Is Athletic Greens Worth It? A Nutrition Expert’s Review
The supplement Athletic Greens/AG1 seems to be everywhere in the endurance market these days. Registered Dietitian Matthew Kadey takes a look at "greens powders" for athletes and whether they deliver on their mighty claims.
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Fact: As an athlete, you can’t show up as the best version of yourself if you have poor eating habits. It’s important to include plenty of vegetables, fruits, and other nutrient-dense foods for peak health and performance.
Another fact: It can be challenging to get those healthy foods when one has a demanding schedule. Even the best dietary intentions fall apart in the face of work deadlines, kids’ soccer practices, appointments, and a fully-loaded training schedule.
In the hustle of daily life, we’re all looking for ways to add a little more ease to our days. So, it seems, everything is coming up in the hue of green. Or at least in the supplement world. Overcoming nutritional gaps is a problem “greens powders”—a collective term for supplement shake mixes made of dried and powdered vegetables, fruits, algaes, or grasses—claims to solve. In the athletic world, the most prominent brand of greens powder today is Athletic Greens, now rebranded as AG1, which can be found sponsoring just about every podcast on wellness, self-improvement, and fitness. Athletes of all stripes seem to be raving about their daily emerald drink on Instagram, and it’s all part of the company’s plan to connect with hard-charging athletes via social media.
The promises of Athletic Greens and similar greens powders are lofty: better performance and recovery, improve immunity, glowing skin, enhanced digestive functioning, and never-ending energy. But the biggest appeal for most is the convenience: If you can just drink all your fruits and vegetables in one fell swoop, then that surely is easier than gnawing through a kale salad, right?
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Is AG1 the health-boosting, nutrition shortcut we’ve all been looking for?
What exactly is Athletic Greens/AG1?
AG1 and its ilk are dietary supplements that aim to help you and I reach our daily intake of vegetables, vitamins, and minerals. To consume AG1 (a.k.a. Athletic Greens), you’ll mix a scoop (12g) with water to make a drinkable green juice, to be taken daily or as needed. You are advised to take the powder first thing in the morning on an empty stomach.
For the most part, greens powders such as AG1 are made by dehydrating various ingredients and then crushing them into a fine powder that is ready to stir into water and send down the hatch. They can also be produced by extracting the juice from the whole form of the ingredients, drying this, and then crushing it into a powder. Brands will vary in their production methods.
It’s important to not be fooled by their names. One of the big selling points is that many greens powders, including AG1, contain plenty of non-greens ingredients too. Formulas vary by brand, but you can expect items such as fruits, mushrooms, seeds, herbs, rhizomes like ginger and turmeric, probiotics, sea greens, and some sort of sweetener to also be in the mix.
Although there are many formulations on the market, AG1 promises that they go beyond the industry standard by including more than 70 different power-packed ingredients including vitamins, minerals, adaptogens, fruits, greens, prebiotics, and probiotics. They also take the extra step of getting National Sanitation Foundation’s “Certified for Sport” designation, the only third-party certification program recognized by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to mitigate the risk of contaminated supplements. These extra steps from AG1 also mean extra cost: AG1 also charges a much higher price ($99 for 30 servings) than most of its greens powder counterparts.
There are likely to be a few ingredients in AG1 that you have never heard of. What the heck is lycium berry or policosanol? To the brand’s credit, they do a pretty good job on their website of explaining what each ingredient is and its believed function in the body. However, it would be great to see actual research alongside this information to back up some of the reported benefits.
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A Deeper Review of Athletic Greens/AG1
Although consuming AG1 is pricier than eating fresh, whole produce, it may have some merit.
Vitamins and minerals
Digging into the extensive list of ingredients, it seems that a primary goal of AG1 is to help users fulfill many of their daily nutrient needs in a single drink. It should never be thought of as a meal replacement, but a scoop of the product does provide more than 100% of the recommended Daily Value for zinc, folate, and several other necessary micronutrients for athletes. There is certainly no need to also pop a multivitamin pill when using AG1.
AG1 can help you efficiently fill in some vitamin and mineral gaps that might have formed in your diet, but be aware that sucking back the powder does not cover your needs for all the nutrients you require as an athlete, including magnesium and the bone-benefiting duo calcium and phosphorus. You still must source these from other elements of your diet.
A range of ingredients in AG1, including broccoli and green tea extract, will provide important antioxidants. These are compounds that can help limit cellular oxidative damage in the body, which may lead to a lower risk for a variety of chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer. It might also improve exercise recovery—but the emphasis here is on “might.” It’s anyone’s guess what exact impact these plant compounds have on human health, and if they are available at levels in AG1 that are useful. Therefore, it’s a safe bet that these powders are not a direct substitute for the antioxidants you get from whole vegetables and fruits and a reason to leave them off your plate.
With ingredients like grape seed extract and ashwagandha, a herb that may help people better respond to stress, it’s very likely AG1 will provide compounds that you’d typically not get from a salad (I don’t know a lot of athletes that serve reishi mushrooms for dinner, do you?). There is always the chance you are going to drink the powder and end up getting one or more plant compounds that elevates your health, and perhaps make you a better athlete by boosting endurance and recovery. At least, that is what the sales pitch would like us to believe.
But with so many ingredients in the mix, there is the real possibility that some of them will be supplied in amounts that are too small to have much of a physiological impact. A study may show that the so-called ‘apdaptogen’ eleuthero root supports immune health, but only at levels far exceeding what you will get from a greens drink like AG1. So while a product may contain turmeric, beet or cordyceps mushroom, there is a good chance you’ll reap more rewards from these by actually consuming those ingredients on their own. When reviewing the supplemental facts of AG1, there is not an easy way to figure out how much of each of the various plant compounds you are getting. There also isn’t any rigorous research on the exact combination of ingredients in common powdered greens.
Fiber and probiotics
At the end of the day, eating powdered greens doesn’t quite have the same fiber bang as when you chew a salad. Greens powders typically give you significantly less fiber than what you’ll get from eating whole veggies and fruits. A serving of AG1 supplies just 2 grams of dietary fiber. So even if using this supplement you need to still eat enough plants including fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains to get your required amount of fiber. By far, fiber is one of the biggest nutritional deficiencies in the typical American diet.
AG1 promises to support your digestive health by providing billions of probiotic critters in the form of Bifidobacterium Bifidum and Lactobacillus Acidophilus. Since few people are eating enough fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut, these microorgansisms can be helpful to fertilize our guts with a more beneficial microbiota. Just keep in mind that the research on our microbiome is still relatively in its infancy and there is going to be the possibility that these may not be the right strains of microorganisms or in the amounts needed for you. Most microbiologists would likely still encourage you to get other probiotics from a variety of food sources. There is also no guarantee of how viable the micro-critters still are once they reach your water glass. Claims regarding improved digestion and regularity remain largely anecdotal.
AG1 includes inulin, a prebiotic fiber that certain microbiota in your colon use as a fuel so they can expand in number and produce compounds like short-chain fatty acids that can provide a variety of health benefits including lowering inflammation. But instead of zeroing in on a single prebiotic like inulin, there is a variety of prebiotics we should be consuming to feed a greater variety of probiotics in our digestive tract.
One of the main things that people boast about when starting with AG1 is that they feel more alert and energetic with less brain fog. Whether that is resulting from the action of certain compounds in the product and how they mingle together or the always reliable placebo effect is unknown. In the morning, some of this energizing effect could be chalked up to simply being better hydrated. Since you are instructed to consume the powder with water first thing in the morning, using the product can be a way to improve hydration habits, especially earlier in the day.
The “no” list
AG1 does have an ‘absolutely no’ list that may appeal to various consumers. This includes no GMOs, sugar, gluten or traces of pesticides. The FDA does not regulate such supplements, so it’s largely a wild west world in the greens power biz. It’s reassuring that AG1 is NSF-certified, so you know every one of the dozens of ingredients has been tested and verified by a third-party organization. This can be important for professional athletes, who are drug tested and need a supplement that has a guarantee not to include any banned substances for sport.
Let’s be clear: most greens powders are an acquired taste. It can take some time to get used to chugging down what can taste a bit like grass clippings first thing in the morning. Because of this, some users may not be consistent with their use of greens powders, which negates many of the possible benefits. You can’t get the boost if it doesn’t go in your body.
However, one benefit of greens powders might be a sort of snowball effect. By believing you are doing one good thing for your body and health–in this case, taking an ultra-nutritious supplement that top-tier athletes and Hollywood A-listers boast about–people might be more likely to follow this up with other healthy habits during the day, like eating more veggies and walking around more. One good act provokes another. Knowing that you’re spending nearly a hundred bucks on a supplement that’s meant to help you live a healthier life sticks with you.
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Are Athletic Greens/AG1 supplements worth it?
There is no denying that AG1 is a mighty supplement that could benefit athletic individuals with more pressing nutritional needs—not as a food replacement, but rather as a complement to a quality diet.
But despite the bounty of celebrity and athlete endorsements, don’t believe that everyone needs to mix up Kermit-colored water. There is no evidence that it can make a balanced, highly nutritious diet that much better, or that it is a must-have for improved health and performance. (To date, there is no research directly linking greens powders to athletic improvements.) In some ways, the hope is fueling the hype. Instead, supplements like this should be tailored to your particular needs.
If your supplement budget is a little bit tighter than the high-priced AG1, a less-expensive greens powder alternative might be something worth checking out, with the caveat that many of the things we’ve discussed with AG1 ingredients also apply to other greens powders.
Also, it’s important not to think that because some greens powder is beneficial, taking more is a smart move. There is always the potential of “overdosing” on certain nutrients and compounds found in the ingredients. For the most part, you should just stick with one serving a day; two at the maximum, if you are in a period of high volume training or your overall diet is taking a hit for reasons like traveling.
The take-home message here is that your top priority should be to consume whole vegetables and fruits, but the various guises of greens powders could help increase the nutritional quality of your diet in a convenient, easy way. Even if their benefits tend to get oversold. Just remember, no amount of powdered spinach or rosehip will make up for a lousy diet.
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Matthew Kadey, M.S., R.D., is an author, journalist, and James Beard Award winner who specializes in sports nutrition.