The benefits to humans of ingesting chlorophyll — the stuff that gives green plants their color — have been investigated for decades. Charles Schnabel was promoting the benefits of his patented Cerophyl pills in the 1930s. Yet recently there has been a veritable surge in articles online proclaiming the new miracle “wonder food” that can help cure everything from bad breath to cancer.
The function of chlorophyll’s molecules within the plant is to use the energy in sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen. This process — photosynthesis — means the sugars can be used to create protein, fiber and all the other necessities of plant growth. The byproduct — oxygen — is graciously given to us.
The proponents of chlorophyll — it is usually sold in liquid form — echo the research of Richard Willstätter, a German chemist who, in 1913, studied its chemical composition and found that its structure is very similar to that of heme, the oxygen-transporting part of hemoglobin in blood.
Consumption of chlorophyll, its fans say, helps “clean” the blood and promotes general health. And when they say general they mean general. Chlorophyll has been said to help with intestinal problems, fighting infection in open wounds, strengthening the immune system, replenishing red blood cells, cancers of various kinds, tissue inflammation, heavy metal poisoning, weight loss, substance addiction, anemia, skin disorders and more.
Sounds pretty incredible, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s true that, at a molecular level, chlorophyll and heme are very similar. In fact, the basic difference is that chlorophyll’s central atom is magnesium whereas heme’s is iron. Interestingly, it is this chemical difference that gives them their respective colors. Chlorophyll absorbs the greater part of the visible light spectrum, reflecting back only green, and blood performs a similar trick, reflecting only red.
The idea that chlorophyll is the ‘green blood of plants’ is very popular among its fans. There have even been claims that the molecular makeup is so similar that chlorophyll can be turned into, or indeed used in transfusions instead of, blood.
But when ingested, liquid chlorophyll — despite what its staunchest promoters claim — cannot actually help do the job of hemoglobin. Chlorophyll ISN’T hemoglobin. In fact, their individual functions are quite different.
The function of chlorophyll is to trap light and transfer its energy to create food for the plant. The job of hemoglobin is to physically transport oxygen around the body. Yet, according to many, the opinion of sites like Sacred Source Nutrition that chlorophyll is an “oxygenator of the blood” is a green light to chlorophyll consumption.
On the “benefits” of taking chlorophyll, scientist and myth debunker Ben Goldacre has some wise words. “Is chlorophyll ‘high in oxygen’? No. It helps to make oxygen. In sunlight. And it’s pretty dark in your bowels: in fact, if there’s any light in there at all then something’s gone badly wrong…[and if] by some miracle you really did start to produce oxygen in there, you still wouldn’t absorb a significant amount of it through your bowel, because your bowel is adapted to absorb food, while your lungs are optimized to absorb oxygen. You do not have gills in your bowels,” he explains cheekily.
While there are some indications that chlorophyll has some health benefits — given intravenously there are indications it can help reduce inflammation in pancreatitis — the majority of claims appear to range from those unsubstantiated by adequate data to those that are pure fantasy.
For a start, when ingested chlorophyll is broken down by the body’s digestive system into its constituent parts before it can ever begin to function as nature intended or before it can be “converted” into blood.
It is important to note that the chlorophyll sold in liquid form is not actually the naturally occurring substance. It is, in fact, chloropyllin. To produce this, the naturally occurring chlorophyll is exposed to acetone, hexane gas and copper. Though there is some evidence to support the idea that this non-chlorophyll can help with infection in wounds, it is by no means backed by extensive scientific research. (And personal anecdotes don’t count.)
Lengthy research in the Netherlands has shown that in older men, taking chlorophyll can help reduce the risk of some cancers induced by the consumption of red meat. This is because of the relationship between chlorophyll and heme. The former appears to chemically bind and block the effects of the latter. So make sure those man-sized steaks are balanced with some healthy greens.
Ultimately, despite the current hype surrounding the intake of industrially-produced or naturally occurring chlorophyll (or indeed chlorophyllin) there appears to be scant evidence for the great claims made on its behalf.
No one can doubt the benefits of a healthy amount of green leafy vegetables in the diet, yet this is certainly due to the extensive array of other nutrients they contain. These alkaline-forming foods help promote a healthy pH balance and will do much greater good in your body than that overpriced “wonder food” from the health store. Though nobody likes easy answers more than us, the best advice seems to be the old cliché: eat well and exercise. And while you’re about it, keep a wary and cynical eye open.