Some of the most amazing stories are told when you least expect it. After mass last Sunday, I chatted with a family friend as everyone was milling about outside the church. The conversation suddenly turned to holistic healing as she recounted the tale of her husband's battle with an advanced form of melanoma, their refusal to heed the doctor's orders to remove his lymph nodes, and the homeopathic therapy that eventually beat the cancer. To begin the treatment, she was instructed to grow a mini plantation of wheatgrass, which she then harvested, juiced, and fed to her husband on a daily basis. Her husband's near-miraculous recovery is today attributed to the powers of this plant, which created a highly oxygenated, alkaline environment where cancer cells could not survive.

Wait, so wheatgrass can cure cancer and save lives? Rather than accept this transcendent revelation, the skeptic in me had to dig up the science buried in wheatgrass. I hereby feed you my findings.

To begin with, an introduction. Wheatgrass is not some mutant strain of wheat or the offspring of a backyard lawn. Wheatgrass (official name Triticum Aestivum) is the baby grass of the wheat plant, which can be either freshly juiced or dried and made into a powder (then packed into tablet form or tossed in a smoothie). But swallowing wheatgrass is a horribly bitter experience (imagine gnawing on a blade of grass), so why put yourself through that? Grown in mineral-rich soil, wheatgrass can impart completely bio-available nutrition with high potency. Whereas the body can only absorb a fraction of the benefits from any given pill, the body can readily accept and utilize fresh wheatgrass.

In recent decades, wheatgrass has exploded in popularity in the Western world, all thanks to some experiments conducted by Charles Francis Scnabel in the 1930s. After discovering that young wheatgrass healed extremely ill hens and seemed to precipitate higher egg-producing rates, he started to dry and powder the grass as a nutritional supplement for human consumption. Through a great deal of research over the following years, it was discovered that wheatgrass must be harvested at the reproductive or jointing stage to maximize its nutritional content, since the density of nutrients decline sharply once it has crossed this developmental phase.

But can wheatgrass really ward off sickness and boost fertility, as Scnabel thought it did for his hens? The key lies in its components. Wheatgrass' nutrients include chlorophyll, proteins, amino acids (9 of which are essential), enzymes, minerals (ie. calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium, potassium, sodium, zinc), dietary fiber, and vitamins A, B,C, and E. Its primary properties are antibacterial and antiseptic in nature. Besides acting as an appetite suppressant, wheatgrass also alkalizes and detoxifies the body. And because nearly all degenerative diseases are born out of acidity and toxicity in the body, it can provide a degree of protection against disease.

Mostly known for its ability to turn plants green, chlorophyll accounts for nearly 65% of the composition of wheatgrass. A natural body cleanser and neutralizer of toxins, the chlorophyll found in wheatgrass resembles the red pigment hemoglobin in human blood, which suggests that consuming it will in turn build healthier blood and improve the functioning of the vascular system. In the American Journal of Surgery (1940), Benjamin Gruskin, M.D. recommends chlorophyll for such varied maladies as clearing up foul-smelling odors, neutralizing infections, healing wounds, hastening skin grafting, curing chronic sinusitis, treating inner-ear inflammation and infection, healing leg ulcers, eliminating impetigo, reducing typhoid fever, and clearing parasitic vaginal infections.

The belief that wheatgrass can increase fertility is due to the high magnesium content in the chlorophyll, which builds enzymes that boost fertility hormones. Wheatgrass has also been credited with anti-aging and anti-inflammatory powers, both when ingested and when applied topically. One 2002 trial of patients with active distal ulcerative colitis (inflammatory disease of the bowel) found that the severity of some symptoms significantly decreased in those treated with wheatgrass. A study published in Greed Med Info found that wheatgrass reduces cataracts and age-related physiological changes in dogs. Besides combating grey hair and tightening slack skin, wheatgrass is also believed to defend against arthritis, heart disease, constipation, pancreatic troubles, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and thyroid gland problems.  Support for these claims comes mostly from convincing anecdotal evidence. Clinical studies have neither proven nor disproven them.

One of the most popular beliefs about wheatgrass- that a single ounce is worth more nutritionally than two pounds of fresh green vegetables- is purely false. One ounce of wheatgrass is the equivalent of one ounce of any other leafy veggie. The scientific community is opposed to hailing wheatgrass juice as a magic potion. According to the CHOICE Online report, the evidence behind claims that wheatgrass juice builds red blood cells, improves circulation, and prevents cancer is inconclusive. The American Cancer Society warns against consuming wheatgrass because of the potential for contamination, since it is grown in soil that may contain bacteria or mold and is eaten in its raw form.

This risk, however, has been widely reduced since most wheatgrass is now grown hydroponically (without soil). Besides a bout of nausea or diarrhea after consuming too much, wheatgrass is a relatively harmless, and possibly healthy, way to spice up your diet. Considering its bitter aftertaste, the danger of overdoing it is doubtful.