Food Label Zealots, Chemicals, Supplements, and Natural Food: Want Some Chlorophyll?

Posted on 24 Jul 2011 20:42

As a continuance of my assault on the misleading ideas about "natural" food, this is yet another follow-up to a series of blog posts where I discuss chemicals in foods and the concept of natural. In the last one I talked about the difference between chemicals as nutrients and chemicals as pharmacologic agents. I explained that some chemicals in food do have a physiological affect beyond their basic biological functions. Others, such as compounds in herbals used for medicinal purposes simply have no function as a "nutrient." All of these, though, have one thing in common and that is summed up by saying that "The poison OR the remedy is in the DOSE." This is important in helping us recognize the difference between nutrition information and alternative medicine information.

There are a number of very successful "food" blogs on the internet. The majority of them seem to be of the 'concerned parent' variety. They are, to put it bluntly, a reaction, not a revelation. Oh, things are so bad! There are chemicals in our food! Oh my, and lions and tigers and bears, too!

Anybody can react. But when the public takes its cues from reactionary viewpoints that have little or no background, the culture's view of food becomes warped. People, more and more, want to know what's in their food. More and more there are complaints about how inadequate and misleading food labels are. It is actually a bit ironic when you understand why food labels are designed the way they are designed. Would you buy the following food product after reading its ingredients list?

ethonoic acid
p-hydroxybenzyl and indolymethyl glucosinolates
S-propenyl and other S-alkyl cysteine sulfoxides
ß-carotene and other carotenoids

Most people would think that was a chemical soup with some good stuff thrown in for balance. The good stuff would be the stuff they recognized as being sold in pill form as dietary supplements. The rest is poison!

Actually, though, that's the active ingredients in coleslaw, according to Tom P. Coultate, a food biochemist and author of Food: The Chemistry of Its Components. It's healthy. At least it is not "unhealthy". You know the saying coined by Michael Pollan, "never eat what you can't pronounce." Can you pronounce coleslaw?

What amazes me, though, is how easily marketing undoes the negative connotations of those big scientific sounding chemical names. You want the public to change its opinion of an organic chemical? Stick it in a bottle, claim it does this or that for the body, and put it on the natural health store shelf. These chemicals may not be bad for you per se. In fact, they may not have any action whatsoever in the human body. Yet, in pill or liquid form under the guise of "dietary supplement" they are gobbled up by a health concerned public who would run away screaming from the same chemical (name) found on a food label.

One of those chemicals is chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is used as a colorant in foods. But chlorophyll is very unstable and there are a great many complex things to be considered in the extraction and production of chlorophyll colorants. The chemical that ends up in foods is not the chemical that was originally found in the living plant materials. Most often it is Sodium Copper Chlorophyllin.

According to the FDA, sodium copper chlorophyllin is "a green to black powder prepared from chlorophyll by saponification and replacement of magnesium by copper. Chlorophyll is extracted from alfalfa (Medicago sativa ) using any one or a combination of the solvents acetone, ethanol, and hexane…Sodium copper chlorophyllin may be safely used to color citrus-based dry beverage mixes in an amount not exceeding 0.2 percent in the dry mix." 4

I have no trouble imagining some of those concerned food bloggers crying foul over this "chemical" on their food label. Many reactionaries are too busy reacting to ever have heard of chlorophyll in the first place. But they may have some cause for asking questions because it is a natural chemical that has been heated, chemicially extracted, adulterated, etc. It has to be, otherwise you would not get that great green color. Because the chemical is, as I said, too unstable. You want green, not brown.

Yet chlorophyll as a dietary supplement is proclaimed by some manufacturers to be equivalent to the snake oil remedies of old. I also have no trouble imaging some of those very same zealots drinking down their chlorophyll supplement after reading from Mercola or somebody how very bad the sodium copper chlorophyllin found in foods is but how very good his chlorophyll supplement is.1

They may be surprised to find out, then, should they bother to read the ingredients on the supplement label, that their supplement is, you guessed it, sodium copper chlorophyllin. Do you think I'm wrong about this? I don't think so. I'll bet you anything that the same chemical on a food label will cause "grave concern" when it is happily consumed in the form of a supplement. Now, a little investigation would make anyone realize that the supplement industry is subject to the same constraints as the food industry. They cannot pull stable chlorophyll out of their as..hats, after all.

So, what is this chlorophyll supposed to do for your body? That is, what does it do when you take it in a supplement? Well it "promotes cleansing" and it is an "internal deodorizer." That sounds good to me. I want my insides to be clean and I do not want them to stink. I'm in.

But it doesn't stop there. You see, chlorophyll, even though it is not seen as "anything special" by biochemists and nutritionists, is converted to BLOOD in the body! I'll bet you did not know that when you ate a nice salad the chlorophyll in the leaves was converted into blood! I must have a lot of extra blood because I like a good salad.

According to Ann Wigmore, author of the "Wheatgrass Book," chlorophyll is a living battery:

An animal's body also stores and produces heat and energy: the difference is that plants can get their energy directly from the sun, whereas animals and humans cannot. IN essence, the same life force in nature that explodes into greenery every spring can be transferred into the human body via the consumption of wheatgrass juice. The body can then use this super-nutritious, vital energy to heal and repair itself as needed.2

This is a great example of how to write a good book. When in doubt, make shit up! This is one of the most popular assertions about chlorophyll, that it is very similar to hemoglobin, which is the compound that carries oxygen to our blood. The idea is that the body can take chlorophyll, as it is, and turn it into hemoglobin. You know, because it's similar. It's just a bit of alchemy. Let's not bother with nutrition.

There has been much more. The fantastic claims for chlorophyll have been, at times, on a par with claims about colloidal silver supplements. For instance, chlorophyll has been claimed to:

  • prevent the growth of bacteria and yeasts in wounds and the digestive tract
  • deodorize the body from within to stop bad breath and body odor2
  • remove drug residue and toxins from the body
  • deactivate carcinogens
  • stop tooth decay and gingivitis (if used on the teeth)
  • counteract all sorts of inflammations in may parts of the body
  • renew skin and other tissue
  • counteract radiation
  • promote the growth of friendly flora in the gut
  • improve the liver
  • activate enzymes to produce vitamins

Of all those ridiculous claims, I have to say I find the last one the most hilarious because it is so easy to refute. It is almost childish in its gleeful supposition that we don't know enough about metabolic enzyme paths in the body to know that chlorophyll has NO function in any of them.

What about the science behind chlorophyll as a nutraceutical? Well there has been some research into chlorophyll's (chlorophyllin's) antimutagenic and anticarcinogenic properties. The idea is that it may protect DNA against ionizing radiation and that it may be an anti-tumor and also protect against side effects from anti-cancer drugs. Chlorophyll, its metabolites, and chlorophyllin have shown some in vitro antimutagenic and anticarcinogenic effects against some substances that are know or suspected carcinogens, but there is absolutely no evidence, and no real reason to think, yet, that chlorophyll ingestion will protect against these substances in the body through ingestion. The problem is that this is in vitro, meaning in a petri dish. There is no reason to think that ingesting chlorophyll will protect you from cancer and radiation.

Chlorophyll, once you ingest it, is subject to the same harsh digestive environment as everything else you eat. There is no evidence that chlorophyll has any nutritional value, in itself. It contains magnesium, so that's good. In fact, 15 to 30% of the magnesium in plants may be associated with the chlorophyll. And it may have copper if it's the stabilized kind. Beyond this, though, even if chlorophyll could do something great in your body, the stuff would never make it into your body in its whole form, or at least hardly ever. Yes, it is used as an internal "deodorant" but lots of things are used for lots of purposes that make no sense.

Another thing that the FDA says about sodium copper chlorophyllin is that it is exempt from certification. "Certification of this color additive is not necessary for the protection of the public health, and therefore batches thereof are exempt from the certification requirements of section 721(c) of the act." 4

Won't the "government is bad supplements are good" crowd be confused by all this? If the FDA says that something is not considered to be harmful to human health—that, essentially, they aren't concerned about it—it MUST be bad! Big brother, after all is in league with everything evil in order to ruin our health and get our money. But the supplement companies, they are out to help us. They wouldn't lie to us. They aren't evil like big food and big government. They want to save mankind. Shoot. Isn't this a pickle? Cognitive dissonance, oh, it hurts!

1. Barker, Allen V., and D. J. Pilbeam. Handbook of Plant Nutrition. Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Taylor & Francis, 2007. Print.
2. Wigmore, Ann. The Wheatgrass Book. Wayne, NJ: Avery Pub. Group, 1985. 49. Print.
3. Houghton, J. D. Natural Food Colorants. London: Blackie Academic & Professional, 1996. Print.
4. "CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21." FDA - US Food and Drug Administration. Web. <>.

This page created 24 Jul 2011 20:42
Last updated 21 Oct 2015 02:07

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