If you frequent the likes of Jamba Juice, Robeks or any similar smoothie and juice establishment, an underpaid blender artisan has surely attempted to sell you on the sweeping benefits of some random supplement that can be sprinkled into your refreshment for an extra buck. Oftentimes, these so-called boosts are peddled under exceptionally nebulous and affirming pseudonyms, like “energy” or “cold buster.” But while the names sure suggest that these powders and inclusions have a certain, immediate effect on your body, the actual science is much more questionable.
Looking at these additions more broadly, many of them are considered to be dietary supplements, and while we know that the FDA regulates supplements to some degree, the ways in which they do so are much, much less intensive than with the likes of foods and medicines. Therefore, virtually anyone can bottle things like herbs, vitamins and enzymes, in any combination and amount, and sell them as a dietary supplement that allegedly does “something,” without spending the millions of dollars it would cost to develop and substantiate a real pharmaceutical product.
Besides people spending loads of money on what mostly end up being placebo supplements — Americans annually spend more than $30 billion on herbal tablets and the like — this lack of regulation also results in dangerous, adulterated products that send thousands of people to emergency rooms each year.
All in all, while supplements might help people dealing with specific nutritional deficiencies or medical conditions, the studies generally agree that normal people with normal diets have little reason to consume them. Again, this is all just generally speaking — while certain supplements, like gas station sex pills, might cause you some real problems, the bigger concern with the powdered additions at your local smoothie shop is whether they even do anything at all. With that in mind, I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help me rank an assortment of beverage boosts by how healthy they are — from super powder to completely worthless.
Now, unlike many of our other rankings where we rank the items in one list in order of how healthy they are, Hunnes suggests that, for clarity, we should be breaking them into two sections — one that includes healthy supplements, all of which would be a good addition to your diet, and another that includes completely bogus ones. So tell that smoothie virtuoso to hold on a moment while we figure out which powder to pepper into your cold one.
The Boosts That Boost
1) Baobab: Baobab is the name of a tree native to certain regions of Africa, Arabia, Australia and Madagascar, and it produces a fruit known as the baobab fruit. However, in most parts of the world — and in smoothie shops — where fresh baobab is unavailable, it can be found in the form of a dried powder.
The fruit itself is associated with a wide array of health benefits. “Baobab sounds like a panacea for almost anything that ails you,” Hunnes says. “Seriously, when I looked up the benefits of baobab powder, it seemed like it could cure anything from malaria to the common cold to diarrhea.” While curing malaria might be a stretch, what we do know is that powdered baobab is high in fiber, and thus, one study shows that drinking a smoothie with 15 grams of baobab extract significantly reduced feelings of hunger, which could then result in weight loss. Several studies also show that baobab is packed with antioxidants and polyphenols, which can reduce chronic inflammation that might otherwise contribute to an assortment of health conditions, including heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders and diabetes.
In simple terms, baobab is a healthy addition to any kind of beverage. The one problem — which you can expect to see several times in this article — is that you rarely know exactly how much the smoothie bar is adding to your drink, and whether that amount will do anything. “It’s hard to know for sure if you’re getting what you pay for,” Hunnes reiterates. For example, the study mentioned above suggests that 15 grams was a worthwhile dose, but that would certainly seem to be much more than a small scoop tossed into your smoothie. Whatever the case, though, baobab is generally a good bet when it comes to supplemental additives.
2) Spirulina: One of the most popular supplements, spirulina is a concentrated variation of blue-green algae, and it boasts a large amount of nutrients, as well as antioxidant properties. Some studies even suggest that supplementing spirulina can improve your muscle strength and increase endurance (one suggests taking six grams a day for four weeks to achieve these results). Hunnes also mentions spirulina is where many fish get their own doses of omega-3s from, which prevent heart disease.
That said, claiming that spirulina can do much more than provide a nice heap of nutrients, something that many suppliers do, would be a stretch, as this recent Harvard article emphasizes:
“If claims for spirulina were limited to its high (albeit expensive) nutritional content, we would have fewer concerns about it. But spirulina is also being promoted to prevent, treat or cure a number of conditions, including high cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes, depression, viral hepatitis and malnutrition. Moreover, it’s said to boost the immune system and improve kidney and liver function. The problem is, there’s little or no scientific evidence to back up such claims. A few assertions have been tested, but most trials have been small, poorly designed, or inconclusive.”
Still, nutritionally speaking, Hunnes says spirulina makes for a good boost. Rather than grabbing the occasional sprinkle from your smoothie vendor, though, she suggests buying some for your home so you can have more control over your dosage.
3) Maca: The maca plant is native to Peru and is commonly available in powder form or as a supplement. Like many of these health boosters, some claim that it can improve energy and stamina, as well as increase your sex drive, which has actually been backed by science. But in reality, similar to spirulina, this is mostly just a nutrient dense root. While Hunnes says, nutritionally speaking, maca generally seems to be a good choice, the optimal dosage is unclear — the dosage of maca root powder used in studies generally ranges from 1.5 to five grams per day — and more studies should be used to substantiate any additional claims.
4) Matcha: This is a powdered form of green tea that boasts many of the same healthy benefits, including an impressive dose of antioxidants. Matcha also has a small amount of caffeine, so you might find this in the “energy” boosts at your local smoothie shop. Hunnes does note that some articles suggest that matcha can sometimes be contaminated with harmful lead, but testing has shown that lead exposure is really not much of a risk in the matcha currently sold in the U.S. “Overall, this is probably a good choice of supplement,” she concludes. “But again, you may want to see where it was sourced from.”
The Boosts That Don’t Boost
1) Collagen: Edible collagen, the structural protein found in connective tissues throughout the body, has somewhat recently become a trendy wellness item, advertised as being able to improve the health and look of both your skin and hair. While some research backs these claims, experts are skeptical of the idea that you can just eat collagen to look nicer. “I’d say this is a waste of money to add to smoothies,” Hunnes says. “It’s a type of protein that we all have in our skin, and ‘in theory,’ should help with wound healing. However, taking it orally in small amounts in a smoothie is just like adding any other protein powder. If you want extra protein, add a plant-based protein instead.” Speaking of which…
2) Protein Powders: If you really want some extra protein, go for it. But honestly, the average American diet already includes more than enough protein, so supplementing protein is more than likely a waste of a buck. “Most of us don’t really need a protein boost in our diet,” Hunnes confirms. “It’s very rare that anyone has a protein deficiency in the U.S.”
3) Cold Fighters: Generally, these consist of vitamin C, zinc or echinacea, an herb native to areas east of the Rocky Mountains. While these provide generally helpful vitamins and nutrients, the notion that they can help your cold go away is just plain unsubstantiated. “I’d say these are mostly unhelpful,” Hunnes explains. “There’s no real evidence that vitamin C decreases the risk of colds, nor echinacea. There’s some evidence that zinc may reduce the risk of colds, but it’s recommended to get the equivalent of 50 milligrams of zinc in one dose to boost the immune system briefly.” In other words, any supplements deemed as “cold fighters” or something similar are probably bullshit.
4) Energy Boosters: These typically consist of B vitamins, ginseng, guarana and possibly ginkgo biloba. While most of them have been associated with increased energy, similar to the cold fighting group, the science is lacking. “These are mostly rubbish as far as research is concerned,” Hunnes confirms. “Guarana is a source of caffeine, so in that sense, yeah, it might boost energy. The others, not so much.”
5) Probiotics: While some probiotics can be helpful for solving certain stomach ailments, Hunnes is skeptical of whatever you might find at a smoothie joint. “It would probably have to be a potent source of probiotics to be worth putting into a smoothie,” she says. “There are many probiotic pills out there that are potent — containing 30 billion or so colony forming units — that are probably better than a probiotic powder.”
“I don’t think it’s worth the money,” Hunnes continues, “and we’re finding more and more that adding probiotics to your diet if you already have a fairly healthy gut bacteria actually isn’t good, because it colonizes your intestines with a false range of bacteria.” Plus, too many probiotics can make you dumb (no, really).
6) Daily Vitamins: The more vitamins, the better… right? Not quite. Hunnes says these are “not necessary for anyone who has a varied diet full of a range of vitamins and minerals from natural sources, such as fruits and vegetables.” Womp, womp.
On a final note, I should also add that while smoothies and juices might seem like a good way to get your fruits and vegetables in, there are much better methods. For instance, during my analysis of the ingredients in cold-pressed juice, Hunnes told me that making a salad with healthy ingredients is much more nutritious than juicing them. “Juicing these ingredients — for the most part — significantly reduces their fiber content and satiating power,” she explained. “We also don’t process liquid calories in the same way we process chewable calories.” As a result, we tend to consume far more calories than we might otherwise.
So maybe just skip the smoothies and supplements altogether and monch on a cucumber instead.