Glowing Green Juice Could Change How We Examine Intestines

Rx: A tall glass of fluorescent spinach

If you’ve ever had to throw back a big glass of chalky barium sulfate liquid before an x-ray of your guts, this will sound like a delightful trip to Smoothie King.

In order to better study the intestinal tract, researchers developed a juice that glows all the way down. They started their concoction with spinach. Then, rather than adding unnatural chemicals, they achieved the illuminating effect by removing chlorophyll-based nanoparticles from the spinach leaves.

Jonathan Lovell, corresponding author on the study which was published in Advanced Materials, told Popular Science that this is like making a “movie” of how intestines work: Doctors can better view how muscles in the GI tract contract and relax during digestion.

Why drink glowing spinach juice — other than it sounding like a 90’s Hi-C gimmick — when x-rays, MRIs, and endoscopies are common practice? These and other methods are limited in safety and accessibility, and often don’t provide enough contrast. Endoscopies are effective, but can risk tears and infections. The barium swallow method, which involves ionizing radiation, is not only uncomfortable for patients but can only take restricted snapshots of intestine anatomy and, according to Lovell, there are concerns about its use in children. The fluorescent spinach stuff moves stably through the gut and is already a natural part of the human diet.

Even the relatively high-tech “camera pill” used to check guts from the inside out isn’t a jack-of-all gut trades for exploratory methods. “Capsule endoscopy is a great technique but it is more appropriate for determining whether there are areas of inflammation within the intestine,” Lovell said.

“So far, there is limited information about how our intestine works and how that correlates to various gut problems,” says Lovell. Someday, chugging glow-in-the-gut spinach juice might come to a hospital near you.