What they are
The term "green foods" refers to a handful of chlorophyll-rich plants, including microalgae and cereal grasses, which are powerful antioxidants, immune boosters, and detoxifiers. Grown in watery environments, microalgae are both rich in protein and a great source of vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids. The most commonly used microalgae are spirulina, chlorella, and blue-green algae (which grows wild in Oregon's Klamath Lake). Cereal grasses, such as barley grass and wheatgrass, grow on land. Manufacturers harvest these young green plants before they mature into cereal grains, while they contain peak levels of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Other cereal grasses in the green foods family include alfalfa, rye, oat, and kamut.
How they work
All green foods contain chlorophyll. Chlorophyll's chemical structure is quite similar to hemoglobin (blood's oxygen transporter), hence chlorophyll's reputation for being the "lifeblood" of the plant world. Chlorophyll eases inflammation, promotes wound healing, and has potent antioxidant abilities to counteract harmful free radicals.
All green foods play similar roles in the body, but each one also has some outstanding qualities. For example, research documents spirulina's liver-protective nature. In a study of 60 people with various liver disorders, spirulina prevented a worsening of liver problems; specifically, the progression of chronic hepatitis to cirrhosis (Lik Sprava, 2000, vol. 6).
Chlorella has the highest chlorophyll level of any green food. Clinical trials have found that daily use of chlorella supplements reduces high blood pressure, lowers cholesterol, speeds wound healing, boosts immunity, and also improves quality of life for those with fibromyalgia (Best Practice and Research: Clinical Rheumatology, 2003, vol. 17, no. 4). Many alternative health practitioners use chlorella supplements as a detoxifier, but no clinical research supports this application.
Blue-green algae has proven to be both an antioxidant and an infection fighter (Life Sciences, 2004, vol. 75, no. 19; Planta Medica, 2001, vol. 67, no. 8).
Barley grass lowers cholesterol and reduces other risk factors for cardiovascular disease (Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 2004, vol. 27, no. 6). Researchers have documented barley grass' benefits among diabetics, people with elevated cholesterol levels, and smokers (Diabetes and Metabolism, 2002, vol. 28, no. 2).
Perhaps the best-known green food, wheatgrass juice, has been widely used for more than three decades. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it helps with various digestive ailments, blood purification, and liver detoxification. Recent clinical research indicates wheatgrass may help treat ulcerative colitis (Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, 2002, vol. 37, no. 4). In addition, wheatgrass juice appears to greatly reduce the need for blood transfusions among people suffering from thalassemia, a rare group of genetic blood disorders (Indian Pediatrics, 2004, vol. 41, no. 7).
Green foods are considered very safe to ingest and are not known to interfere with any medications.
How to take them
An optimal way to take green foods is to grow a small planter of wheatgrass or barley grass and juice them daily. You will need a juicer robust enough to handle grasses; cut off a 2- or 3-inch diameter chunk of grass for each serving of juice.
If you don't have the time, space, or inclination to do this, you can mix green food powder or flakes with water or juice. Use 1 to 3 teaspoons per drink, keeping in mind that the more you use, the stronger the flavor. A fruit or yogurt smoothie can help mask flavor, if desired.
Green food tablets or capsules are convenient (and taste-free). Common doses are 2,000–3,000 mg daily for spirulina, chlorella, and blue-green algae; 1,500 mg daily for barley grass; and 1,500–3,500 mg daily for wheatgrass.
The cost of green food supplements varies quite a bit. Growing cereal grasses is practically free, after you purchase seeds (and a juicer). Powders and flakes cost $20 to $50 per month, and tablets and capsules are $4 to $10 monthly.
Oregon-based freelancer Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH, is the author of User's Guide to Sexual Satisfaction (Basic Health, 2003).