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Chlorophyll er UpChlorophyll er Up

Green superfood ingredients enrich functional products

December 11, 2007

12 Min Read
Chlorophyll er Up

Green eggs and ham may only appeal to Sam I Am, but green juice, energy bars and other green products are becoming more broadly accepted and enjoyed. As a functional ingredient in foods and beverages, green foods offer numerous health benefits and are slowly overcoming the tired connotations of their rich natural color and powerfully unique flavor.

At the heart of green foods’ popularity is their concentrated nutritional profile. Cereal grasses are young shoots on their way to becoming grains, and include alfalfa, barley, wheat, rye, oat and kamut. The nutrient content of these grasses peaks at the jointing stage, the stage at which the internodal tissue begins to form stems that will produce grains. The concentrations of phytonutrients, vitamins and amino acids are at their highest; after this stage, the level of cellulose (plant fibers) rises, and nutrient levels plummet.

Alfalfa is known for its nutrients, including protein and trace minerals. Charlene Lee, executive vice president with Cyvex, noted AlfaPro alfalfa juice is high-protein and contains all the essential amino acids, 13 minerals, eight vitamins, chlorophyll, xanthophylls and omega-3 fatty acids. “An important and beneficial distinction of AlfaPro™ proteins is they contain shorter amino acid chains that are more bioavailable and easily absorbed into the body,” she said. “Alfalfa is also an excellent source of chlorophyll, which was found to have numerous internal cleansing benefits, such as detoxification, elimination of body odors at their internal sources, cleansing of the digestive tract and fighting certain carcinogens.” She added alfalfa contains xanthophylls, carotenes that help support eye health. “Xanthophylls, especially lutein and zeaxanthin, serve to filter ultraviolet light that damages the retina,” she explained. “Many studies show that people who do not eat a lot of fruit and vegetables rich in xanthophylls are much more likely to suffer from macular degeneration and cataracts than people who eat 5 to 10 servings of vegetables and fruit per day.”

One of the most well-known of the cereal grasses is wheatgrass, which many people have long taken as a juice shot. This may be conferring some real health benefits, according to research. An Israeli study showed 100 cc/d of wheat grass juice for one month reduced disease activity and severity of rectal bleeding in ulcerative colitis patients.1 Wheat grass is not just for adults, as it has also demonstrated benefits for children suffering from thalassemia, a group of genetic blood diseases involving different forms of anemia.2 Study results revealed 100 mL/d wheat grass juice taken for one year cut blood transfusion necessity by 40 percent.

In addition to young grasses, microalgae are another source of chlorophyll-rich plant foods, including spirulina, chlorella and Aphanizomenonflos-aquae(AFA), Dunaliellasalina a nd Haematococcus. These are primitive plants growing in aquatic mediums, where they feed off various compounds; they have simple cellular structures and are adept at converting sunlight to carbohydrates.

Chlorella requires only carbon dioxide, water, sunlight and a few minerals to survive and reproduce. Chlorella can contain as much as 50 percent protein, in addition to vitamins, amino acids and fats. It is effective in immune boosting, as chlorella extract supplementation has significantly increased antibody response in middle-aged subjects, despite failing to increase overall immune response.3 However, a follow-up in vitro study showed chlorella extract inhibited interleukin-5 (IL-5) production by mast cells, suggesting the compound has anti-allergic potential.4 Chlorella also improves cardiovascular disease (CVD) issues, including dyslipidemia and systolic hypertension.5,6

Animal study has suggested chlorella is chemopreventive, as Japanese researchers determined the algae appears to be a promising chemopreventive agent for human liver neoplasia and carcinogenesis.7 Recent scientific publications have shown chlorella as promising in reducing high blood pressure, lowering serum cholesterol levels, accelerating wound healing, and enhancing immune functions.8,9

Especially promising have been recent results on chlorella as a detox agent. Japanese researchers found chlorella can reduce the maternal transfer to the fetus of the toxin dioxin.10 Follow-up work revealed chlorella supplementation not only reduces dioxin levels in breast milk, but may also have beneficial effects on nursing infants by increasing IgA levels in breast milk.11 Based on animal study, chlorella may also detoxify by inhibiting dioxin absorption from the gastrointestinal tract and accelerating dioxin excretion.12 Specifically, chlorella, along with spirulina, has been found to chelate lead, limiting the metal’s damaging effects on glands and vital organs.13,14

Spirulina is a free-floating, filamentous cyanobacteria that occurs naturally in tropical and subtropical lakes high in pH and both carbonate and bicarbonate. Once the food of Aztec Mexico and ancient Africa, it is grown primarily in Southeast Asia and in America (Hawaii and California). Spirulina was once considered as a good food source to grow in space, as it grows quickly, in a small area and provides both oxygen and nutrition. This green food contains a wide range of carotenoids, as well as phycocyanin (antioxidant) and chlorophyll.

Bob Capelli, marketing manager for Cyanotech Corp., noted Spirulina pacifica has three times more calcium than whole milk, 23 times more iron than spinach, 39 times more beta-carotene than carrots, and almost four times the protein in tofu. He added chill-drying spirulina gives it more active enzymes, specifically superoxide dismutase (SOD). This green superfood also contains appreciable amounts of gamma linolenic acid (GLA), B vitamins, minerals, trace elements, carotenoids, sulfolipids, glycolipids, RNA and DNA.

Research has indicated spirulina can modulate immune health, regulate lipid and carbohydrate metabolism, fight cancer and control serum levels of histamine, inflammation reaction and total immunoglobulin E (IgE).15,16 In one study, 2 g/d spirulina (from Earthrise Nutritionals Inc.) lowered interleukin-4 (IL-4), thereby reducing the symptoms of IgE-mediated allergy.17 This effect on IgE may be due to its protein C-phycocyanin (C-PC), which has been shown to inhibit antigen-specific IgE antibodies, boost the mucosal immune system defenses and reduce allergic inflammation.18

Spirulina’s C-PC has also demonstrated beneficial effects on CVD, including platelet aggregation and cholesterol absorption/reabsorption, in addition to decreasing serum and liver cholesterol.19,20 The brain can also benefit from this green food, as spirulina is known to limit neurodegeneration associated with cerebral infarction, as well as curb neuroinflammation from dopamine neuronal injury, most likely due to antioxidant actions.21,22

Dunaliella salina

is a very primitive single-celled marine microalgae found coastal waters and salt water lakes. Dunaliella is rich in carotenoids, which protect it from sunlight. It is also salt-tolerant and grows well in ocean waters, such as off the coast of Australia. A phytoplankton that has evolved to live in extreme environmental conditions, it has two flagella (tails) for mobility and uses photosynthesis for energy. It also features a soft cell wall, making digestion easier.

Dunaliella contains a broad range of bioavailable macronutrients and micronutrients, including vitamins, minerals (potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and selenium), proteins, a full spectrum of amino acids, essential fatty acids (omega-3s), carbohydrates, chlorophyll and other phytonutrients. According to Zac Bobrovis, senior nutritional consultant for NutriMed Group, Dunaliella is nature’s richest source of natural dietary carotenoids, including 500 of the 600 known carotenoids; these compounds help with cell communication and protection. He further noted Dunaliella is a powerful source of antioxidants that help maintain vitality, immune health, skin and eyes. Recent research conducted by Bobrovis and his team demonstrated whole-dried Dunaliella can aid in the chelation and detoxification of toxic elements and heavy metals from the body, including lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury.23

Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA), which translates to “invisible flower of the water,” is a fresh water plant also known as cyanophyta—living water plants that grow in nearly all droplets of sunlit water and in every gram of soil, as well as on tree bark and rock surfaces. Estimates suggest there are as many as 50,000 species of AFA, including seaweeds and plankton. A well-known source of AFA is Klamath Lake in upper Oregon, a constantly moving, oxygen-rich, clear water source.

AFA contains 68 percent protein, which is highly absorbable in humans. Similar to the other cyanobacteria, AFA also contains 20 antioxidants, 68 minerals and 70 trace elements, all amino acids (essential and non-essential) and important enzymes.

Trials on AFA have primarily focused on immunity, including its role on immune cell function. A Canadian trial reported AFA enhanced immune cell surveillance, but not lymphocyte induction, suggesting the green food helps the body respond to pathogenic threats without over-stimulating the immune system.24 Other research has shown AFA can modulate immune reactions by macrophages and other monocytes, thereby increasing levels of select cytokines including interleukin-1 beta.25

Going Green

While traditional peoples appeared to prefer green foods dried, in edible cakes, contemporary health foodies have been more accustomed to juices. “Fresh type of juices are extremely popular, because people know the value of juicing and greens,” said Mitchell May, founder and CEO, Synergy Production Labs. “However, now a whole variety of green foods are able to be integrated in functional foods and in all different kinds of delivery forms.”

Lucy MacLoughlin, chief operating officer for Rhema Industries, noted: “We’re seeing continued demand for green formulas and an increasingly diversified range of products that contain a significant green component. I think one driving force behind this is the challenge most of us face in maintaining healthy balance in our lives. People are looking for efficient and convenient ways to get good nutrition. Green food supplements help to compensate for the fact that most of us don’t consume the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables.” She reported green food ingredients are more commonly being incorporated into sports nutrition products, as well as cleansing and energy formulas.

Among the other newer functional products using green foods are energy bars, pasta, crackers, green tea and even beer in Asia. Due to their good profile of amino acids and proteins, green foods are also used in meal replacement and protein powders.

Jeff Wuagneux, president of RFI Ingredients, noted the popularity of greens in various forms, but said the largest segment is in powdered drinks. “The greens drink category has been a growing segment of the industry,” he added.

Where knowledge of greens’ nutritional profiles and awareness of potential health benefits are driving functional innovations with green ingredients, the biggest barriers to product development appear to be taste and appearance.

“Part of challenge is that people, by and large, love the sight of green in meadow or in plants, but when they see green in foods or cereal or pasta or drinks, people take a step back,” May said, adding people are just not familiar with green as part of dietary experience. “This is where the artistic-ness of formulators come in—how can we hide the green so color doesn’t have negative influence for the consumer?” He suggested overcoming this obstacle by predominating the formula with other richly colored ingredients, such as tomato or blueberry, or formulators can simply use a lesser amount of green ingredients. “Ultimately, taste comes down to the quality—a quality meal will taste good, no matter what,” May reasoned. “Green foods that are not processed properly to retain their freshness generally do not taste very good. They should be like a salad, fresh, vibrant, soft. They shouldn’t be overwhelming or gross, but clean tasting.”

Lee conceded taste is often a barrier when it comes to powders, but stressed manufacturing technology is now able to get by that. “Our alfalfa ingredient has excellent physical properties, allowing it to work very well with blending, tableting and encapsulation machinery,” she added.

As with any ingredient destined for a food product, one designation to consider is GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Capelli noted few spirulina producers have earned GRAS status for their ingredient, with Cyanotech and Earthrise among the elite.

“There is also a growing demand for organic greens, and there are very few suppliers who can offer organic grasses, spirulina, chlorella and green vegetables that are vertically integrated from the ground up,” Wuagneux said. He further noted formulators are looking for a range of green products from a high quality supplier—whole leaf, spray-dried juices, carrier-free powders, freeze-dried and fermented, all with full traceability from field to formula.

May agreed most companies want certified organic and kosher, and after they work with green foods, they realize they need to be dried using a cold process or else they have problems in their delivery systems. A few handling and processing challenges can also impact quality of a green food ingredient.

“Because green foods contain antioxidants, enzymes, carotenoids, etc., it is important to handle them with as little exposure to heat, light and, especially, oxygen as possible,” Capelli advised. “There are no safety concerns if they are exposed, but they will certainly lose some of their key benefits as the nutrient levels drop.”

According to Allen Levine, sales director for Pines International, green foods are like many fruits and vegetables, and they need to be kept out of sunlight. “The main concern is not that the products will go bad,” he said. “But they will more quickly lose their nutritive value.” He noted, for example, beta-carotene and chlorophyll are affected quite rapidly by exposure to light.

May echoed concerns about the exposure of green foods to heat, light, oxygen and moisture. “Like in handling or processing any fresh type food, the more careful you are, the better you retain the factors, functions and phytonutrients,” he said. “Therefore, you want to package green food products in a manner to protect them from oxygen.” He suggested they should be vacuum-packed as bulk material in an oxygen barrier bag, then processed at low temperatures. “They should also be packaged in glass, because plastic bottles leech oxygen into them,” he advised. “Glass containers with a hermetic seal is only way to protect against that.”

The quality of processing and handling comes back to taste. “Consumers are more concerned with taste and smell, as they are not as aware of the potential loss of nutrients as are manufacturers,” Capelli noted. “This is another reason why it’s so important to formulate with a quality product that is fresh and hygienically produced; inferior products can have very bad tastes and odors that will negatively impact the taste and smell of the finished functional food, even if the green food is used at low inclusion levels.”

Green foods may infiltrate the functional market a bit slowly and with some real formulation challenges, but the overall market trend is of future growth. “This is a category we feel has enormous potential as more and more consumers just do not eat a proper wholesome diet, due to fast-paced lifestyles,” Lee said. “We see a major opportunity to provide a superior green food raw material that is dense in nutrition and clean, without any additives, so that consumers can obtain necessary proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and more that the modern diet does not provide.” 

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