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What’s in Your Smoothie?

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Smoothies are the new Main Line power drink—and apparently the greener and grittier, the better. The added leafy greens are full of vitamin K and are a great source of calcium, two of the biggest things missing from most of our diets.

But not all smoothies have the same nutritional perks. As registered dietitian Emily Murray explains, the health benefits of smoothies have to be weighed and measured, literally. In her Wayne office, Murray reviews the nutritional information published by a local smoothie franchise. Many smoothies, she says, are low in fiber. Veggies have a lot of it, but fruit doesn’t—and most smoothies are made of the latter. “If I were going to give only one suggestion for making a smoothie healthy, it would be to add a vegetable to it,” says Murray, adding that she’d opt for something leafy and green over, say, carrots. 

And is kale really healthier than spinach? No, Murray says. It’s on equal nutritional footing with Swiss chard and other dark-green leafy vegetables, all of which Murray says we should be eating more of. 

Blending doesn’t strip kale—or any fruit or vegetable, for that matter—of its nutritional value. Not so with juicing. By definition, it fails to incorporate the skin of fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, most freshly made juices are lower in calories than smoothies, especially those made from vegetables. 

As for drinking your calories, that pertains less to smoothies than sodas, bottled fruit juice and alcohol. They are full of sugar and sodium and provide very little nutritional bang per serving. There is nothing wrong with getting vegetables in liquid form, Murray emphasizes. Most people are veggie deficient, missing out on vitamins, calcium and fiber. “If the best way for you to get vegetables in your diet is to drink them in a smoothie or juice, go right ahead,” she says. 

We are. The area is rife with new smoothie and juice shops. As regional director for Robeks, Penn Valley’s Kimberly Berger, oversees the Ardmore and Center City shops. A working mom with three kids, Berger is a smoothie advocate. But she urges caution.

“The word ‘smoothie’ can refer to anything blended,” she says. “People need to be educated consumers. Start with what you want the smoothie for. Is it meal replacement or a snack?”

Murray provides target numbers for both categories. Meal replacements should be 400-600 calories, 60-90 grams of carbohydrates, and 20-40 grams of protein. Snacks ought to be 150-250 calories, 30-40 grams of carbohydrates, and 10-20 grams of protein. Wiggle room exists, but the numbers need to stay in reasonable proportion. “If I’m going to ingest X amount of calories and carbs, am I getting enough protein to balance them out and make the smoothie a good meal replacement or snack?” poses Murray.

Lea Nowacki doesn’t think smoothies need the extra sugar-laden calories. The manager of Fuel in Ardmore cites her most popular smoothies as proof: A 16-ounce Fruit Fuzzion (strawberries, raspberries, banana) has 230 calories, and the same size Protein Buster (skim milk, peanut butter, banana, honey, plus 25 grams of whey protein) has 290 calories. “They’re both plenty sweet without us adding sugar, syrup or anything else,” says Nowacki. “Our customers range from cross-trainers to people on Weight Watchers.”

Kids love smoothies, as well. To make them extra nutritious, Berger adds veggies. Murray also lets her kids drink smoothies, but she divides them in half or thirds. 

Teenagers’ nutritional needs are different. Most teen boys—especially those who participate in sports—can safely consume slightly high amounts of calories, carbs and sugar. But they’re usually not diligent about including fruits and vegetables. 

“We get a lot of Lower Merion High School kids into the Suburban Square Robeks, and when the boys get smoothies with kale, I give them a little smile of approval,” says Berger. “What I really want to say is, ‘Good choice.’ But then I’m afraid they won’t drink it.”

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