antioxidants like polyphenols can help limit oxidative damage in the body which may lower inflammation in the body to reduce the risk for certain diseases like cancer and also improve recovery from hard training. Seeds offer up anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and if your diet is lacking in fermented foods like yogurt then the inclusion of probiotics might provide benefits to your gut health.
But what these powders are not is a direct substitute for vegetables and fruits, so don’t consider tossing some green powder into your smoothie a reason to leave actual greens off your plate. “If you are having a tough time getting some of these healthful foods into your diet, these powders can help, but they don’t carry the same benefits as whole vegetables and fruits,” says Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian. “I enjoy adding them to my smoothie as a bonus, but I still try to fit in more servings of green leafy vegetables, seaweed, and herbs throughout the day.”
The processing involved in making powdered fruits and vegetables may diminish their nutrient and antioxidant richness. In their whole form, vegetables give you the satisfaction of chewing, which promotes fullness and improved ratings of satiety that can help put the brakes on overeating. Additionally, greens powders are typically lower in fiber than whole veggies and fruits, though sometimes extra fiber is added. So if you’re doing well and eating at least three servings of whole vegetables daily, keep that up and just use a powder to further up your nutrition game and provide a little green safety net.
With so many ingredients in the mix, there’s always the real possibility that some of them will be supplied in amounts that are too small to have much of an impact. So while a product may contain turmeric, beet or cordyceps mushroom, it’s possible you’ll reap more rewards from these by consuming them on their own. When you eat a cup or two of broccoli or kale, you’ll surely get more micronutrients and antioxidants from this than the powdered versions used in products. Also, when probiotics are added to the mix, there’s no guarantee how viable the beneficial critters still are once they reach your water glass.
There’s also the concern that they can contain harmful contaminants, such as lead and other heavy metals. One lab analysis found contaminants in four of 13 products tested. However, it is not known if the levels of contaminants pose a health risk in the amounts consumed. “You want to make sure you don’t go overboard with using greens powders,” Palmer cautions. “When things are extracted or in powder form, it’s easy to get too much of a particular item, where it’s much harder to do that in whole plant form.”
It’s important to note that to date research on greens powder is very limited. Additionally, product manufacturers typically provide the cash for these studies, which increases the risk of bias. Therefore, it’s best to view any outcomes with a good deal of skepticism.
One four-week study of 10 healthy adults who took in up to two tablespoons of a greens powder daily discovered that this raised their blood antioxidant firepower which, in theory, could offer up more protection from several ailments including heart disease and make it easier to better adapt to the rigors of training. In another 90-day investigation of people with high blood pressure, two tablespoons (10 grams) of greens powder taken daily decreased blood pressure by about 8 percent while the no-greens control group observed no improvement. In a three-month study in 63 healthy women, those taking one tablespoon (10 grams) of greens powder reported significant increased feelings of energy, something that is obviously very subjective. Not available is any research that has provided greens powders to athletes and measured the outcomes concerning performance.
The formulations are often vegan, as well as non-GMO and organic — but check the product label for these details if they are important to you. Because greens powders are categorized as supplements they are not strictly regulated by the FDA, which means that quality control may be questionable. So get your greens powder from a trusted source. “You’ll want to pay attention to any third-party testing certifications, which generally test for purity and potency,” notes Palmer. That way, you know you’re getting what’s listed on the label and nothing else you don’t want, such as high amounts of contaminants.
Also, look for powders with little to no added sugars. Sweetener alternatives like stevia or monk fruit are a safer bet. Taste is another key consideration when choosing a product because one that doesn’t taste good is one you likely won’t use often enough. Luckily, improved flavors mean you won’t be drinking something that tastes like freshly mowed lawn. You may need to play the field to find one that pleases your taste buds the most. You may find some too sweet or too earthy.
The simplest way to add a greens powder to your diet is to mix it with water, plant-based milk or juice. You can also blend a scoop into smoothies or stir into a bowl of yogurt, your favorite nut butter or even hot oatmeal. They can add a dose of nutrition to pureed soups, a skillet of scrambled eggs, dips or a salad dressing.
The Bottom Line: Your top priority should be to consume whole vegetables and fruits, but the various guises of greens powders can help increase the nutritional quality of your diet in a convenient, easy way. Even if their benefits tend to get oversold. Just remember, no amount of broccoli and kale dust will make up for a lousy diet.(Photo: GettyImages)
Gnarly Performance Greens Blueberry Acai
The nutrition panel reads like a multi-vitamin thanks to the mixture of powdered greens, fruits, functional mushrooms and seeds. Each scoop also supplies a population of gut-friendly probiotics.
This one is a little different in that it contains a vast array of fermented goodies including mulberry leaf, seaweed and the red bayberries you didn’t know you needed in your life. Thumbs up for not being unbearably sweet.
Live Conscious Beyond Greens
This option is fortified with a range of immune-boosting functional mushrooms including reishi and cordyceps along with prebiotics to help feed your microbiome and antioxidant-rich matcha tea powder.
Bare Performance Nutrition Strong Greens
The expansive list of greens including kale, wheatgrass and spirulina will indeed help keep your health strong. Sweetened with stevia and monk fruit extract.
KOS Show Me the Greens
A subtle apple flavor is a nice break from the typical citrus or berry taste of greens powders. From wheatgrass to broccoli to kale to prebiotics, this one has all the greatest hits.
Amazing Grass Fizzy Green Berry
These effervescent tablets make it easy to take your greens everywhere. Perfect for travel or a quick nutritional boost to your post-workout hydration.
Want to take your muscle-building protein powder to the next level. Try making this greens-infused power powder to upgrade your protein shakes. Also, stir it into oatmeal and a bowl of yogurt.
1 1/2 cups protein powder of choice
1/2 cup greens powder of choice
1/2 cup ground flaxseed
1/3 cup cacao powder
1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
Pinch of salt