"It's plant blood," my friend told me, pouring minty-smelling green liquid into a glass of water and handing it to me. "So it's kind of like eating an extra plate of vegetables." Made sense. The stuff was chlorophyll, and that was, like, 10 years ago. Well, I now know that nothing is that simple, but the claims of chlorophyll-related health benefits continue to abound. Actually, the mind boggles at the extent of them. While products are most often marketed as a deodorant and mouthwash, holistic types claim chlorophyll detoxifies the liver, works as a laxative, boosts the immune system, staves off cancer, boosts the amount of oxygen in the body, contains antioxidants, slices, dices and babysits your kids.
It's the stuff that turns plants green, and you find it in those green drink powder things. It comes in liquid and/or pill form and is usually derived from wheat grass, barley grass or alfalfa. Still, even if that all looks oh so very promising, some say these claims are mostly bunk. It probably won't harm you, they say, but it won't do you any good. It certainly isn't a miracle cure.
There are even warnings that alfalfa may actually be toxic and that you simply can't predict the way the body will react to a supplement compared to the food it's derived from.
Some will get all excited about the news that researchers in Canada and London have developed a drug based on chlorophyll as a possible treatment for prostate cancer. Patients were injected with the it and then it was "activated" using tiny lasers. But remember, this treatment is based on chlorophyll. Penicillin is based on mould, but that doesn't mean gobbling mould or injecting yourself with it will cure infections.
What the experts say
"We looked at all the claims made about wheat grass and other grasses sold in health food stores. Then we looked at all the scientific literature, and nothing supported any of these claims at all. Chlorophyll was cited as one of the values of eating these grasses, so we looked at chlorophyll specifically in terms of known health benefits and found no scientific evidence. The reason there are no good hard science studies on it is because there is no evidence of chlorophyll absorption. It's broken down in the stomach and intestines. There's no evidence the human metabolism uses it, so there's no food reason to study it."
JOHN SWARTZBERG, MD, clinical professor of medicine, chair, editorial board, U of California Berkeley Wellness Letter, Berkeley
"There are different chlorophyll compounds: water-soluble and non-water-soluble. The non-water-soluble is found in the natural compound form in plants. The water-soluble compound comes in liquid form and is actually chlorophyllin. There has been conflicting animal research on some of the benefits from the water-soluble form on blocking the effects of meat-eating on colon cancer. Chlorophyll did block some of the effects, and chlorophyllin did not. If you take something out of a plant food, we don't know if it provides benefit or has adverse effects. Research shows that dark leafy greens offer protection against a host of diseases, but we need more study on what part is responsible for those effects."
ROSIE SCHWARTZ, dietitian, author, The Enlightened Eater's Whole Foods Guide, Toronto
"As a supplement, chlorophyll is beneficial for the detoxification of the system. It helps the liver get rid of toxins and it helps with heavy metal detox and as an antioxidant. It has been shown to help in cancer prevention and with skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and acne. It helps with dental problems such as abscesses, infections and halitosis. It can be used as a gargle. Yeah, there's the research showing that it doesn't work, but the best kind of research is people who come in and say, 'Yes, it does work for me.' People feel better after they take it. And as far as heavy metal detoxification goes, if people assess their levels before and after taking it, they will be lower."
MARNI ROSS, naturopath, Toronto
"If you have ordinary breath that's just a bit off, chlorophyll would probably work, as it tends to work temporarily. Parsley has lots of chlorophyll in it, and it's a great internal deodorizer. It won't do any good for patients who have more chronic bacterial problems. I don't know how much chlorophyll is safe, however."
ANNE BOSY, the Fresh Breath Clinic, Toronto
"Chlorophyll couldn't work for most body odour caused by bacteria. It's not going to do anything to decrease bacteria, especially if taken internally. Other sources of body odour might be foods like garlic or curry coming out through the pores, depending on how people metabolize. I don't know if chlorophyll would work for that, but that's something different."
NOWELL SOLISH, dermatologist Toronto
"Under the old laws, chlorophyll was considered a drug, so we had to label it as a mouthwash and deodorant to sell it. I'd be surprised if as much as 1 per cent of people who buy it use it as a mouthwash or deodorant. Most people take it as a source of bio-available minerals, particularly magnesium. People add it to their water to 'supercharge' it before working out. It increases your aerobic capacity. One study found that chlorophyll can rid the body of alpha toxins."
JOEL THUNA, herbalist, general manager, Pure-Le Natural, makers of cholorphyll products, Barrie