Health & Beauty

Green Goods: Do You Really Need To Take A Daily Powder Supplement To Be Healthy?

June 7, 2024

Have you been tempted by those Instagram ads for green powders that are dissolved in water and claim to improve gut health, immunity, energy levels and balance your moods? Who wouldn’t? It sounds incredible—too good to be true, in fact. Our gut feeling when we heard about these was that they were bollocks—and pricy bollocks at that, coming in at about US$80 a month. 

So we called our favourite dietitian to get the powdery scoop. Gerry Kasten is a lecturer in food, nutrition and health at the University of British Columbia, has led the boards of directors of Dietitians of Canada and the BC Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation and has no time for nonsense. The TL;DR: we were right to be skeptical. 

“In my view, it’s a bunch of hooey,” he says after exploring the website of one very well-known greens maker. Much of the published research on these supplements is on a simulated human microbiome, looking only at intestinal microbes. “Any research they’ve done with humans has been extremely small—35 people or so—and is based around testimonials,” says Kasten. “Testimonials and endorsements are easy to get because people feel better when they think they’re doing something good for themselves.” 

But what of the ingredients? Inclusion of stuff like superfoods (an uncontrolled term—i.e., anyone can claim anything is one) and digestive enzymes were immediate red flags. “Your body makes digestive enzymes for free,” Kasten says. “The digestive enzymes you consume in these supplements will be digested as proteins by our own pancreatic enzymes. The inclusion of these is a message that says your body can’t do enough—but our bodies are a miracle.” 

Kasten says that, often, supplement manufacturers will argue that their products contain amounts of nutrients that our bodies simply can’t get from food—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. “This whole discourse is pervasive,” he says. “It says that food doesn’t have enough nutrition. Yes—because you’re giving people these huge doses of vitamins that your body doesn’t need. My general critique of supplements is that they only have what manufacturers put in them, whereas food has everything that nature puts in it and nature’s better than anything human beings could make.” 

Are there people in Canada suffering from ill health today because of a lack of nutrition? Sure, says Kasten, but that’s not going to be solved by these supplements. “There are deficiency diseases like osteoporosis and anemia that come from lack of calcium and iron, or possibly things like pernicious anemia—vitamin B12 deficiency—and it’s recommended that older people take that because they become worse at absorbing it. But all those recommendations are there in our dietary guidance, so if you eat a diverse and tasty diet, you’re likely to meet nutrient needs.” 

Could green powders actually cause us harm? Unlikely. “For the average person, fill your boots. And you will feel better because that’s the way placebo effect works,” says Kasten. Essentially, it’s up to you if you think it’s worth US$80 a month … which brings us to another point. “If it’s so wonderful, it’s only available to people with a reasonable level of affluence. It’s not accessible for the people who are most likely to be deficient in their diets because of food insecurity. 

“The same thing that has always been true is still true—in order to be healthy, we need to eat healthy food, be active in a way that brings us joy, feel good about ourselves, and do some nature of spiritual development,” Kasten says. Add to that: learning to cook. “Eighty dollars a month is a fair amount of food that you could buy yourself. Many Canadians use their vegetable drawers as pre-compost. If they would actually use what’s in there … boy, I wish people would do that.” —Aileen Lalor


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