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Wonders of Chlorophyll, the Green Plant Pigment

Last modified December 10, 2005 18:24

Chlorophyll or sometimes called ‘Plant Blood’ is the most important plant pigment and a ‘real life force’ that Nature uses to explode plants into greenery. But few have any idea about chlorophyll’s wonders. It is not a single compound, but made up of two classical components- the bluish black chlorophyll-a, and dark green chlorophyll-b.

Chlorophyll or sometimes called ‘Plant Blood’ is the most important plant pigment and a ‘real life force’ that Nature uses to explode plants into greenery. But few have any idea about chlorophyll’s wonders. It is not a single compound, but made up of two classical components- the bluish black chlorophyll-a, and dark green chlorophyll-b.
Chlorophyll is photoreceptive, absorbs largely the blue and red spectrum of the visible light (at wavelengths 400-700 nm) and reflects the unabsorbed spectrum in the green region. It is the green reflection that makes plant parts look green. The colours in flowers and fruits are due to other pigments. The spectacular show of green turning to brilliant shades of yellow and red in autumn before plants shed leaves is nothing but manifestation of pigment change, from one to another.
Chlorophyll is quite delicate, it cannot work alone. It is also not very stable under bright sunlight. If there is too much ultraviolet, the process of photosynthesis begins to release an excess of damaging molecules called 'free radicals', which could destroy the sensitive chlorophyll. But they don't; the plant has its own built-in antioxidants. Inside, hidden by the dark green of the chlorophyll, vitamins, the yellow and orange pigments, are at work to quell them. Chlorophyll is present in the membrane of disc-like structures called 'chloroplasts', which are like chemical factories powered by the sun to synthesize carbohydrates. A leaf has about 500,000 chloroplasts per square millimeter.
It is one of the greatest miracles of Nature that chlorophyll and its companions, sparked by sunlight, produce simple sugar (carbohydrate). The process is called 'photosynthesis', which beyond doubt is the most fundamental of all biochemical reactions and one that helps plants to grow, flower, produce seed and sustain life on Earth.

Chlorophyll as source of energy for the human body
Plants and people have a lot more in common than we might have realized. The hundreds of enzymes that organize physiology inside a plant’s body turn glucose into all kinds of vitamins, antioxidants, and other chemical compounds, and various biochemical reactions inside our body use glucose as fundamental source of energy. Chlorophyll is often described as the ‘blood of plants’ and chlorophyll-rich foods have been linked with increasing hemoglobin content. Tributes to the late Prof. Willstatter for elucidating chlorophyll’s chemical structure, and conclusively showing its close resemblance to human blood.
The colours in flowers and fruits are due to other pigments, such as carotenoids and anthocyanins. Taking cue, human beings started using about 2000 pigments in food to enhance the eating pleasure, and thus unknowingly availed their incredible health promoting properties. In 1919, Steenbock curiously observed that while yellow corn and “yellow” vegetables (such as carrots, sweet potatoes, etc.) eliminated symptoms of vitamin A deficiency in rats, the white ones such as corn, parsnip, and potato did not. The carotenoids and proteins act as light harvesting complexes in photosynthesis and protect the photosynthetic system from UV effects.
Free radicals lead to health problems such as cataracts, premature aging, arthritis, cancer etc. But our body is greatly protected and our life extended by a constant flow of phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. They may be pigments, vitamins, minerals or enzymes. The well known are vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. Antioxidants work as a major police force counteracting the damage by binding with them. More importantly antioxidants return to the surface of the cell to stabilize rather than damage other cellular components. Except for vitamin D, and a bit of vitamin K, our body cannot manufacture antioxidants. Their deficiency increases vulnerability to various diseases. Vegetables and fruits, particularly deep green, bright yellow and red ones, are very rich in phytochemicals. Adding them to our diet in combinations is like fortifying our body against diseases and ill health.
While all green plants contain chlorophyll a, and most vegetables that we eat contain both chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b, some vegetables contain particularly high amounts of total chlorophyll. Best studied of all the vegetables is spinach (Spinach oleracea), with this vegetable containing about 300-600 milligrams per ounce.

Chlorophyll in marine products
Amazingly some freshwater and marine algae, yet to find place in our daily diet, are rich in chlorophyll and are a treasure trove of several micronutrients. The single celled algae, chlorella and spirulina, have several astounding properties and are near perfect examples. A 10 g biomass of an ideally grown chlorella, contains about 280 mg of chlorophyll, and spirulina about 115 mg. Chlorella, by far the richest source of age fighting RNA and DNA, has high concentrations of nucleic and amino acids and about 20 different vitamins and minerals. It improves immune system functions, heavy metal and pesticide detoxification and antitumor activity. It is the number one selling health food supplement in Japan.
Spirulina is a natural source of vitamin B12, iron, chromium, selenium, and essentially fatty acids (GLA). Indeed, it contains 50 times more iron than spinach and 10 times more bone building calcium than milk. It is reported to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood and to support cardiovascular functions.
Kelp, the giant seaweed, goes perfect with the phrase ‘take sea vegetation without hesitation’. Kelp contains mucilaginous alginates, which like most fibres, gums and mucilages, swell in the intestines and absorb toxins and heavy metals. Japanese studies have shown that regular consumption of kelp reduces breast cancer risks.

Chlorophyll juices and green tea
Though nothing can replace a sound diet, exercise and a positive attitude, it is really wonderful that something as simple as green grasses can give us strength to combat life’s pitfalls. Green grasses indeed are the only vegetation many herbivores eat to meet their nutritional requirements. We know that to the great herds of the plains that survive the dry season or winter, nature provides the most nutritious of foods, even to their young ones, with green sprouting grasses. These grasses contain about the same vitamins and minerals as dark green vegetables. Wheat, barley and alfalfa are considered the most nutritious of the green grasses.
Young barley and wheat grasses from sprouted grains are frequently used in juices and drink blends. Their leaves contain a multitude of enzymes, carotenoids, vitamins such as folic acid, and minerals. The young barley juice powder contains 13 times as much carotene as that of carrots, 55 times as much vitamin C as that of apples and five times as much iron as that of spinach. It also contains boron and manganese. Wheat grass claimed to prevent graying of hair and tooth decay, helps strengthen the walls of the body cells and improve the immune system. When young, they have a different chemical make-up. For example, wheat grass has 32 g of protein per 100 g, while wheat flour has only 13 g. The wheat grass has about 23,000 International Units (IUs) of vitamin A per 100 g, while wheat flour has none.
Green tea guards against cardiovascular disease in many different ways. It lowers cholesterol and blood pressure and reduces platelet aggregation. Its epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), an antioxidant believed to be linked to heart diseases and cancer, is reported to be at least 100 times more effective than vitamin C and 25 times more than vitamin E at protecting cells and DNA from damage. It contains volatile oils, vitamins, minerals and polyphenols that lessen the risk of cancers and stimulate production of immune system cells. According to a Chinese legend, an emperor discovered green tea accidentally 4,000 years ago. Since then, traditional Chinese medicine has recommended green tea for headaches, depression, digestion, and to prolong life.

Chlorophyll as Supplement
When we think of supplementing our foods, we think of vitamins and mineral supplements, but not chlorophyll. How does one take chlorophyll? Eat green plants!
Our busy lifestyle does not permit to extract juice or grow our own sprouts, instead we try to get the benefits of green foods through capsules, tablets or powder of dehydrated or freeze dried forms of wheat grass, blue green algae or different cereal grasses.
Some say that drinking one ounce of the juice squeezed from long blades of wheat grass is equal to eating 2.5 pounds of green leafy vegetables. However, there is no substitute for diets rich in green vegetables and fruits.

Source: Science Reporter, New Delhi, July 2005
(Proofread by Kees Stigter)

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