Note: This is a very long article so be sure to use the Table of Contents to your right to navigate to the information you are interested in!
The fruit and vegetable world is full of colorful foods including some that are, for good reason, termed as super foods. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, says that eating at least five servings of colorful vegetables and fruits substantially decrease the risk of a number of serious diseases.
The most prominent among them are green foods including spinach, kiwi, cabbage, green plantains, broccoli, peas, dark greens like collard or mustard greens and peppers. Besides these popular green foods, there are also some not so well-known green foods like spirulina, chlorella, barley grass, wheat grass that are cultivated for use as dietary supplements. Despite their high nutritional and therapeutic value, these foods have been ignored for too long.
The Importance of Green Foods
Green foods including leafy and non-leafy vegetables, grasses and algae have since long been an important part of the human diet. The sad part is that many among us have forgotten the importance of greens and started eating more processed foods and sweet foods.
The adage eat your greens is not folkloric wisdom, but sound advice supported by scientific evidence. Green foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, trace metals, amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and dietary antioxidants such as indoles and lutein. Green foods often contain enzymes, complex proteins that act as catalysts in specific biochemical reactions associated with important functions in the body.
If you wish to make green foods an integral part of your daily diet, there are multiple options to choose from. You may go for the traditional greens such as spinach, broccoli, cabbage, parsley, cucumber, green peppers and tomatoes or green legumes such as green lentils, mung beans (vigna radiate) and green split peas. You may also choose to go nontraditional and opt for green foods cultivated and used as dietary supplements. Such foods include spirulina, chlorella, barley grass and wheat grass.
However, when it comes to nontraditional foods, it is expected that there would be some sort of controversy raising elements of doubt regarding the benefits they can (or cannot) provide. Here is a detailed discussion that may help you decide whether or not to make such green food supplements a part of your daily routine.
Spirulina is one of the more popular green foods that is cultivated and used as a whole food as well as a dietary supplement. It is a cyanobacterium, a phylum of bacteria that obtain their energy through photosynthesis often erroneously referred to as blue-green algae. Spirulina is prokaryotic while algae are eukaryotic.
Basically, spirulina forms naturally as algae on ponds and other water bodies. If the water body from which it is sourced is not contaminated it is a potent source of nutrients and antioxidants.
Spirulina Nutritional Profile
The nutritional profile (per 100gms or 3.5oz) of spirulina can be summed up as follows:
|Energy||1,213 kJ (290 kcal)|
|Dietary fiber||3.6 g|
|Saturated fat||2.65 g|
|Monounsaturated fat||0.675 g|
|Polyunsaturated fat||2.08 g|
|Thiamine (Vitamin B1)||2.38 mg|
|Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)||3.67 mg|
|Niacin (Vitamin B3)||12.82 mg|
|Pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5)||3.48 mg|
|Vitamin (Vitamin B6)||0.364 mg|
|Folate (Vitamin B9)||94 μg|
|Vitamin C||10.1 mg|
|Vitamin E||5 mg|
|Vitamin K||25.5 μg|
The two species of spirulina are cultivated worldwide for human as well as animal consumption as a feed supplement in poultry and aquaculture industries. Spirulina is also available in the form of tablets, flakes and powder.
Protein and Amino Acids – Building Blocks of Life
Spirulina contains all the essential amino acids and as such considered to be a complete protein and superior to plant protein sources such as legumes. On an average, dried spirulina has 65 percent protein content. However, as compared to most animal proteins it has less of three amino acids namely, methionine, cysteine and lysine.
The Nutrients in Spirulina
Spirulina, as shown above, has a high concentration of vitamin Bs and iron. It provides 207 percent of vitamin B1, 306 percent of vitamin B2, 85 percent of vitamin B3 and 70 percent of vitamin B5 and 219 percent of iron recommended for adults. With 65 percent protein content and high concentration of iron, spirulina makes an ideal dietary supplement after surgery and during pregnancy.
Spirulina is one of the very few foods that contain gamma linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It is high in calcium, almost 26 times more than milk, which makes it an ideal alternative for those with lactose intolerance.
Spirulina is often marketed as a good source of vitamin B12 but there is a controversy surrounding that. It is suggested that it is not a reliable source of vitamin B12 as it is not sure whether this particular form of the vitamin is complete and absorbable.
Like spirulina, Chlorella too is a form of algae. It belongs to a genus of single-cell green algae under the taxonomic group, chlorophyta. It is a potential food source that contains 45 percent protein when dried, 20 percent fat, 20 percent carbohydrate and 5 percent dietary fiber. The balance 10 percent is all trace minerals and vitamins.
Chlorella gained prominence as an inexpensive food source during the world hunger crisis of late 1940s and early 1950s and was seen as a solution to end the crisis. While the food crisis was solved by better crop efficiency, the chlorella plant continues to be used to make nutritional supplements. Nutritional profile of chlorella varies according to how it is cultivated, harvested and processed.
Chlorella as Alternative Medicine
It is also used in alternative medicine for weight control, cancer prevention and stimulating the immune system and reducing the side effects of radiation treatment. Chlorella improves the intestinal flora by increasing the amount of good bacteria, which in turn improves digestion, helps in treatment of ulcers, colitis and Crohn’s disease.
The human digestive system can digest chlorella only after the cell wall of chlorella is broken. Also, a study conducted in 2002 suggested that chlorella supplementation may cause inflammation and also affect the immune system. The claim was however was negated in a 2010 study that established that chlorella contains a peptide that actually has anti-inflammatory properties.
Green Barley Grass
Barley grass actually refers to the leaves of the barley plant as opposed to the barley grain. It is annual grass that grows in a variety of climates and has a greater nutritional value when harvested young as the young shoots that form before the grain have an amazing ability to absorb soil nutrients.
The Nutrients in Barley Grass
Along with chlorophyll, this immature form of barley grass contains all nutrients – proteins, minerals and vitamins – that you would want in your diet. Barley grass can be used for juicing in its fresh form and as a dietary supplement in its dried form.
Barley leaf extract is rich in antioxidants that have the ability to combat free radicals. Free radical is an oxygen molecule that stabilizes itself by stealing an electron from a nearby molecule after it has lost one of its own electrons. These are high-energy particles that can cause extensive damage to cells with their ricocheting electron activity. Clinical studies reveal that green barley grass supplements added to diet greatly reduces blood level of free radicals in patients with type 2 diabetes.
While the mechanism of action is not known, the same antioxidant activity and high chlorophyll content plays a role in protecting human tissue from carcinogens. It is suggested that chlorophyll and carcinogen form complexes that eventually render the carcinogen harmless.
Barley Grass and Heart Health
Barley grass supplementation may also help in lowering cholesterol thus improving heart health. Plant sterols in green barley grass act to restrict intestinal absorption of cholesterol and accelerate catabolism of bile acid.
While there are claims of health benefits such as treatment of HIV, detoxification and immunity stimulation, the studies conducted on young shoots of barley grass have been mostly on animals. There is currently lack of objective evidence as far as humans are concerned.
Like green barley grass, wheat grass is the immature form of the wheat plant. It grows almost in all temperate regions of Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia. Many people swear by the multiple health benefits of wheat grass and even grow their own wheat grass at home. All that one needs to do is to put wheat seeds in water and harvest the leaves after some time.
Wheat Grass Nutrients
Wheat grass is rich in vitamins A, C, E, and B-12, calcium, selenium, sodium, potassium, magnesium and iron. It is also a complete protein source containing all essential amino acids. Protein in wheat grass is simpler and shorter chains of amino acids in the form of poly peptides, which makes it easier for the body to use them efficiently.
Wheat grass is consumed as a juice as leaves are difficult to digest. Wheat grass juice would look like what you get when you put grass shavings from your lawn in a blender. Wheat grass is also dried and marketed as tablets and capsules.
Believers in the health benefits of wheat grass consider wheat grass juice as nature’s best medicine. The nutritional value of a 2oz cup of wheat grass juice is equal to what you would get from consuming five pounds of the finest organic vegetables. The amount of vitamin A in wheat grass is double of what you get from carrots. Its vitamin C content is also higher than that of oranges. In fact, the nutritional profile of wheat grass is much more balanced than any other green food.
Wheat Grass and Detoxification
While consumption of wheat grass provides therapeutic doses of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, enzymes and antioxidants, it also acts as a detoxifying agent helping in neutralization and elimination of toxins. This is attributed to the enzyme components of wheat grass that provide protection from carcinogens and also reduce the harmful effects of radiation.
Why are Green Foods so Talked About
The nutritional value of green foods apart, it is the chlorophyll in green foods that makes them so special. Chlorophyll is a group of four naturally occurring green pigments found only in photosynthetic organisms such as cyanobacteria and the chloroplasts of algae and plant cells.
Only green plants have the ability of transforming the sun’s energy into chlorophyll through a process called photosynthesis.
All life on earth is due to the sun. Chlorophyll is the first product of sunlight and as such, contains more healing properties than any other natural product. Green foods are particularly high in chlorophyll, which has an important role to play in blood cleansing.
Among other things, chlorophyll carries high levels of oxygen and has a chemical composition that is similar to blood. The difference however is that while the central atom in blood is iron, in chlorophyll the central atom is magnesium. Similarity to blood and the role it plays in plant metabolism has been the subject matter of extensive studies for understanding whether chlorophyll offers similar benefits to humans.
Besides working as an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory agent, chlorophyll helps in growth and repair of tissue. Regular and adequate consumption of green foods increases red blood cell count as well as levels of oxygen in the blood. High chlorophyll content of green foods and its oxygen carrying ability helps the blood to carry much needed oxygen to all parts of the body, including the brain which uses 25 percent of the oxygen supply.
It is easy to incorporate green foods in your diet. Green foods have small amount of carbohydrates but these are good carbohydrates that are essential for good health. At the same time, green foods are rich in dietary fiber, which not only adds bulk to food for easy elimination, it also snaps up toxins and other unnecessary stuff in the body to dispose it before it is digested.
Unlike processed foods that raise blood sugar levels on consumption, green foods are packed with water and fiber and have very low sugar content. Thus, instead playing havoc by first raising blood sugar levels that eventually comes down green foods actually help in regulating them.
While the health benefits of traditional green foods has never been in doubt, whether or not green foods cultivated for dietary supplements have similar benefits is a matter of belief and on which side of the fence you are sitting. Naturalists swear by the therapeutic value of traditional as well as non-traditional green foods and rank them as frontrunners among super foods.
Getting Your Super Greens Couldn't be Simpler
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Photo by Ervins Strauhmanis