A few years ago, a student arrived in one of my classes with her teeth and gums dyed bright green. When I inquired about her strange oral hue, she said that her doctor had prescribed chlorophyll for her hereditary gum disease. I had seen ads claiming that the chlorophyll in mints and chewing gum could freshen one’s breath, but I had never heard of it being used as a medicine. Not long afterward, a friend told me that his brother’s chiropractor had suggested trying chlorophyll as a remedy for bleeding from the penis, a problem associated with jogging.
These two episodes led me to examine the claims being made for chlorophyll as both a medicine and a deodorizing agent. I began my little research project by picking up literature at several health food stores which sold chlorophyll liquid and tablets. Various pamphlets and ads stated that chlorophyll would do everything from cleaning dirty colons to providing vital life forces to the brain. The most enlightening publication, however, was a booklet written by T.M. Rudolph, D.C., Ph.D., whose claims were nothing short of astounding.
According to Rudolph, chlorophyll can cure, help to cure, or improve burns, leg ulcers, trench mouth, tonsillitis, peptic ulcers, several types of vaginitis, urinary bladder diseases, high blood pressure, colitis, tooth decay, arthritis, athlete’s foot, constipation, hay fever, rectal fissures, anemia, gas and “acidic” bowels, stomach and intestinal problems, laryngitis, ear problems and impetigo. He also says it will help tired feet, soothe gunshot wounds, destroy bacteria, and improve metabolism.
Rudolph asserts that chlorophyll is “the catalyst of the vegetable kingdom which can allow vegetation to produce life and vital energy by feeding on air, water, and sunlight and known and unknown agents and invisible rays of the sun.” It does this, he explains, because it “produces oxygen by breaking down poisonous carbon dioxide.”
This description is not quite correct. There are thousands of catalysts (chemicals that speed reactions) in the plant kingdom (not the “vegetable kingdom”), but chlorophyll is not one of them. It is the pigment responsible for the green color of plants and enables them to “trap” energy from sunlight. This energy and carbon dioxide are then used to manufacture the carbohydrates that all living things use as food. Oxygen is not produced by the breakdown of carbon dioxide but is a by-product of the splitting of water during photosynthesis. Chlorophyll’s proponents also claim that it is a natural substance equivalent to the “blood of plants.” It is true that a small part of the chemical structure of chlorophyll resembles that of blood, but the functions of the two are entirely different. Nor should most products labeled “chlorophyll” be considered “natural.” They are breakdown products produced by exposing plant material to chemicals such as acetone, hexane gas, and copper. The resultant material is no longer chlorophyll.
Most claims that chlorophyll products can heal, kill bacteria, and remove odors are based on research performed early in the 20th century, before antibiotics were available to fight infections. Although many of these studies are considered invalid by modern scientific standards, there is evidence that chlorophyll can kill certain types of bacteria. It is not a practical choice, however, because very high concentrations are needed for any positive effect and modern antibiotics are far more effective anyway. Also, although chlorophyll kills some bacteria, it actually promotes the growth of others.
What about deodorizing properties? Despite the sales hype, in products sold to the public, it doesn’t have any. According to John C. Kephart, who performed studies at the laboratories of The National Chlorophyll and Chemical Company about 20 years ago, “No deodorant effect can possibly occur from the quantities of chlorophyll put in products such as gum, foot powder, cough drops, etc. To be effective, large doses must be given internally” [Journal of Ecological Botany 9:3, 1955].
Not long ago I visited a health food store to augment my collection of questionable nostrums. Because of my chlorophyll study, I selected a $4.97 bottle of garlic capsules with chlorophyll. Garlic has been considered to be a healing herb for hundreds of years. Many studies have examined the properties of garlic and its active ingredient, allacin. While some evidence exists that allacin may help lower blood cholesterol levels and effect blood pressure, no published studies demonstrate that health food variety garlic pills are good for anything other than flavoring food or providing bad breath. But literature at the store suggested they can help or cure cancer, diarrhea, dysentery, grippe, sore throat, intestinal disorders, tuberculosis, polio, and many other conditions.
To believers, adding chlorophyll to garlic seems impeccably logical: garlic makes you smell bad, chlorophyll makes you smell good, so the overall effect should be neutral. But since small amounts of chlorophyll do not deodorize, the most probable result from the pills is bad breath and a green tongue.
As I approached the cash register, another product caught my eye. For only $3.50, I could obtain a bottle of Hoffman’s Energol, a wheat germ oil product marketed by the York Barbell Company, of York, Pennsylvania. In 1960, the FDA charged York Barbell with misbranding its Energol Germ Oil Concentrate because literature accompanying the oil claimed falsely that it could prevent or treat more than 120 diseases and conditions. In 1974, the company was prosecuted again for claiming that Energol had special dietary value as a source of vigor and energy. In both cases, products were seized and destroyed under court-approved agreements the company reached with the FDA.
Although York Barbell no longer makes therapeutic claims for Energol, the stuff still retains some reputation for enhancing athletic prowess. When the clerk saw me looking at the bottle, she said, “You know, Energol is great, but it’s only half of what you need. Because the Energol is temporarily stored in the liver, you need this or you won’t get your energy fast enough. You don’t want to wait for your energy, do you?”
“Oh no,” I said, looking at the bottle she handed me. The label read Octocosonal, a product marketed by another company. “This seems a bit expensive,” I said, looking at the $5.95 price tag. “According to the label, this whole bottle contains only 30 thousandths of 1 gram of an alcohol taken out of yeast and put into a pill. Couldn’t I just eat the yeast?”
“No, no,” she replied, “this is different. It is the concentrated vital essence of wheat germ which will unlock the vitalizing powers of the Energol which is going to be stored in your liver. It really is an amazing scientific breakthrough.”
What else could I do? The Energol wouldn’t work properly without the Octacosonal, and the garlic would make me smell bad without the chlorophyll. So I went to the cash register and paid my $14.42.
Dr. Lowell has graduate degrees in botany and genetics. This article is reprinted from the May 1987 issue of Nutrition Forum. At the time the article was published Dr. Lowell was Professor of Life Sciences at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona and vice-president of the National Council Against Health Fraud.
This article was revised on August 14, 2004.