Our Smoothie Culture

December 14, 2016

I have a very specific opinion on smoothies. You may hate it; you may rant at me for it, but here goes.

We finally put kale…in all its crunchy, nutrient-dense glory…on the map and now? People blend it up with fruit into baby food and slurp it on the subway.

I get it. We are all busy, but this obsession we have with smoothies has left us wide open to be hoodwinked yet again by big food companies who just…can’t…wait to sell us one more thing that will leave us feeling less than spectacular.

For many of us, smoothies have become talismans of good health as we puree and blend all manner of super foods and ancient grains, greens and seeds with frozen fruit, non-dairy milks or yogurts to create concoctions we are told will provide all the nutrients we need to power through a day.

While cultures in the Mediterranean and in Asia have pureed fruits into beverages for hundreds of years, the new smoothie culture is a bit much for me.

Modern smoothie popularity can be traced back to the 1960’s when the “back to the land” movement was in full blush and natural food stores began selling fresh-pressed juices to their health-conscious clientele. And it was Jack LaLanne (yes, the jumping jack, boat-pulling guy in the jump suit that our mother’s worked out with on TV) who brought juicing out of the hippie culture and into mainstream consciousness.

But it was Steve Kuhanu, a lactose-intolerant teenager who dubbed his concoction a “smoothie” as he pureed and blended trying to create something akin to the milkshakes he couldn’t enjoy. In 1970, he called his drinks smoothies to appeal to the hippie culture of the time and the name stuck and with the creation of the franchise “Smoothie King” it became part of our modern culture and it’s not likely to go away any time soon.

Even the name bugs me.

Smoothies are marketed as vehicles to transform health and wellness. They’re lauded as ways to make healthy food more accessible to more people. Last year, frozen fruit (and veggies) surpassed 400 billion dollars in sales. It’s estimated that more than 60% of that went to into the making of smoothies…for breakfast, for energy, for snacks, pre and post-workout, as meal replacements. Packaging was designed to sell more frozen fruit for smoothies.

Intuitively, we think of smoothies as a way to pack lots of nutrients into our bodies. It’s a great way to be healthy; it’s quick, easy and convenient, right?

There is solid research showing that if you consume exactly the same energy/calories as a liquid instead of as solid food, you’re likely to consume more calories later. Wait…what?  See, the liquefied energy doesn’t satisfy your appetite as well as the solid food so you get hungry quicker.

On top of that, you could be changing the rate and manner in which you digest nutrients in important ways. Turning food into a “slurry” before consuming it and your body can react with a significantly sharper and faster spike in blood sugar.

Finally, green smoothies often employ the use of fruit to make them taste palatable. Straight kale and water with a few ice cubes is not particularly appealing…and I love kale. The caloric density of the fruit dwarfs that of the greens and your healthy smoothie ends up being quite high in sugar. With fructose being the main sugar in fruit, which digests through the liver and can disrupt how we metabolize food, smoothies aren’t sounding so healthy now.

Our healthy smoothie culture could be leading us down the path to elevated blood sugars and triglycerides. Not exactly the benefit we were hoping for, right?

Do I hate all smoothies all the time? Personally, I do. But I know green smoothie consumers who put all the vegetables or fruits they eat for their entire day into that tall glass. Without that smoothie, they likely would eat far fewer fruits or vegetables. And replacing it with a fast food breakfast option is dubious at best, so I won’t push hard to get rid of your smoothies completely.

And remember that a smoothie is not the same as juice, like green juice.

But for me, the bottom line is simple. Use your mouth and your teeth the way nature intended and put the smoothies aside or enjoy them just as treats. Smoothies are far from being the Darth Vadar of food, but they are yet another way we compromise our wellness and vitality.

We must strive to eat and chew generous portions of dark green leaves, other vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans every day.

Look, there are a lot of reasons in our modern world to curl up in the fetal position and suck our thumbs, but we need to be strong now. We can’t live as babies, eating pureed foods. We need real food; we need to chew. We need the fortitude we get from strong intestines.

So as a food blogger famously wrote: Unless your jaw is wired shut, I prefer you just eat food.