Not long ago, I set foot in my first and last Smoothie King. At the time, I was a smoothie-making fiend in my own home, gulping down bags of expensive organic frozen berries like flappers guzzled bathtub gin. So I was psyched when I walked through the door of this "nutritional lifestyle center" at 14200 SW Eighth St. (we'd just finished a thirst-inducing bike ride through Shark Valley) to see the reasonable prices on immense fruit smoothies.
A 40-ounce blueberry smoothie for just $8? Wow. Yes, 40 ounces of anything is probably going a bit overboard. But this wasn't beer or steak. And considering blueberries are one of the most nutrient-dense fruits on the planet, are insanely high in antioxidants, and might even prevent and reverse age-related mental decline (oh, and also they taste amazing), this seemed like a delicious, health-boosting offer I couldn't refuse.
I stepped up to the counter and ordered the monster-size Blueberry Heaven. "Please don't add any sugar -- just the fruit," I specified.
The bored-looking teenage counter girl pushed her long dark hair from her face, revealing a mocking smirk. "OK," she said. Her patronizing sneer frightened me. What evil secret does she harbor? I wondered. Why is she laughing at me?
As she began preparing the smoothie, the answer soon became clear. There was not one actual berry in sight. Instead, she squirted a purplish stream of "blueberry juice blend" from an old-school Slush Puppie-style dispenser. Next, she extracted a slimy and browning semifrozen banana from a cooler. Finally, I watched in horrified disbelief as she pumped a few more squirts of an unknown clear liquid, which I can only guess was sugar syrup, into the cup. I was so stunned I couldn't even tell her to stop. She blended all this crap together, and the result was a weighty Styrofoam-encased barrel full of frozen sugar sludge, which, for "just" $8, I soon held in my hand.
Even though I knew better, I decided to take a sip. Sure enough, it tasted like artificially flavored corn syrup ice. (Note: Because Smoothie King uses "proprietary" ingredients that are "manufactured to guidelines set by the franchise," I can't actually be sure whether the "juice blend" or the mystery liquid contains corn syrup, cane sugar, fructose, dextrose, or some other form of sugar. But one thing I can tell you is that the smoothie contained sugar. And lots of it.)
Like a naive 1960s TV show character who has just finally grasped that she's entered the Twilight Zone, the realization of this sham "nutritional lifestyle center" fell upon me full-force.
I noticed a couple who collectively weighed around 600 pounds bumbling in through the entrance. "Let's do something good for ourselves today," I imagined they were saying to each other, as I held my 650-calorie sugar-water blend in my hand."Let's have Smoothie King for lunch."
The rest of my posse, who were not as nutritionally anal-retentive as I, ordered and received their concoctions without seeming fazed. I, meanwhile, tried to hold in my stream of outraged indignation so as not to impede my friends' enjoyment.
I failed. We had barely made it to the car before I dumped my frozen junk juice and began my rant about how betrayed I felt by this place that had the audacity to label itself a "nutritional lifestyle center."
The Smoothie King Menu includes several sections. One is labeled "Nutritious Smoothie Meals." Under this headline, you'll find treasures such as "the Hulk Chocolate" smoothie, "designed specifically for gaining weight," the online menu explains. Because everyone knows the most nutritionally sound way to increase muscle mass is to down a "drink" consisting of saturated fat- and cholesterol-riddled butter pecan ice cream, a mysterious "proprietary" weight gain protein blend, and anywhere from six to 12 teaspoons of turbinado sugar in addition to sugar in the ice cream! (Craftily, the menu simply lists the sugar as "turbinado," not "turbinado sugar,", probably so the layperson will assume that it's some exotic health-giving ingredient instead of insulin-spiking empty calories.)
Then there's the "Shredder" smoothies, which pack up to 712 calories to "help get your metabolism ripping through unwanted pounds" by choking you with a mix of two more "proprietary" protein blends and a "Diet Down Enhancer." As evidenced by this "nutritional lifestyle center's" menu, apparently the most nutritionally sound way to lose weight is to drink massive amounts of processed food calories -- mixed with some half-baked metabolism stimulants.
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As far as I can tell, the only actual whole fruits this farce of an operation stocks are bananas, strawberries, and pineapple. A total of three actual fruits is pretty pathetic for the largest smoothie franchise in America. All the other ingredients on the menu are "juice blends," ice creams, yogurts, or secret potions and powders.
I called the Smoothie King hot line, and after snorting at the automated greeting ("Smoothie King: Inspiring people to live a healthy and active lifestyle"), I spoke to a woman who verified there was no online resource that detailed the ingredients of the "blends," with the exception of the ones (like the Gladiator protein blend) that are available for retail sale in the store. She connected me to another woman, who promised me the stores themselves had such lists in-house. Yet when I called the South Beach Smoothie King to inquire as to what the ingredients were in the "blueberry juice blend," the employee on the other line wasn't able to tell me. In other words, these liquid-candy peddlers are about as transparent as the increasingly corpulent bodies they've got hooked on their sugar shakes.
For God's sake, America, stop topping off your glycemic load at Smoothie King and make real smoothies at home -- the kind with actual fiber from real, whole fruit, and vegetables. Otherwise, buy them from a place that doesn't hide its processed food ingredients lists from the public under the guise of "trade secrets." Best idea of all: Eat a piece of whole fruit -- or five. The act of chewing, rather than drinking, the calories will make you feel more satisfied, and you can rest assured you're consuming the blessed, phyto-nutrient rich whole food -- nothing more or less.