Drink Your Greens

There’s nothing like a tasty glass of pond slime to get you started in the morning.

You’ve probably seem them in the supermarket, those bottles of icky green stuff, slotted in with the fancy juices and smoothies. With names like Green Goodness, Extreme Green and Green Energy, they are marketed in such a way as to make you feel super-healthy and pious after drinking one. But are they really the wonder food they’re made out to be?

First, it’s important to note that in all of the products I tested, the primary ingredients are various types of juice; apple, banana and mango top the lists, although some include pear, kiwi, pineapple, and even green tea. But the ingredient that we’re concentrating on is the one that gives each product its distinctive sludgy green colour – spirulina.

Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae, of which there are approximately 1500 species. It is named for its coil-like shape. According to Wikipedia:

Spirulina is a low fat, low calorie, cholesterol-free source of protein containing all the essential amino acids. It helps combat problems like diabetes, anemia and atmospheric pollution. It also helps combat ‘free radicals’ which can lead to ailments like cancer, arthritis, cataracts. Moreover, the gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) present in spirulina dissolves fat deposits, helps prevent heart problems and reduces “bad cholesterol”. The National Cancer Institute, USA, has additionally announced that sulfolipids in spirulina are remarkably active against HIV. Regular intake of spirulina increases anti-viral activity, stimulates the immune system, reduces kidney toxicity, improves wound healing and reduces radiation sickness.

However there is little scientific evidence of the nutritional value of spirulina and blue-green algae and there are many respected sources, such as The Berkeley Wellness Letter who believe there are none. Moreover it has been suggested that such supplements can be easily contaminated with microcystins and heavy metals (see above link). A court in California deemed thirty health claims made by one supplement producer to be false. From the ruling: “[The] defendant’s advertising as to the need for and benefits from defendant’s product imply that there is some reliable scientific basis for the claims such as would be reasonably expected by potential users. There is not.” (more details of court ruling). At this point all claims regarding the health and nutritional benefits of spirulina and blue-green algae should be viewed with skepticism.

Another website indicates that spirulina can enhance weight loss, however, it is important to note the quantity of the algae required – 8.4 grams per day. The daily recommended intake is 2000 – 3000 mg, and the green smoothies contain anywhere from 600mg per serving to 1700 mg. Obviously, if one is consuming the green drinks for the benefits of the spirulina, you’ve got to drink an awful lot of green guk to get the benefit, which might, calorie-wise throw your diet plans off course.

The other concern with blue-green algae is that it may be contaminated with heavy metals, although spirulina is normally farmed and not prone to the same contamination.

Vegetarians and particularly vegans also need to be aware that while spirulina is a source of protein containing all essential amino acids, the vitamin B12 has been found to be unusable by humans, so vegans should not turn to spirulina, either as an ingredient in prepared foods, or as a supplement, to meet their B12 criteria.

Ultimately, you should drink the green drinks because you actually enjoy them, and not for any outstanding nutritional benefits they may offer.

Arthur’s Green Energy
325ml serving, 230 calories
Package claim: source of 13 essential nutrients, equal to 2.5 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables
Ingredients: apple juice, banana puree, passionfruit juice, prune plum puree, spirulina, soy lecithin, wheat and barley grasses, vitamin C.
Spirulina content: No reply from manufacturer.
Taste test: sort of orangy in colour, grassy smell, green, almost grassy taste.

Bolthouse Farms Green Goodness
450ml serving, 280 calories (note – serving sizes, ingredients and nutritional claims vary between US and Canadian products)
Package claim: contains 7 essential nutrients
Ingredients: concentrated apple juice, concentrated pineapple juice, mango puree, banana puree, kiwi puree, spirulina, lime juice, broccoli, green tea, spinach, barley grass, wheat grass, ascorbic acid, odourless garlic, tamarind puree, lemon juice, Jerusalem artichoke, natural flavour.
Spirulina content: 620mg per serving, 2 servings in a 450ml bottle (according to Bolthouse’s customer service person). My bottle says 450ml is 1 serving.
Taste Test: slightly acidic, probably from the pineapple juice. An earthier taste than the rest. “Vitamin” aftertaste.

Booster Juice Whole Food (available only in Ontario)
355ml serving, 170 calories
Package claim: A delicious way to stay “whole”!
Ingredients: spring water, banana puree, pear puree, pear juice, mango puree, orange juice, spirulina, lemon juice, aloe juice, kelp, ascorbic acid, natural flavour.
Spirulina content: 1700ml
Taste Test: smells sweet, almost candy-like. Spring water makes it more like a juice than a smoothie. Favourite for taste.

Happy Planet Extreme Green
325ml serving, 190 calories
Package claim: none
Ingredients: pure apple juice, organic banana puree, passionfruit puree, organic plum puree, organic lemon juice, spirulina, chlorella, alfalfa, kelp, spinach, stinging nettle, dulse.
Spirulina content: No reply from manufacturer.
Taste test: smells heavily of apple and banana, taste is sweet, but also tangy.