You’ve probably noticed ads for these “superfood powders” scattered across social media or on your favorite podcast.
Athletic Greens, Daily Greens, Supergreens — mix just one scoop of these multivitamin powders into a glass of water or a shake, their marketing typically says, and you can get all of the vitamins and minerals you need for the day, as well as added health benefits like a stronger immune system, less stress, better digestion and more energy.
These “greens powders” or “superfood powders,” as they are sometimes called, usually host a hodgepodge of vitamins and minerals, as well as other trendy ingredients like probiotics, ground up kale, chia seeds and ashwagandha.
But are they really a shortcut to better health?
“They’re so enticing,” said Dr. Marion Nestle, an emeritus professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “You think, ‘Oh, this will be so easy.’”
But as with most things nutrition-related, you’ll likely need more than a scoop of powder to improve your overall well-being, she said.
What’s in them?
The ingredients lists on websites and packaging for the powders can read like a word salad of wellness buzzwords.
You’ll typically find the usual slate of vitamins and minerals, like vitamins E and C (which are antioxidants), biotin (or vitamin B7, which helps you metabolize food) and vitamin B12 (which is essential for blood and nerve cell health).
Many “superfood powders” also contain plant proteins (like pea protein or brown rice protein powder); ground up fruits and vegetables like broccoli, spinach and kale; and supplemental probiotics (gut-friendly microbes) and prebiotics (which act as food for the probiotics).
You may also find a cluster of plant substances — including ashwagandha, reishi, ginseng and rhodiola, which are called adaptogens and are purported to help with a range of ills, including stress relief and energy production — and dandelion root, rose hip and milk thistle seed extract.
“This is like throwing the kitchen sink into a powder,” said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who studies supplements.
Will these powders make me healthier?
If you’re already following a reasonably balanced diet and aren’t deficient in any vitamins or minerals, you probably don’t need to take multivitamin supplements like these, the experts said.
“Superfood powders” often contain far more than the daily recommended amounts of many vitamins and minerals — one serving of AG1, the powder made by Athletic Greens, for example, supplies more than 550 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin E, and 1,100 percent of the daily recommended amount of biotin.
For the most part, your body can handle these excess nutrients, said Dr. Gerard Mullin, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine who specializes in gastroenterology. Your kidneys will break down and dispose of most of them, he said. But certain vitamins, like vitamins A, D, E and K, can cause harmful effects if they reach high enough levels, he added — though this is rare.
As for supplemental probiotics, there isn’t clear evidence that already healthy people will become healthier by taking them regularly, Dr. Nestle said. And prebiotic supplements might encourage regular bowel movements and promote gut health, she added, but similarly, the science on their necessity for most people is far from settled.
Many adaptogens like ashwagandha and ginseng have been used for centuries in Eastern medicine, in part for their purported stress-relieving properties. But high-quality evidence on whether they can do things like stabilize your mood or alleviate anxiety is lacking, Dr. Cohen said.
“There have been no clinical trials showing how effective they are, just infomercials,” Dr. Mullin added.
Representatives from Athletic Greens and Huel (which makes the Daily Greens blend) said that while some scientific studies have found links between the individual ingredients in their products and certain health benefits, no rigorous, independent studies have evaluated the health benefits of the products themselves.
When manufacturers grind vegetables like broccoli or spinach down into supplements or powders, some of the vitamins and other beneficial components are lost in the process, Dr. Nestle said, including some of their fiber, which is essential for regulating digestion and keeping your gut healthy.
You’re better off getting nutrients from eating whole, unprocessed foods directly, Dr. Mullin said.
And many of these powders can come with a hefty price tag — a 30-serving supply from Athletic Greens starts at $79, while Huel’s Daily Greens version costs $45, and Enso Superfoods’ Supergreens powder costs $59.99.
“Why not just eat some spinach?” Dr. Nestle said. “I don’t quite get it.”
The bottom line
As with all supplements, the Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated these greens powders for safety or efficacy, so you can’t be sure that what’s listed on the label is what’s in the package.
When buying supplements, it’s important to look for seals from trusted third-party certification programs, like the U.S. Pharmacopeia or NSF, on their labels, Dr. Cohen said, which ensures ingredient quality.
Experts say that these powders probably don’t pose a major risk to the average person, but they also may not do much good.
“You want to take them, take them,” Dr. Nestle said. “But it’s not going to solve nutritional problems.”