By Joe Wilkes

Today, our oh-so-basic nutrition class hits the mall, or at least the strip mall, for a look at popular beverage chains. These range from places we know may not be healthy, like coffeehouses, to juice bars that market themselves as the pinnacle of nutrition. Certainly, beverages named after a cornucopia of healthy fruits must be good for you, right? Let's take a deeper look at that Mangorangoberry Pizzazz you were considering for lunch today.

Most of the drinks we're discussing fall under the smoothie category. We've been conditioned to consider this word synonymous with healthy, but many of these drinks are quite the opposite. Smoothie's not a word you need to strike from your vocabulary, but like most things you put into your body, you should pay attention to the ingredients. Some of these beverages are great, while others are little more than ice cream in a cup. Here's a quick rundown on the types of smoothies you're likely to encounter and when, or if, you should drink them.

Bottled "smoothies"

A smoothie used to be a blend of various whole fruits with, perhaps, a bit of protein powder and/or other ingredients that were healthy, didn't taste great, and were best hidden in a mixture of yummy fruit. Nowadays, it can be almost anything. In stores, however, most of 'em still follow that traditional blend. They also have the nutrition information listed on the side, so it's easy to see what you're drinking. I guess this is why you'll almost never see a Peanut Butter Blast at your local market, but you'll often see spirulina.

Analysis: Most of these drinks are pretty darn healthy, and it's obvious when they're not. Just make sure to read the nutrition information on the label.

Jamba Juice®, et al.

I'm using the Jamba Juice model because it's the biggest smoothie chain, but there are plenty of others. Most follow a similar format of offering varying drink options. Coffeehouses get in on this too, which we'll get to later. Jamba Juice touts its usage of real fruit and fruit juices to make its beverages sound healthy. When analyzing the final product, we see an abundance of sugar and not much fiber, meaning that fruit juice is being used, which is completely different nutritionally than using whole fruit.
  • Traditional smoothies. Jamba Juice calls these "classics," because it's all that was offered before consumers caught on to the hype and demanded healthier options. These are mainly made of fruit, with some amount of dairy dessert like sherbet added for a smooth texture. At an average of around 500 calories (for an "original" size, or a medium) and 100 grams of sugar, this is not exactly the "light lunch" many people thought they were getting.

    Analysis: The only time this would be an appropriate snack (or meal, really) is if you were doing an excessive amount of exercise. Adding protein powder as an option helps balance it a little bit, but basically there's no way around the fact that this is a high-sugar meal, which is only okay if you happen to be burning a lot of blood sugar.

  • Functional smoothies. These use industry buzzwords in drinks like Açai Supercharger, Matcha Green Tea Mist, Protein Berry Pizzazz, Coldbuster®!, and a host of other ultra-healthy-sounding items. Some of them have a slightly higher amount of protein, but checking the bottom line, an "original" also has around 500 calories, 400 or so of which come from sugar.

    Analysis: Shakespeare once asked, "What's in a name?" Maybe he was referring to a business he knew would pop up in a few centuries. Don't believe this marketing hype; the only purpose of these beverages would be to fuel you after a long bout of very intense exercise.
  • Enlightened smoothies. How did they do it? They look the same. They're the same size. Yet these average around 300 calories, about 250 of which are sugar. To reduce the calorie count, these beverages are made with nonfat milk, whey protein, and Splenda®. This does boost their protein content a bit, an improvement over the classics, but you have to deal with Splenda.

    Analysis: Do two pluses offset a minus? You get fewer calories and more protein, but what's with the Splenda? This somewhat disgusting artificial sweetener (basically chlorinated sugar, as we discussed in "Nutrition 911, Part VI: Sweeteners"; refer to the Related Articles section below) has a lot of negative press surrounding it. It's probably fine in small doses, but it raises this question: why? Surely there are healthier options. If Jamba Juice is so into health trends like açai and maca, couldn't they have sweetened these "enlightened" smoothies with yacon?
  • All-fruit smoothies. These beverages don't use dairy products and stick to fruit juice and fruit. But they're sweetened fruit juice, so their 300 plus calories are nearly all sugar, with about a third as much fiber as a comparable amount of whole fruit.

    Analysis: Another sugary sports drink. Sure, there are vitamins and antioxidants in this stuff—it's made of fruit, after all. But you're far better off with a piece or two, or three, of whole fruit, which is healthier, more filling, and doesn't cause a sugar rush.
  • Good Moo'ds. These are the chocolate "anythings" that invariably show up on the menu. They're advertised as being "made with nonfat milk," or some other hollow promise. But a medium "Peanut Butter Moo'd" contains 21 grams of fat (or 190 calories of fat), 122 grams of sugar, 480 milligrams of sodium, and 840 calories.

    Analysis: You might as well go for the ice cream. If that's what you want, there's not much trade-off here. These have no place in a healthy diet, except as some kind of reward. They are decadence, pure and simple.
Starbucks®, et al.
Coffee chains have gotten in on the game too. Sometimes called smoothies, coffeehouse options are also referred to by various other names. Coffee and tea don't have any calories and give you a rush. But people seem to want their rush with other assorted items, like sugar and fat. So now when you order a black coffee at one of these places, you often get a strange look, or you're asked, "Are you sure?" I guess that's not what the cool kids are ordering. So let's have a look, shall we? Because the kids won't stay cool if they keep eating like this.
  • Frappuccinos. An average 24-ounce Starbucks Frappuccino® (the large or Venti® size) has around 700 calories, 25 grams of fat, 100 grams of sugar, 400 milligrams of sodium, and 70 milligrams of cholesterol. You can save a few hundred calories by ordering "light," which substitutes artificial sweeteners for sugar.

    Analysis: These are dessert items. There is no other way to categorize them.
  • Lattes 'n' such. These are slightly less caloric and vary quite a bit. A Grande Nonfat Cappuccino might only have 100 or so calories, but a Venti White Chocolate Mocha with whipped cream has over 600 calories.

    Analysis: There's a lot of variance here, and I believe most of you know the good from the bad. Here's a quick rundown:
    • Coffee or tea: Zero calories; the best option is to drink them unsweetened and without milk or cream.
    • Milks and cream: Nonfat is best. Low fat is the second best option, and last is whole, which is highly caloric and loaded with fat. Half-and-half or cream is even worse. Soy milk is a good option for the lactose intolerant, but it has fat and calorie contents similar to regular milk. Most nondairy creamers are filled with sugar and hydrogenated junk. You're better off with the real stuff.
    • Chocolate, caramel, vanilla, etc.: All of these flavorings are sugar—a lot of sugar.
    • Whipped cream: 100 percent fat and condensed sugar and almost zero nutritional value.
    • Chai and other holistic-sounding stuff: These follow the exact same pattern as the Frappuccinos. The only difference is that they use tea instead of coffee as their base. Often touted as "a taste of Asia," or some such nonsense, these have long ago lost any trace of their "exotic spices" and are flavored by the same junk that's in all the unhealthy stuff.
Today we learned that we may not need to steer clear of these establishments, but we definitely need to be careful about what we order. We touched on the "natural" fruit claim but could probably stand to go into the issue more thoroughly. So next time, let's look at the difference between whole fruit and fruit juice.