by Mollie Doyle
In 1998, I travelled to Bosnia to help produce a play at the Sarajevo National Theatre. That was an amazing experience; the terrible, gut-eating parasite that I brought home was not. I made an appointment with my then-general practitioner and a rare infectious disease specialist in New York City, who both recommended, along with massive doses of antibiotics, that I start incorporating smoothies into my diet. Foods that were slightly broken down, they explained, would nourish my body and be easier on my unhappy digestive system than any of their whole food counterparts. So, before Jamba Juice and Naked Juice and the rise of the Vitamix, I tried one homemade smoothie and I was hooked. Since then, quite apart from any outside cultural influence, these home-blended beverages have been a main- stay in my life.
And then, a month or so ago, my blender sputtered and gave out. Frustrated, I searched Amazon for a competent workhorse and was presented with more than 1,400 different juice and smoothie appliances, from the affordable to the bank-breaking. (Not to mention the cookbooks.) The culinary subfield apparently hosts its own, specific jargon—‘whole food juicer,’ ‘slow juicer,’ ‘quieter process,’ ‘less oxidation,’ ‘blade-free’—and markets choices to match all possible kitchen palettes. Needless to say, sometime in the past fifteen years, smoothies have hit the mainstream. I spoke with four smoothie experts—New York chef and holistic nutritional coach Heather Umlah, Josh Levy of Vineyard Nutrition, and Jennifer Oliver and Fred Natusch, co-owners of the Island’s only organic smoothie and juice cafe, Blissed Out—to get their takes, and recipes, on this DIY craze.
Let’s get the basics out of the way first. The central difference between a real smoothie and a real juice is that one (the smoothie) contains fiber, and the other (the juice) does not. (I’m excluding commercial products like Jamba Juice here, or prepackaged, smoothie-like drinks that contain additives used to prolong their shelf life.) Beyond the basics, a smoothie’s best friend is the add-in: whey protein powder, cacao, and other ingredients that can boost flavor and nutritional value (see a few of my favorites on pages 48-49). Juice is—well, just that: pure, unadulterated liquid, fresh from the vegetable or fruit. Each drink served a distinct purpose for the person that I spoke with, but the feeling was the same: what you get out of a smoothie or a juice depends on the quality of the ingredients you put in.
For Jennifer and Fred, who drink their own blends constantly at Blissed Out, juices support their bodies when they’re ill, or cleansing, while smoothies are a daily nutritional mainstay. Heather Umlah called smoothies a “great, efficient way to get nutrition into the body, because you’ve already broken the food down—chopping the kale, the fruit, the nuts. And this means your hungry, tired body doesn’t have to waste energy on digestion.” But unlike juice, the fiber in smoothies keeps you feeling fuller, and, in that way, the drink preserves most of the benefits of eating whole fruits and vegetables, Heather said.
Josh Levy agreed. “Any time we try to isolate, or break down food [as we do with juices], we lose the synergy of the whole food,” he says. “The fiber in a fruit or vegetable helps moderate the way we absorb its sugar… if you drink a juice, your blood sugar goes up and there’s nothing else for the body to burn, so it’s a very quick burn.” After the initial burst of energy that a juice provides, Josh says, a person’s blood sugar will drop and they’ll look for something else to eat to bring them back up. For him, the key to a good smoothie is in balancing protein and fiber to the natural sugars of the fruits. Therein, the beauty of a smoothie compared with a juice is its relative nutritional flexibility: you can control exactly what you’re putting into one, and you don’t lose the nutritional benefits of your ingredients in the process.
As a nutritionist and an athlete, Josh is a big fan of smoothies as a post-workout boost. “I suggest making them before [you] head to the gym or on a run so there’s a smoothie waiting for you when you are tired and hungry,” he said. “You can instantly feed your body with the proteins, vitamins, and minerals it needs: you replenish while you stretch.” For a post-workout smoothie, Josh recommends a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. (So think primarily veggies, a bit of fruit for sweetness, and a dab of some kind of protein—dairy, nut, soy, or whey, for example.) But Josh suggests that individuals consider their smoothie intakes relative to the rest of their diets, paying special attention to what a smoothie is “supporting or replacing.” Just because that blender contains a bunch of healthy things from your fridge, doesn’t mean that it’s an unequivocally good choice—especially when calorie-control is a concern, he warns.
And what about those national franchises promoting smoothies as a guilt-free choice? Josh explained that chains such as Jamba Juice use “fruit blends” rather than fresh fruit. The Jamba Juice company doesn’t give away it’s secret-recipe that describes exactly what a “fruit blend” is, but according to their website, a small Jamba Juice Kale-ribbean Breeze contains 48 grams of sugar—that’s a 1⁄4 cup of sugar in a 16-oz cup!) Even the much-heralded Naked juices and smoothies have low fiber contents and significant quantities of sugar. According to the Naked website, the Green Machine has an entire ounce of sugar in one serving, and each bottle is two servings. Fred Natusch has nick-named these products ‘chemical soup.’ “You’re getting processed, pasteurized, non-organic fruit and vegetables with pesticides in them,” he says. “What’s the nutritional value of that?”
Overall, it seems that the science of smoothies is really about the recipes—finding the perfect combination of flavors with vegetables, fruits, protein sources, herbs and spices. Everyone I spoke with has a very personal relationship to smoothies, and idea of what they do for their bodies. For Josh Levy, smoothies are a nutritional tool for enhancing sports performance and recovery. And they’re clearly a way of life for Jennifer and Fred. Personally, I connected with what Heather Umlah had to say best: “The thing that’s so wonderful about smoothies is that they allow you to connect with the season and align with nature. They’re a lovely way to bring you into the present moment.” As someone who drinks smoothies daily, I completely agree with this sentiment. Every morning, especially at this time of year, I go outside, survey my garden, and ask myself: what does my body want/need?” Then I pluck handfuls of greens, herbs, and berries, and I go inside to begin my day.