Sunday, August 14, 2011

Smoothies. Are they as healthy as you think?

On-the-go-lives demand convenient, portable fuel which are equally palatable for breakfast, lunch, dinner or as in-between snacks.  With the increase of lifestyle related diseases, the concerned element of our population has been seeking healthier choices and eating styles for some time. Our fast track existence has forced many people into convenience foods; low in nutrition and high in calories and additives.  Despite knowing the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables in the diet, for a high percentage of Westerners, the closest they get to the food pyramid are fries.  Many families despair about consuming fresh produce as taste buds are unaccustomed to the often unwelcome sensations of having to chew through the amounts required for a healthy balance.  A popular way to ensure consumption of a good quantity of fresh produce is to process it into a drink; most often called a smoothie.

Although touted a recently invented food mixture, smoothies - in some form or another - have been in existence for hundreds of years. Fruit and ice/ice cream/milk/sorbet/yoghurt blended combinations feature in most cultures.  But are they as healthy as they make themselves out to be?  It all depends upon the ingredients.

Smoothies generally contain fruit, dairy and combine other health giving ingredients, however, most highstreet chain stores also add scoopfuls of sugar, full-fat milk and ice cream.  Commercially prepared smoothies can be loaded with fresh fruit, vitamins, minerals, fibres, active cultures, immune-system boosters and in many cases, protein powders, however the more popular dessert-style smoothies contain added sweeteners, milk, ice cream or yogurt; which present their own health challenge.

Its easy to assume that smoothies are the perfect healthy choice for a snack or meal.  The most common method of making a smoothie involves blending fresh fruit and a few generous dollops of milk or yoghurt, processing it to think it with a little ice or fruit juice. The main health concerns focuses on the high fats and sugar content within this mixture. Most smoothies are made from commercially available sweetened fruit juice, sugar loaded frozen yogurts, honey and bananas. Commercially available smoothies are often made of concentrate fruit juices which are pasteurised (therefore losing the benefits of the raw fruits), not to mention being very expensive. Fats are derived from those creamy yoghurts and milk generously added as you blend. Many of us try to cut out the dairy to save on the calories, but we end up cheating ourselves out of an important protein fix which normally keeps the body satisfied over the next few hours and through to the next meal.

Unfortunately, what you may have believed was a diet conscious meal replacement turns out to be anything but. While commercially prepared smoothies vary in calories, ingredients and nutritional value, with a little effort, most people can easily make healthier versions at home.  Its not always possible to make them at home, so perhaps the safer choices when purchasing from commercially available sources would be those based on soy, rice, or nut milk; or be pure blended fruit and vegetable juices.  Certainly when making smoothies at home, try to source fresh or organic produce, alternating between nut or soy milks and dairy.

Smoothies are easy to make and recipes are very flexible, catering for the fussiest diet.

  1. Have frozen fruit chunks on hand so you have a variety to choose from. Smoothies get boring if you use the same ingredients all of the time. Use a variety of fruit which has been cut up into chunks and frozen in small bags or icecube trays. Great fruit to have on hand include mangos, rockmelon, peaches, plums, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, and apricots, blueberries and raspberries. Our family have frozen bananas as a stock standard as they give a smoothie a creamy luxurious constancy. An added bonus is that frozen fruit helps your smoothies stay thick and ice cold on those hot days.
  2. Add some 'staying power'.  A pure fruit based smoothie, whilst tasty, has a limited staying power and you will find you are hungry within an hour of consuming it.  There is a variety of protein powders commercially available utilised by body builders and gym enthusiasts. Whey protein contains all the essential amino acids. You may choose to use milk or yogurt or try a nut milk as a non-dairy alternative. Nut milks are a good source of protein on their own.
  3. Try a different and delicious thinner. Some people like a thinner consistency of smoothie and pour in sugar laded and processed fruit juices. As an alternative, experiment with coconut water (not cream), which is rich in potassium and electrolytes. You can buy coconut water prepackaged - or source it from young coconuts. Once you use the water from a young coconut, scrape out the jelly like insides and use this as a base for your next smoothie.. Although bananas are the most common base to smoothies as they add sweetness, a creamy thickness and important nutrients, some people have allergies or simply do not like the taste. As great as they are, bananas are high in natural sugars. If you are still looking for that thick creamy consistency, experiment by using half a ripe avocado (really!) They are packed with potassium, vitamins, antioxidants, and fibre and though high in fats, its the type that lowers your cholesterol.
  4. Give them a boost. Similar to the chainstores who add in a variety of powers for an exorbitant price, experiment with health food options such as chlorella, spirulina, acai, goji berries which give your smoothies extraordinary antioxidant content and other nutritional benefits. Hemp protein powder is a great way to add protein, healthy omega 3 fats and fibre to your smoothie.
  5. Cut back on the sweet stuff.  A smoothies downfall is the sweeteners many of us add. Experiment with an organic agave syrup, which looks like honey but is slightly sweeter and it has has a lower glycemic index load. You need much less agave than honey to gain the same sweetness.  Experiment with stevia and organic maple syrup. However if we are honest with each other - its best not to add the sweeteners in the first place.
  6. Experiment and switch ingredients to suit your taste and substitute your favourite beverage, fruit or vegetable. Once you have been converted to drinking an all fruit smoothie, you may be brave enough to progress to a 'green' smoothie which has the benefits of consuming green leafy vegetables without having to eat a salad. A good rule of thumb with these is 70% - 80% fruit to 30% - 20 % greens ( baby spinach, silverbeat, chinese greens, lettuce) - adjusting these as you get used to the taste and the amazing colour.

The secret to a healthy smoothie recipe is knowing which ingredients to use - and which to avoid. A good rule of thumb is to use 2 - 3 fruits to avoid an overly fussy smoothie. Too many ingredients confuses the tastebuds and it generally ends up a muddy goopy colour and consistency. Healthy smoothies, made from fresh ingredients are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and enzymes, ensuring an abundant, long-lasting supply of energy for the day.

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