Mosey up to the bar at a health food café or juice bar and you’ll likely find someone ordering a shot. Not a shot of tequila, mind you, but of wheatgrass.

For some people, shooting a shot of wheatgrass offers a sense of well-being, the feeling that they are gulping down something with numerous health benefits. Let’s review some of purported health benefits of wheatgrass and medical studies.

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Proponents of wheatgrass claim that it can help cure:

  • Bronchitis (and other respiratory conditions)
  • Fever
  • Infection
  • Skin disorders
  • Digestive disorders

According to the Mayo Clinic, some supporters even believe that wheatgrass can help treat cancer, anemia, diabetes, infections and joint pain, among other health conditions.

Wheatgrass nutrients

On a macronutrient and micronutrient level (fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals), wheatgrass doesn’t seem like a health food to get excited about. A typical one-ounce serving contains only seven calories, no fat and virtually no carbohydrates and protein. Wheatgrass contains no essential omega-3 fatty acids nor does it have much vitamin content with the exception of 7 percent of the daily value (DV) of vitamin C. A one-ounce shot also contains 10 percent DV of iron, but only a trace amount of any other well-known vitamins and minerals.

So why all the hoopla over wheatgrass? Chlorophyll — the green pigment that plays a critical role in photosynthesis, allowing plants to absorb energy from the sun — is touted by natural health advocates as an all-star health compound that increases the blood’s oxygen content.

It’s the chlorophyll, wheatgrass advocates claim, that helps rid the body of toxins, strengthens immunity and improves the micro-flora ecology of the digestive tract.

Is there any proof to back these claims?

Many cancer survivors swear by wheatgrass. But is consuming wheatgrass any more effective than, say, eating copious amounts of fresh vegetables? To date there is little scientific evidence to support wheatgrass’ nutritional merits. According to New York University’s Langone Medical Center, a small study of 24 patients with ulcerative colitis concluded that those who took a wheatgrass supplement improved their conditions versus those who took a placebo.

Another small study in the journal Indian Pediatrics concluded that patients with a form of anemia (thalassemia) required fewer blood transfusions after consuming 100 milliliters of wheatgrass daily.

An Israeli study of 60 patients with breast cancer concluded that wheatgrass juice may reduce myelotoxicity and chemotherapy dosage. The study’s preliminary results need confirmation upon further testing.

wheatgrass waiting to be made into juiceThere's little evidence that consuming wheatgrass is any more beneficial than just eating a lot of fresh vegetables. (Photo: Kristoffer Trolle/flickr)
One shot of wheat grass = 2 pounds of vegetables?

Several natural health articles and websites claim that consuming two ounces of wheatgrass contains the same nutritional composition as several servings of vegetables. But no clinical trials support this claim or other validations of wheatgrass’ positive effects on tumor shrinkage, prevention of heart disease and diabetes, or its role in the elimination of heavy metals from tissues.

Dietitian Alison Hornby, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, tells health website NHS: "There is no sound evidence to support the claim that wheatgrass is better than other fruits and vegetables in terms of nutrition. It cannot be recommended above any other choices in this food group. Although it contributes towards your recommended daily intake of fruit and veg, a single shot of wheatgrass doesn't count as one of your 5 (vegetables) a day. But if you're a big fan, you could combine a shot with a fruit or veg smoothie."

A natural health website claims that Bernard Jensen, a naturopath and chiropractor who passed away in 2001 at the age of 92, wrote several natural health books and claimed that he was able to double the red blood cell count of his patients by having them soak in a chlorophyll bath. However, there are no medical studies to support Jensen’s.

Dr. Chris Reynolds, an Australian-based doctor who goes by the alias "Dr. Wheatgrass," tells Mother Nature Network that he’s had tremendous success over the last 18 years in his practice by having his patients take a chlorophyll-free wheatgrass sprout extract.

But isn’t chlorophyll supposed to be the compound that gives wheatgrass its healing properties?

“Although chlorophyll is essential for keeping us all breathing, it has little if any physiological or positive effect on human health,” says Reynolds in an email. “The benefits of wheatgrass are largely biological, not nutritional as most purveyors of wheatgrass in its various forms would have one believe.”

Reynolds argues that there is plenty of evidence to support wheatgrass extract’s role in supporting biological functions, including one preliminary study in the Journal of Experimental and Clinical Cancer Research, which suggests that fermented wheatgrass extract “exerts significant antitumor activity.” The study concludes that the extract requires further evaluation as a candidate for clinical combination drug regimens.

Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, Calif.

This story was originally written in June 2012 and has been updated with the latest information.