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Are powdered greens a good substitute for vegetables? A dietitian weighs in

A registered dietitian separates the health from the hype.
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A few months ago, my good friend Emily asked me if she should buy Athletic Greens, a brand of powdered greens. Like me, she had been getting their glossy fliers in the mail and she was curious if the slick marketing language was true. The brand says their AG1 powder offers 75 vitamins, minerals and whole-food sourced nutrients in one daily serving and that it’s “all you really need, really.” With a price tag of $99.00 for 30 servings, it made me wonder — really?

The global wellness industry is booming, with the United States leading the growth at $52.5 billion. With the pandemic at the edge of everyone’s consciousness, immune health and overall health have become daily priorities. Along with sleep and fitness, general wellness is a hot commodity.

Do you need powdered greens?

As a whole, Americans are not getting the fruits and vegetables we need for overall health and disease prevention. Nutritionists like me are constantly reminding clients and the public at large to get more servings of produce daily for general health, as well as gut health. Our microbiome, which is partially housed in our gut, has been established as being vital to overall health, impacting everything from digestion to skin health and mental health.

One reason that is often mentioned when consumers are asked why they aren’t eating more fruits and veggies is that they’re not convenient. It does take some effort to buy, wash, chop and cook fresh vegetables. So, it makes sense that putting them in a powdered, drinkable form just might get people to consume more of them.

What exactly are powdered greens?

Different brands offer slightly different options, but in general they contain dehydrated and powdered vegetables. Powdered greens promise to give us what we’re not getting — our veggies, as well as probiotics and prebiotics, digestive enzymes, plus vitamins and minerals, and in some cases, adaptogens like ashwagandha and reishi mushrooms. Some brands add sprouts from seeds and grains to their mix, as well as juiced grasses, like wheat grass. One thing that powdered greens don’t have much of is protein, with most only containing 2g per serving.

You may think that with all the veggies and sprouts in these powders, they would be high in fiber — that other thing that nutritionists are always talking about. But since the greens are juiced, the fiber is strained out and discarded, leaving only about 1g of fiber per serving.

What to look for in powdered greens

Powdered greens are considered to be a supplement and the quality of supplements varies widely. If choosing organic produce is important to you, you may want to consider choosing a green supplement that is certified USDA organic. It’s also smart to look for a product that is tested by a third party to confirm that the powder actually contains what is listed on the label. Third party testing also looks for contaminants and heavy metal content, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury, which are often found in soil.

If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to get pregnant, I would talk to your doctor about whether it’s safe to try powdered greens. And if you choose to use one, opt for a product that has been tested.

Part of that hefty price tag on Athletic Greens pays for their third-party testing by NSF (National Sanitation Foundation). While Athletic Greens tops out at nearly $100 for a 30-day supply, you can find similar blends for far less. Though not as jam-packed with greens and herbs, Ora Easy Being Green Superfood Greens Powder is much friendlier to your budget at $27.99 for 30 servings and does third-party testing.

Many of us have a “more is better” philosophy when it comes to health, but that’s not always true. For example, leafy greens are especially high in vitamin K, which helps our blood clot when we’re injured. But many people are on blood thinners due to having had a heart attack or stroke, have been diagnosed with lupus, or have developed a life-threatening blood clot. If you’re one of the 2 to 3 millions of Americans on blood thinners, you need to avoid foods high in vitamin K, so taking a powdered greens supplement may not be the best choice. The amount of vitamin K can vary widely from 9% of the Daily Value in Ora to 45% in Vibrant Health Green Vibrance. Some brands don’t list their vitamin K content. If you’re on blood thinners, talk to your doctor before taking this type of product.

All the powdered greens I researched are vegan, but since some do contain cereal grasses, like barley, wheat and rye, they are not all gluten-free. If you have celiac disease or avoid gluten, make sure to read the ingredient list carefully. A good option for you would be Paleovalley’s Organic Supergreens ($59.99 for a bag), which is completely grain-free.  

How to use powdered greens

If you decide you want to try powdered greens, the good news is that it’s easy to put your investment to work. The powders are designed to mix easily into 8 ounces of hot or cold water. You can also add a scoop of the powder to level up your smoothie. Whether you’ll enjoy the flavor of powdered greens is another question. Some of the brands have a very grassy, chlorophyll-forward flavor, while others add natural flavors like orange, strawberry or watermelon.

As a supplement to an already healthy, plant-rich diet, powdered greens can be a great, albeit pricey, addition to your diet. They don’t offer much fiber or protein, but if you want the benefits of probiotics, digestive enzymes and adaptogens and don’t want to take a bunch of pills, these powders can do that. If you’re looking to a green drink to replace the fruits and veggies that provide so many important nutrients, it’s not an even trade. Yes, you’ll get some of the nutrients, but you won’t reap the fiber benefits or the “whole food” nutrition that we know produce gives us.

Knowing that I’m a food-first nutritionist, you might be able to guess what I’ll say next. Your best move for achieving overall health and wellness, including gut health, is to eat a varied diet based on fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, healthy fats and high-quality protein. But life is far from perfect, and it can be comforting to know that a glass of green stuff each day just might help you feel a little bit better.