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Before You Bite / Phil Lempert

Do Smoothies Give You a 'Real' Boost?

August 21, 2000|PHIL LEMPERT

The names -- "coldbuster," "powerboost" and "healthy healer" -- conjure up images of health, vitality, a modern-day fountain of youth.

These are just some of the catchy names given to the hundreds of smoothie-type drinks sold at juice bars across the nation. But like the sprinkles you get at the ice cream store, these fruit and vegetable drinks have mix-ins, with names like ginseng, ginkgo biloba, calcium and creatine.

While these extras are good at boosting beverage sales, how effective are they at improving your health? How much nutritional and health information do you really have about that banana-strawberry smoothie with a shot of saw palmetto?

Unlike those herbal or dietary supplement products you may see at the pharmacy, juice bar drinks don't come with labels that list ingredients or provide any health warnings.

If you have a medical condition, take prescription drugs or combine the wrong supplements, the lack of disclosure could cause problems.

The fortified drinks available at juice bars have been a hit with aging baby boomers seeking to stay youthful, fitness buffs hoping to kick up their workout routines and dieters striving for a balance of protein and nutrients as they cut back on calories. And then there are kids and others looking for a tasty and healthier alternative to soft drinks or fast food meals.

To be sure, juice bar drinks can help you meet an important nutritional need. The average American consumes fewer than three servings a day of fruit and vegetables, well short of the minimum five servings recommended by U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition guidelines. Many of us consider it just too much trouble to prepare fruits and vegetables for our meals, so it's easier to head to one of the roughly 300 juice bars in Southern California for a quick hit of health.

But while there's little question about the healthfulness of a fresh fruit smoothie, what happens when you toss in an assortment of herbs, vitamins or other supplements?

Kirk Perron, founder and chairman of the juice bar chain Jamba Juice Co., says that about 98% of customers order their beverage with at least one supplement. The chain offers a free "boost," or supplement, with each drink, so only 2% of customers decline the supplement, he says. The most popular supplement mix is the Vita Juice Boost, described as "100% DV [daily value] of 20 vital vitamins and minerals for total health."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only loosely regulates dietary supplement products, which are not required to go through the same type of "safety and effectiveness" examination as prescription drugs.

Most juice bars have the traditional menu on the wall, listing their juice drinks and ingredients, including any nutritional supplements. Both Robek's and Jamba Juice, the two biggest juice-bar chains in Southern California, offer complete nutritional information in their stores and on their Internet sites; however, neither has available any information about potential drug interactions or adverse reactions from the supplements they sell.

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Recently, I informally visited seven locations, including chain outlets and an independent juice bar located in a health food store. On each visit, I asked a store clerk about any possible interactions between prescription drugs and St. John's wort, echinacea and ginseng. The good news is I received no incorrect information; the problem was the clerks had no information available about interactions.

I recommend that consumers check out the supplements they order before adding them to their drinks. Some, such as calcium and magnesium, when combined, can counteract each other's benefits. Others, such as the herbal supplements echinacea and St. John's wort, may counteract the effect of certain prescription drugs. For example, recent studies have found that St. John's wort could interfere with essential medications prescribed for people with the AIDS virus and for organ transplant recipients.

Perron insists that he is unaware of any customer ever requesting information on interactions between various supplements and prescription drugs in the 10 years that Jamba has been in business. But if customers began asking for such information, he says, the stores would start providing it.

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The need for information about nutritional supplements is not limited to juice bars. Supermarkets, health food stores, ice cream parlors and other places where nutritional supplements are sold should also make more information available.

Another thing that would help consumers would be better training of workers involved in selling dietary supplements. Responsible retailers should dissuade employees from playing doctor or nutritionist, from "diagnosing" customers' health ailments or implying that a supplement will be a cure or replace conventional medical therapy.

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