Every so often I read/hear/see something that just makes me despair at humanity. This week it was all about chlorophyll.
Before I start, try something for me.
Google “chlorophyll health benefits”. Wow that’s a lot of results.
Now go on PubMed (basically a scientific publication search engine) and search for the same thing, then select species: “humans” on the left. What do you get? 7 results, none of which actually tell you any health benefits of chlorophyll.
Why is that? Because there are no known benefits of chlorophyll.
There’s a big difference between thinking about the benefits of chlorophyll-containing foods and the benefits of chlorophyll itself. The former – all the greens – are known to be beneficial to your health, but that’s not because they contain chlorophyll, it’s because of all the wonderful things they are made up of, in particular all the vitamins and fibre. I’m not talking about the benefits of eating greens, I’m talking about the crazy claims about the chlorophyll itself.
What is chlorophyll? Chlorophyll is the term used to describe a collection of green pigments, mainly found in plants, which are crucial for photosynthesis as they allow plants to absorb energy from light. In very very simple terms: carbon dioxide + water + energy from sunlight in leaves produces sugars + oxygen. The sugars are stored by the plant and used in respiration, the oxygen is released as a waste product. In reality of course it’s much much more complex than this (as even Wikipedia will tell you), but for our purposes this will do for now.
Some people claim that chlorophyll can replenish our red blood cells, oxygenate your blood, “detox” your body from heavy metals, and has anti-cancer and anti-bacterial properties.
The chlorophyll and red blood cell myth stems from the fact that chlorophyll and the haem in haemoglobin look quite similar. See for yourself:
The ring structure is very similar, with the main difference being that chlorophyll has a central magnesium (Mg), whereas haemoglobin has iron (Fe).
However, just because something looks similar it doesn’t mean it behaves in the same way. Your body doesn’t see chlorophyll and just decide “yeah, that’s close enough”. There are many chemicals in the world which look similar but have completely different effects. Ethyl alcohol gets you drunk at the weekend, methyl alcohol causes blindness and death in large enough doses, but chemically they’re almost identical.
Chlorophyll is sensitive to extreme pH, so as soon as it hits your stomach (highly acidic) it’s completely digested . There is no evidence to suggest that chlorophyll makes it to your blood intact and starts behaving like haemoglobin. It’s digested just like everything else.
For the same reason, chlorophyll also can’t oxygenate your blood. I’m not sure why you’d even want this in the first place to be honest, because free oxygen is highly reactive, forms free radicals, and wreaks havoc in cells. But there’s another good reason why chlorophyll can’t oxygenate your blood, and that’s because, as we said earlier, oxygen is a waste product of photosynthesis, and photosynthesis requires light. Last time I checked, there’s no light reaching my blood and internal organs. If your organs are exposed to light, you’d better tell the person nearest to you that you love them, cause you’re probably about to die. Leaves also don’t store oxygen and then magically release it when they get inside your body, because it’s a waste product and excreted – that’s why we can breathe, so be glad for it.
There are some synthetic forms of chlorophylls (such as sodium copper chlorophyllin, or SCC) which can avoid digestion to an extent. But seeing as these aren’t “natural”, I doubt many people in the wellness industry are going to consume those anytime soon.
Next up: “detoxing”. I’ve really grown to hate that word, to the extent that even when it’s used properly by respected academics I still shudder. Chlorophyll will not “detox” you from anything because it’s digested and degraded. Are we starting to see a pattern here? Awesome.
As for the anti-cancer and anti-bacterial properties, these have mainly been studied in vitro, which means they have been studied in cell cultures in a lab, not in the human body. The human body is so intricate and complex, that what happens in a Petri dish just can’t be extrapolated to a living person. A great many things can kill cancer cells in a lab, even washing up liquid, but I don’t see anyone consuming Fairy liquid to prevent cancer! Based on early studies, synthetic chlorophyll derivatives may have some biochemical basis for inducing cell death in cancer cells in humans, but it’s early days.
Chlorophyll and synthetic derivatives do have small anti-bacterial properties, but compared to actual antibiotics it’s insignificant, and are unlikely to be strong enough to cure any bacterial infections in your body.
You can actually buy liquid chlorophyll, or as a powder to dissolve in water. It’s extracted by exposing plant materials to chemicals such as acetone, hexane gas and copper. So calling chlorophyll products “natural” just doesn’t make sense at all.
Greens are amazing, we should all be eating green foods – especially leafy greens – daily as they contain an abundance of fibre and essential vitamins. But eating them for their chlorophyll content is just absurd. We’re humans, not plants; we don’t photosynthesise!
Any questions about chlorophyll? Ask in the comments below or send me an email!