Smoothie popularity creates more options

SEATTLE ­­— When Anne Kessler strolls to her neighborhood smoothie shop, she’s looking for a treat. Her usual: the Mocha Bliss, one of the more indulgent items on the menu at Emerald City Smoothie.

“It just tastes good,” she said, sipping down a tall one on a recent afternoon.

But for her 2-year-old daughter, Kessler will only order off the low-sugar menu, usually a banana-strawberry-papaya concoction that has less than half the calories as her drink.

Once frequented mostly by avid health nuts, juice and smoothie bars have gone mainstream, drawing in a much broader cross-section of customers [—] from dessert fiends who don’t worry about their waistlines to religious calorie counters.

Emerald City Smoothie [—] a Seattle-area chain that’s gearing up to expand beyond a handful of Western states into Hawaii and New York [—] caters primarily to fitness buffs, posting calorie, fat and protein counts for each drink on its menu board.

That goes for the 140-calorie Orange Twister, made of banana, orange and wheat germ, all the way up to The Blender, a 1,270-calorie whopper made with chocolate or vanilla protein, peanut butter, banana, milk and ice cream.

The smoothie industry has grown tremendously in recent years, and many chains big and small have are opening new stores right and left.

In 1997, there were just under 1,000 juice and smoothie bars in the U.S. that pulled in an estimated $340 million in revenue. Today, there are roughly 5,000 of them, with 2007 sales projected at $2.5 billion, according to Juice Gallery Multimedia, a publishing and consulting firm that provides support services for smoothie businesses.

While indulgent blends aren’t disappearing from menus, smoothie companies seem to be focusing most of their marketing muscle on winning over the ultra-health-conscious consumer [—] especially those trying to keep their sugar intake low.

“There are a lot of folks that aren’t hindered by high sugar, but we do know that there’s a significant percentage that are, and we think that number’s growing all the time,” said Jim Baskett, Emerald City Smoothie’s executive president of business development.

Emerald City Smoothie uses Splenda, the zero-calorie artificial sweetener in some of its drinks, as does Jamba Juice, a company based in the San Francisco area that last year also introduced a line with no added sweeteners, only fruit and juice.

Smoothie King, headquartered in the New Orleans area, sweetens many of its drinks with honey and raw cane sugar, but lets its customers “Make It Skinny” by ordering certain drinks without the sugar or with Splenda instead.

Freshens Smoothie Company, a unit of Atlanta-based Freshens Quality Brands, offers some smoothies sweetened with Splenda and prominently posts on its menu boards that 21-ounce servings of each contain less than 155 calories.

Executives at each company say the low-sugar offerings have fared impressively.

One ingredient that’s growing ever more ubiquitous: acai (pronounced AH-sigh-ee), a Brazilian berry that’s said to be one of the richest sources of antioxidants on the planet.

Last year, Seattle-based Tully’s Coffee Corp. started selling a blended tea and juice smoothie with acai, plus blueberries and pomegranate, also high in antioxidants – touted for their purported powers to protect cells from the damaging effects of molecules called free radicals.

This spring, Tully’s introduced a second acai drink: one with strawberry and mango that it bills as an organic energy smoothie.

Low-sugar and high-antioxidant blends aren’t the only ultra-healthy smoothies out there.

Jamba Juice recently revamped a line of smoothies that come “pre-boosted” with things like cholesterol-lowering plant sterols, soy or whey protein powder to build muscle or conjugated linoleic acid, which some people take as a supplement to help them lose weight.

In general, nutrition experts and consumer health advocates applaud efforts to make smoothies healthier, though some suggest a big problem is being ignored: huge serving sizes.

“When I was growing up, we had 6-ounce servings of orange juice. … People don’t drink 6 ounces of anything anymore,” said Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health and author of the book “What to Eat.”

The standard size of smoothies in many stores is 24 ounces.

Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group, questions why people seem so eager to gulp down their fruits in single giant servings rather than eating an apple here, an orange there.

“The idea is to fill up on fruit and vegetables so you have less room for calorie-dense food,” she said.

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