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How Much Better for Me Is a Vegetable Smoothie Than a Fruit One?

I would like very much not to put spinach or kale in there

Much to the chagrin of others (and often myself), I was blessed/cursed with an excellent long-term memory. To that end, I can recall events of zero practical importance, including the time one of my fellow fifth graders asked our teacher, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, what the difference was between a fruit and vegetable. “Fruits have more sugar than vegetables,” replied Mrs. Fitzpatrick, after only the briefest hesitation.

This answer remained etched upon my brain for an embarrassing length of time — literal decades — before I eventually learned that much like many of the other things I thought I learned in elementary school, this statement was a total falsehood. In fairness, she probably believed she was correct at the time, but a wrong answer is still a wrong answer, and look who’s holding the red pen now, Mrs. Fitzpatrick!

I raise this point because it provides a silly platform from which to dive into the question as to whether or not a vegetable smoothie or a fruit smoothie is better for you, because we have to make sure we’re even talking within the same boundaries. Are we defining fruits and vegetables using the proper definition, or are we having our definition of vegetables dictated to us by a Campbell’s Soup label?

Let’s begin with the proper definition of fruits and vegetables.

That’s highly advisable.

So here’s the straight dope: If the part of a plant that you’re eating is a root, tuber, leaf, stem, bulb or flower, you’re technically eating a vegetable. If you’re eating the mature ovary of a flowering plant, it’s a fruit. I know that may not be practically helpful based on the definitions alone, so here’s a list of produce-section staples that you may have thought were vegetables, but which are scientifically classified as fruits: tomatoes, eggplants, avocados, bell peppers, pumpkin, squash, olives, string beans, cucumbers and corn. 

To put this into perspective, if we scrutinize the ingredients in a can of Campbell’s Chunky Savory Vegetable Soup and evaluate the “vegetables” located therein, three of the seven listed — the tomatoes, green beans and corn — are uncontested fruits, and the peas are the seeds contained within a pod, which is also a fruit, botanically speaking. So realistically, the fruits outnumber the vegetables in a can of “vegetable soup.”

This is important because If I’m going to act as the arbiter in a debate about whether fruit smoothies or vegetable smoothies are healthier, we need to segregate the categories appropriately before we put a list together with a bunch of fruits masquerading as vegetables, or vice versa. 

That’s fair. So now that we’ve got our ducks in a row, what have we learned?

Well, like an adult diaper, it all depends

For the sake of this discussion, let’s suppose we want a smoothie that’s either heavy in vitamin A, or heavy in beta carotene, which your body ultimately converts into vitamin A. This means that there’s no combination of plant-based ingredients that would be capable of competing with sweet potatoes and carrots, which are both conspicuously orange — a telltale sign of beta carotene — and which are both unmistakable vegetables as evidenced by their status as roots. 

If we blend up one medium sweet potato and two large carrots to form the base of our smoothie, that’s 160 calories from the get-go, and these two vegetables are relatively sweet as far as pure vegetables go. Now let’s make a mean-green smoothie with a cucumber, a cup of green beans, a green bell pepper and a whole granny smith apple. We’re basically tied in the caloric score. 

Wait a second! Except for the apple and the sweet potato, you didn’t pick anything that’s all that sweet!

Guilty as charged, but that’s exactly the point. Obviously, I could stack the deck by blending you a smoothie packed with pears, peaches, melons, mangos and cherries, and then sliding 600 calories down your gullet in seconds, but that wouldn’t be in the service of properly answering your question. To your point, I also used three fruits that you probably categorized as vegetables, and none of them contain quantities of sugar that could describe as being elevated.

The real discussion should be centered around three questions: 

  1. Do you want your smoothie to fulfill a specific health need? 
  2. Do you need your smoothie to taste good? 
  3. If you say that you want your smoothie to taste good, is that just another way of saying that it needs to be sweet?

I guess I just really want a sweet smoothie that also provides me with health benefits.

If that’s the case, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re trying to create an all-vegetable or all-fruit smoothie, because you’re either going to select one or more ingredients on the basis of sweetness, or you’re going to drizzle in something like honey and transform your meal-replacement smoothie into a dessert item with a sugar content on a level that exceeds even the most calorie-heavy smoothie Jamba Juice can produce.

As isolated categories, neither fruits nor vegetables are fundamentally superior at conveying micronutrients like vitamins and minerals to your body, but when we separate fruits and vegetables into their correct categories, things rapidly stack up with an imbalance favoring the fruit side. This is primarily because most of the plant-based products that people seek out to consume are fruits to begin with. In fact, please find me the person who blends onions, radishes, carrots and parsnips together in 2-percent milk every morning to create a “Root Cause Smoothie” (I think I just invented this) without drowning it in honey in order to make it palatable. Such a person probably doesn’t exist, and if they do, we both know they’re choking down that acrid mess with a scowl on their face.

In short, whether or not a vegetable smoothie or a fruit smoothie is better for you is entirely up to the fruits and vegetables you opt to include and how much extra sugar you decide to add. And so, if you blend up a low-calorie, antioxidant-rich, green-colored glass of vitamins and minerals and then drown it in extra sugar, don’t be shocked when it doesn’t yield the health benefits you’re looking for. 

Despite what the Smurfs tried to tell us many Christmases ago, this is an obvious case where goodness doesn’t make the badness go away.