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If you follow certain food bloggers on Instagram, or even just walk down the supplement aisle at the grocery store, chances are you’ve seen maca, açai, protein powder or a variety of nutritional supplements. Often they are intended to be mixed in with smoothies or smoothie bowls with the enticing promise of more energy, weight loss or even stress relief. It can be challenging to know what is just hype and what really does offer some benefit.
UW Health registered dietitian and nutritionist Margaret Eich provides some perspective, “It really depends on what health claims you are talking about. While there are likely to be inaccurate health claims out there, there are also potential benefits to many of the foods.”
You just have to know what has the research to back it up.
The Facts About a Few Popular Foods and Supplements
While there are a number of widely available common smoothie additives and supplements available on grocery store shelves, Eich breaks down a few popular ones.
Açai berries are very rich in a group of antioxidants called anthocyanins, which give açai berries their deep purple color and could help boost the antioxidant content of your diet. There are no known adverse effects from açai, but Eich explains that the available data on specific health benefits are limited.
We know fiber is an important part of our diet, but the difference between soluble and insoluble may be confusing for some. Soluble fiber – which is what chia seeds contain – thickens when liquid is added. That’s one reason chia seeds can be used to make a pudding, to thicken other items or even as an egg replacement in baking. Because they are rich in fiber, they may help lower cholesterol levels, promote regular bowel movements and prevent constipation.
“Chia seeds contain the omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, as well as calcium and magnesium,” adds Eich. “But similar to açai, there isn’t much research on specific health benefits.”
The good news is that cacao is rich in the antioxidant flavonol epicatechin and it has been found to reliably increase blood flow, may mildly reduce LDL cholesterol levels and may also help reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean you can eat an unlimited amount of cacao in its most popular form – chocolate.
For those who have tried dark chocolate, you know that it often tastes more bitter than its milk chocolate counterpart. That’s because as the cocoa content increases, the sugar content decreases. So when you read about chocolate being good for you, it’s often the very dark chocolate varieties – 70 percent cacao or higher.
Eich notes that while cacao has some health benefits, it’s important to be aware of another issue – caffeine.
“One tablespoon of cocoa powder has 12mg caffeine, which means 1.5-oz of 80 percent dark chocolate has about 40mg caffeine. That’s about the same amount in some green and black teas,” she explains. “It’s generally recommended that pregnant women have less than 200mg caffeine per day so it needs to be considered as part of your daily totals.”
Hemp seeds are full of nutrients – they are rich in protein and the plant form of omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid and certain vitamin and minerals like magnesium, iron, zinc, and manganese. Three tablespoons has 10 grams protein, 170 calories, 13 grams fat, and 3 gram fiber.
“They make a great addition to salads, oatmeal, yogurt, or a smoothie,” comments Eich.
Maca is a root that grows wild in South America, where it is traditionally eaten as a food. If you read about maca it seems there is little it can’t do – depending on the sources you read, it supposedly helps male and female infertility, improves chronic fatigue syndrome, anemia, improves energy and even eases menopause symptoms. But is it too good to be true?
“There isn’t sufficient evidence to back up the claims,” says Eich. “While there haven’t been any reported negative effects in the research that has been done, there just isn’t enough research to support recommending maca for any specific health conditions.”
Generally speaking, protein powders aren’t necessary for most people. Even through the average diet, people can usually take in an adequate amount of protein. But, for those who have difficulty getting enough protein – such as endurance athletes – protein powders can help.
“Athletes and those individuals who do longer periods of intense exercise may use protein shakes or protein foods after a workout to help with muscle repair and recovery,” Eich says.
But for those who don’t maintain an intense exercise session or engage in endurance-type sports, adding protein shakes following a workout is really just additional unnecessary calories and can make it harder for those wanting to lose weight.
For those non-breakfast eaters out there, protein shakes or powders can also be an option. Adding a protein powder to a smoothie can help keep blood sugars even and help you feel fuller for longer. When looking for protein powders, be sure to choose ones that are low in added sugar and that don't contain artificial sweeteners. Often blending a protein powder with fruit and plain yogurt or milk can provide plenty of sweetness.
Eich points to another concern with protein powders – added nutrients.
“Many protein powders include added nutrients and for some individuals, that can be a concern,” she says. “For example, women in pregnancy should limit their intake of pre-formed vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) from supplements to 5000 IU (International Units) to prevent excess vitamin A intake.”
She recommends that pregnant women who use protein powders check labels for vitamin A content. They should add up the amount of vitamin A in their prenatal vitamin, protein powder and any other supplements they may take to make sure it doesn't exceed 5000 IU. But, Eich adds, “Beta-carotene doesn't cause birth defects like pre-formed vitamin A does, thus it doesn't count toward this 5000 IU limit.”
When it comes to supplements, pregnant and breastfeeding women should take special precautions.
“There is often little data on the safety of certain supplements during pregnancy and breastfeeding,” says Eich. “so it is important that women speak with their physicians or a registered dietitian before adding any supplements.”
Why Your Should Tell Your Physician What Supplements You're Taking
While it can get a little confusing as to what is a supplement and what is a food, Eich explains that hemp, chia, cacao and açai are foods. However, extracts on the other hand are different. Açai berry extract or green tea extract, for example, is more concentrated than eating açai berries or drinking a cup of green tea. These would be considered supplements, not foods. Just because something might be safe in one form, doesn’t mean it’s safe in all forms. It’s also why it’s important to discuss any supplements you’re taking with your healthcare provider, particularly if you have a health condition or are taking medications.
“Supplements may interact with certain medications, or they may cause complications due to health conditions,” Eich says. “If someone with kidney disease takes certain supplements their body may not be able to flush them out as easily, which can lead to an unhealthy buildup in their system. Or a supplement may affect blood sugar levels, which could make a person with diabetes more susceptible to low blood sugar if medications and/or insulin aren’t adjusted.”
When it comes to nutrition supplements, more isn’t better and natural doesn’t mean it’s safe for you. That being said, people should feel safe eating whole foods such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, cocoa, and acai berries without checking with their healthcare provider, however maca and protein powders with added nutrients would fall more into the supplement category.
If there’s any question about whether or not to eat a certain food, it’s always helpful to ask. Eating nutrient dense foods should form the foundation of the diet. Often the internet hype doesn’t live up to the actual research, so it’s definitely worth talking to your healthcare providers about your food choices to get a balanced perspective.