6 Ingredients for Healthier Smoothies

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Smoothies have been around for a long time, possibly a lot longer than you realize. According to Nestlé, smoothies first appeared on the scene in the 1930s, in California. Even on its debut, the smoothie was billed as a health food item, but it wasn’t until the 1940s — when blenders became a household appliance — that smoothies found mainstream appeal.

The beverage is inspired by traditional Mexican and South American drinks. Originally used to cool off on hot days, Americans have made smoothies into a multibillion-dollar industry. But many of the mass-produced, mass-market drinks run several hundred calories high and can be packed with sugar, making it closer to a dessert than a healthy beverage.

A prime example is Smoothie King’s The Hulk Strawberry. If you drank 20 ounces of this pink offering, you’d have consumed 964 calories, 32 grams of fat, and 125 grams of sugar. A double quarter-pounder with cheese from McDonald’s has less calories. But the smoothie’s reputation isn’t forever tarnished: It still can have plenty of health benefits, depending on how you make it. Here are six ingredients and recipes for each to up the ante on your next smoothie.

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1. Chia seeds

This is a practical and healthy ingredient to include in your smoothie recipes. Chia seeds are thickening agents and can help you change the consistency of your smoothies. Unlike many thickening agents, they are gluten free. They are high in polyunsaturated fats, and 60 percent of chia seeds’ lipid profile is made up of omega 3s. The seeds are high in fiber — two tablespoons have 10 grams — and help keep people feeling full between meals.

Chia seeds can also help regulate insulin levels, decreasing abnormally high levels of insulin in the blood. The antioxidants in chia seeds fight free radicals and signs of aging. For a recipe that uses chia seeds, check out this Orange Raspberry Banana Chia Smoothie.

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2. Cocoa powder

Unsweetened, raw cocoa powder is a perfect way to boost the flavor profile of your smoothies, especially when paired with other ingredients that are naturally sweet, like bananas. With unsweetened raw cocoa powder, you’ll be adding a healthy dose of antioxidants to your diet. Ounce for ounce, raw cocoa is high in flavonoids, a plant-derived compound that kills free radicals, which are responsible for cell mutation.

Cocoa powder can even put you in a better mood. The phenylethylamine in cocoa is the same chemical that occurs naturally in the brain, which regulates mood and may increase serotonin levels.

Here is a Cocoa Banana Almond recipe to get you thinking about how to use cocoa powder in your next smoothie.

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3. Whey protein powder

Whey protein is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. Studies on the potential health benefits of whey protein are numerous and have linked it to weight loss; it can also lower blood pressure and promote lean muscle mass development. If you choose to incorporate whey protein into your smoothies, there are two things to bear in mind.

First, three forms of whey exist: isolate, hydrolysate, and concentrate. The protein content will vary for each, especially concentrate, which can be anywhere from 30 to 90 percent protein. Next, when consumed in extremely high doses, side effects include stomach pains, cramps, nausea, and headaches.

So sip — in moderation — a protein-powered smoothie with this Neapolitan-inspired recipe.

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4. Flaxseed

Flaxseed is incredibly versatile, used in foods as diverse as frozen waffles and oatmeal. Like chia seeds, flaxseeds are a good source of omega 3s and fiber. Studies have also indicated a potential link between flaxseeds and reducing the risk of developing breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer.

It is also heart-healthy. ”Lignans in flaxseed have been shown to reduce atherosclerotic plaque buildup by up to 75%,” according to Kelley C. Fitzpatrick, director of health and nutrition with the Flax Council of Canada. Flaxseed may reduce LDL, or bad cholesterol, as well.

However, flaxseed is not approved for everyone, and some caution that pregnant women  and women who are breastfeeding should not include flaxseed in their diet. If you can enjoy the health benefits flaxseed has to offer, consider this smoothie using berries and flaxseed.

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5. Cranberry juice

The potency of cranberry juice is not just reserved for treating bladder or urinary tract infections, although that is one aspect of the juice’s health benefits. Cranberry juice carries the same tart punch that cranberries do, packed with vitamin C, polyphenols, and manganese. Components in the juice can reverse plaque formation on teeth, protecting against tooth decay.

To get the most out of your cranberry juice, make sure what you purchase isn’t laden with sugar, which could lead to weight gain. Manufacturers often dilute the juice with sugar and water to mask any tartness.

Once you’ve found the right cranberry juice for your health needs, try this Cranberry and Raspberry smoothie from the BBC.

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6. Mangoes

Researchers at Oklahoma State University think that mangoes could hold a solution for both diabetes and obesity. One animal study showed that mango as a regular part of a diet can help control blood sugar and reduce body fat. But the fruit’s health prowess goes beyond the scope of the study, Edralin Lucas, an associate professor of nutritional sciences at the College of Human Environmental Sciences at OSU, says.

“It is high in fiber, vitamins A and C, as well as other minerals and phytochemicals,” Lucas said. “In addition to the positive effects on body fat, blood lipids and glucose, it is not associated with serious side effects such as negative effects on bone that is linked with the use of rosiglitazone, a drug commonly used to lower blood sugar.”

Enjoy this Mango-Pineapple Smoothie as a sweet, healthy drink.