If wellness had a single color, it would clearly be green. The emerald hue conjures thriving pastures and forests, sustainability, even wealth and good luck. And when it comes to food, green is a natural sign of health, freshness, and flavor. Think spinach, asparagus, avocados, kiwifruit, kale, green tea, limes, basil, and so much more. To gain optimal nutrition, we're often told to eat more of these green foods. In nature, green appears because of a phytochemical called chlorophyll. It's responsible for the color of the leafy greens at the salad bar, the houseplants on your windowsill, and the grass beneath your feet. Chlorophyll absorbs sunlight and turns it into energy for plants. If this growth-promoting molecule makes nature thrive, surely it must be good for humans too? That's the question that has long intrigued health experts and researchers as they've tried to pinpoint exactly how chlorophyll benefits us and how we can get more of it.
"We know that colored pigments in nature usually have health benefits, like orange carotenoids or red anthocyanin, so it is not a stretch that green chlorophyll also has health benefits," says DJ Blatner, R.D.N. and author of The Superfood Swap ($24, Amazon). "The research that's available does suggest the health benefits of chlorophyll include antioxidant activity, cancer protection, gut-health promotion, and anti-inflammation effects."
There are three ways we can get chlorophyll, Blatner says. The first is through eating more naturally green foods, including veggies, fruits, matcha, and herbs. The second is through supplements that come as topical treatments as well as powders, pills, and liquid chlorophyll. And the third way is through whole food green powders or algae, either in foods (nori, seaweed, kelp) or in supplements (spirulina and chlorella).
What Is Chlorophyll and How Is It Different from Chlorophyllin?
Chlorophyll is a collection of green pigments found in the cells of plants and algae. It contains antioxidants as well as some vitamins and beneficial properties. When chlorophyll is removed from plants or is heated, it breaks down quickly because of the magnesium it contains. Scientists discovered that by replacing the magnesium with copper they could create a more stable, semisynthetic chlorophyll-like compound called chlorophyllin.
If you pick up a bottle of chlorophyll pills or make a glass of chlorophyll water, chlorophyllin is probably what you're getting.
"When buying chlorophyll supplements, you likely will be getting chlorophyllin, which isn't a bad thing," Blatner says. "It's just a modified version of chlorophyll that's more stable when making supplements. Chlorophyllin is water-soluble, which may make it more absorbable than chlorophyll, which is fat-soluble." The plus side of chlorophyllin is that there is some evidence it survives the digestion process better than chlorophyll, making the nutrient more likely to be absorbed. The downside of chlorophyllin is that the isolated compound is typically just that—an isolated nutrient that doesn't contain the other beneficial nutrients that come when chlorophyll is eaten as a whole green food or an algae-based food or supplement.
Naturally occurring chlorophyll is what you get in a whole food green powder, algae-based foods, or algae supplements, such as chlorella or spirulina ($10, Target). Blatner says these products also come with other nutrients such as amino acids, vitamin D, and iron. She says, "When it comes to supplements, I typically suggest that people consider whole food green powders or algae supplements ($26, GNC) over a straight chlorophyllin supplement because of the other nutrients they're getting along with the chlorophyll."
Should You Take a Chlorophyll Supplement?
Interest in chlorophyll supplements has skyrocketed recently, with a nearly $1 million increase in chlorella sales alone in the first half of 2021 over the same period the previous year, according to market research company SPINS. The surge coincided with a TikTok trend of putting green chlorophyll drops in water for the reported benefits of better skin, body toxin removal, and weight loss.
While these claims are not supported by a lot of science, there is some research that shows that pill, topical, or liquid chlorophyll benefits may hold some truth. For example, when applied as a topical ointment, the green nutrient has been connected to reduced acne, improved wound healing, and less sun damage. A human study showed that 300 milligrams of chlorophyllin taken as a daily pill displayed cancer-protective benefits for those at high risk for liver cancer or people exposed to high rates of environmental toxins. And animal studies have connected whole food and liquid chlorophyll and chlorophyllin to high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action, as well as improved gut health and liver health.
"Research on dosing is limited," Blatner says, "but most experts agree to keep your intake of the supplement form of chlorophyllin in the range of 100 to 300 milligrams per day. Higher doses may lead to gut discomfort or diarrhea. And too much chlorophyll may cause increased sensitivity to the sun."
Foods High in Chlorophyll
Though supplements that contain chlorophyll or chlorophyllin could provide benefits, they can't take the place of eating green vegetables and other nutritious green foods, Blatner warns. "These foods contain not only chlorophyll but hundreds of other important nutrients too," she says. While chlorophyll amounts vary depending on how these foods are prepared and how long after harvest they're consumed, the following 10 foods contain the most chlorophyll (listed from highest):
To get plenty of beneficial chlorophyll from foods, Blatner suggests you aim for eating 2 cups of raw dark green leafy vegetables daily. "This will get you halfway there, and then add in some other green foods like matcha, kiwi, and broccoli. Or add in a chlorophyll or green food/algae supplement to boost your intake."
While green foods are good in so many ways, remember the age-old advice to "eat the rainbow" in order to gain from the other beneficial pigments that nature provides. "We need to eat all the colors of produce to get well-rounded health benefits," Blatner says. "Red, orange, yellow, blue, purple, and even white (I'm looking at you, onions and garlic)."