smoothie additives


Additive-packed smoothies flow into the mainstream

Maureen Phelan sidles up to the smoothie bar at Whole Foods and orders a strawberry blond with a hit of spirutein. Five dollars and 90 cents later, she has a white frothy cup of strawberries, bananas and apple juice, swimming with nutritional additives that promise to support energy, sharpen brainpower and cleanse the body.

"I don't feel I eat enough of the right thing, especially not enough fruit," Phelan said, "And I feel like these give me more energy… (They have) replaced coffee for me because I feel like coffee is so bad for me and this has zero fat. I feel better drinking these smoothies because it's not (like) caffeine it is more energy.

Behind Phelan, a Whole Foods representative hands out samples of bottled Odwalla juices and smoothies that contain ginseng, kava kava and St. John's wort. These potions run from $1.99 to $3.49.

As herbal supplements have gained popularity and foodstuffs have increasingly become a vehicle for "medicine," these kinds of beverages seem poised to take their place as the drinks of the late '90s. Like energy bars, supplements-packed smoothies in the past few years have flowed out of the health club snack shop and into the mainstream.

Even in Chicago - which, according to experts, still lies in something of a health-food time warp - at least five downtown outlets custom blend the power smoothies long associated with athletes trying to build bigger muscles.

It's Natural on Michigan Avenue is probably the granddaddy (or Earth Mother, if you prefer) of Chicago juice bars.

"We have been offering (supplemented smoothies) for several years," says Georgia Loukas, owner of it's Natural. "Now we have regulars who will come in if they want to skip a meal of if they are doing cleansing treatments."

With its 20-plus additive options, It's Natural offers one of the city's widest array of drink supplements, which are custom blended for the customer with the guidance of store personnel, who can also dispense literature on the ingredients. The store also happens to be one of the few to offer a drinkable hit of the male testosterone support yohimbe - kind of like viagra in a cup.

"Yohimbe is for men to support their testosterone, and so they will use it to build muscles, but they will also use it to increase their sexual drive," Loukas said.

The Whole Food juice and smoothie bars (on North and Ashland Avenues) possess their own mystique, offering a selection bearing names like Strawberry Blond, Da Blues and Energy Bee for $2.95 to $3.25. You can add supplemental "hits" to these drinks that include sprirulina (energy supporting blue-green algae), bee pollen, protein powder, sprirutein (a mix of sprirulina and protein) or a blend called Emerald Energy (which includes lecithin, royal jelly, barley grains and host of different algaes).

"If I feel real sluggish, I will do a shot of wheat grass, and it is total energy" says Scott Johnson of Lincoln Park as he sips wheat grass juice with beets and extra ginger at Whole Foods smoothie juice bar. "It's a definite rush, but not like a caffeine rush. It's a more natural type of high. I got some ginger in it because it is a great anti-inflammatory and it is also good against flu and colds".

"You don't need to go to health food stores anymore to find these herb-infused potions. Most grocery and some convenience stores have begun selling canned and bottled drinks with names such as Fantasis, Red Bull and D-Stress that contain natural energizers and sedatives like spirulina, taurine (an amino acid-based energizer), ginkgo biloba, kava kava and ginseng.

Even Starbucks has gotten in on the act. A few months ago the coffee chain started offering 50 cent "power" additives (of 12 different vitamins and protein powder) to its blender drinks.

But perhaps the newest and most sophisticated smoothies in the Chicago area those that spin out of Streeterville's new holistic health spa Kiva. The food and beverage staff there spent a year and a half developing a line of 10 "support smoothies" with names such as Renewal, Energizer, Highest Potential, Blomechanic, Immun-izer, Recovery, Yang, Yin, Stress Reducer, and Spirit Lifter.

Stress reducers and more.

Each delivers a specific benefit that purports to cure what ails you. The Energizer, for example, is touted to give you mental clarity and an afternoon pick-me-up, while Recovery is said to be great after a night of overindulging on fatty foods or too much alcohol. Immun-izer, with the herb echinecea and golden seal, is formulated to stop a cold in its tracks, while Stress Reducer with valerian is supposed to calm and soothe.

Each contains various combinations of strawberries, bananas, orange, mango, cantaloupe, honeydew, raspberry, peach, pineapple and ginger.

"When we were working on the development of the support smoothies, we had to deal with herbs like doing quai (touted as a support for the female reproductive system in their female-aimed Yin smoothie), which has a really strong, difficult flavor," said food and beverage coordinator Joe Conant. "It is bitter and almost harsh on the tongue and calcium is kind of chalky. So to cover those flavors we really needed to work on it."

Kiva also serves a selection of house-blended tea designed to treat ailments from headaches to allergies to PMS to "lack of clarity," and will begin offering a smoothie delivery service after the first of the year.

Chicago apparently is just the tip of the froth when it comes to smoothie consumption.

"The highest concentration of smoothie and juice bars in the U.S. is in on the West Coast," said San Francisco-based smoothie and juice bar consultant Chris Cuvelier. "It's also very strong in the South and working its way slowly (up) the East Coast. The Midwest, however, is still wide open."

These herb-infused health drinks arrive at a time when the "functional food" or nutraceuticals craze is growing by leaps and bounds. This fact causes some chagrin to the Food and Drug Administration, which is not allowed to regulate products that are classified as dietary supplements - the case with many nutraceuticals.

The FDA believes the producers of some of these "functional foods" are eager to exploit their product's unregulated status and has started to clamp down on those the agency consider to be crossing the line between dietary supplement and food additive. Perhaps the most visible case of this occurred last month when it called the "cholesterol lowering" margarine Benecol illegal because it contains an "unapproved" plant component called sterol esters. While Benecol makers call it a dietary supplement, the FDA insists it's a food. The matter remains unresolved.

"Food companies are increasingly interested in making and marketing foods with novel ingredient that affect the body in ways that we he not observed in traditional foods," said FDA spokesperson Lorrie McHugh.

"And so, as this happens more and more, the FDA has the responsibility of making sure that new food additives are safe. We intend to monitor this area very closely. Consumers are on their own with dietary supplements. They are not FDA regulated and (consumers) should talk to their health car providers about them."

Medical caution

Dr. Marco De la Cruz, director of behavioral medicine for Rush Prudential Health Plans, generally agrees.

"I couldn't say (the nutraceuticals trend) is a good thing because herbs are still medicines," said the family physician who integrates herbs into his practice. "It would be like taking penicillin sometimes when you didn't need it or taking the wrong kind. With a lot of these foods you don't know what brand or quality of the herb they are using, and in many you don't know what the amount is.

Loukas of It's Natural feels this view sets up a double standard.

"They are worried about these medicinal herbs, but it's OK that we have foods with all these artificial colors and preservatives, which are so much more toxic than a lot of the herbs could ever be," she said.

But is there a risk that these custom-made shakes could lead to reckless self-medication on the part of the consumer?

"Most juice bars are carrying products that are pretty mainstream, like echinecea or golden seal, vitamin C, ginseng - things like that, that people know and understand," Cuvelier said. "A good juice bar will provide nutritional information about those supplements and how much they are putting in. Every once in a while you will have an eccentric customer who will say, "Give me five shots of the energy blend." And it's up to the juice bar operator to say, "Hey look that is not something we are going to do." It's like drinking half of a bottle of ginseng or something like that which is obviously not appropriate."

Similar precautions are taken at Kiva, where customers are asked a battery of questions before they purchase a support smoothie.

"We first ask if there a benefit or something else in mind they are ordering this for," Conant said. "Then the next question for women is, "Are you pregnant?" Then we ask about medications and food allergies and so forth. We had an hour-long training session with (the staff) on food allergies so they could be careful about this.

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