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Plant Based Nutrition & Health

Smoothie Add-Ins: Healthy or Hype?

Smoothie Add-ins: Healthy or Hype?

Smoothie Add-ins: Healthy or Hype?
I love smoothies because they’re a blank canvas. You can blend up practically anything in your smoothie, which means they’re a great way to sneak a lot of good nutrition into a satisfying meal. We’ve been hearing a lot lately about superfood smoothie mix-ins, so we’re doing a special edition of Healthy and Hype dedicated specifically to some of the most common choices.

Hemp seeds

Hemp is a member of the Cannabis genus of plants, which have long been used as a source of fiber in production of rope, boat sails, paper, and cloth. In recent years, hemp has played an expanding role in the food supply.

Hemp seeds can make important contributions to daily protein requirements–they provide up to 75% more protein than either flax or chia. However, hemp provides virtually no dietary fiber. Hemp seeds are a good source of essential fatty acids, but aren’t as high in omega-3s as chia or flax are. Linoleic acid, the omega-6 essential fatty acid, accounts for about two-thirds of the essential fatty acids found in hemp seeds.

Hemp seeds are also a source of antioxidants, amino acids, iron, zinc, carotene, phospholipids, phytosterols, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, vitamin D, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, copper, potassium, and phosphorus.

The bottom line: Hemp seeds are a healthy smoothie mix-in which bring a good amount of protein and healthy fats to the table, but you should be mindful to rotate your seed mix-ins to as they all contribute to your overall nutrition in different ways.


Maca is a root in the cruciferous family (related to broccoli, kale, cabbage, etc.) grown in the Peruvian Andes. It is an ancient and resilient plant–it needs to be to grow in those harsh conditions. Maca is a good source of iron, calcium and potassium. Maca is also a great source of riboflavin, thiamine, vitamin E and vitamin A, and a powerful anti-oxidant.

Maca is an adaptogen, which means it can help to balance hormonal, nervous and cardiovascular systems. It is also said to be quite effective for improving libido. I actually frequently recommend maca to both friends and clients who are struggling with low libido, and in almost all cases they report back that with significant improvements.

Maca has a malty and sweet flavour, maybe a bit caramelly with hints of vanilla. It is delicious in creamy smoothies and creates a sort of malted milk flavour. However, the flavour is quite strong and a little goes a long way. A teaspoon is plenty to start with, and you can work your way up to a bit more. I pretty much max out at 2 teaspoons, and honestly prefer the flavour of a smaller amount.

The bottom line: Maca certainly provides a good amount of antioxidant, and may be helpful with improving libido. Due to its influence on the hormone system, people with thyroid issues should not take maca.


Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae grown on very alkaline (ph 8.5+) water sources. It is widely available at health food stores, and is commonly found as chewable tablets, powder, flakes, pills, or capsules. Spirulina has a unique flavour that has notes of, chocolate, vanilla, and seaweed.

Spirulina packs a pretty incredible nutritional punch. It’s 50-70% protein by weight, and the protein is complete (contains all essential amino acids) bioavailable and easy for most people to digest. But! In order for spirulina to be used as a protein source, you’d have to add so much of it to your smoothie that it would become unpalatable. Spirulina is also a good source of healthy fats, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, vitamins A, C, E, and K, as well as iron, magnesium, potassium, and manganese.

It’s important to note that spriulina isn’t a reliable source of vitamin B12, as the B12 present is pseudovitamin B12. Spirulina also has a host of other health benefits thanks to its high antioxidant content, and anti-inflammatory properties.

When purchasing spirulina it’s important to buy from a trusted brand that grows organically. Since it’s grown in and harvested from water, it can be contaminated by heavy metals in the surrounding water, or from microcystins, free toxins floating in the water.

The bottom line: So much goodness! But remember not to rely on spirulina as a source of protein or vitamin B12.

Bee pollen

What’s the deal with bee pollen? It’s the pollen that honey bees collect from flowers and take back to the hive to store for food. As the bees return to their hive, they pack the pollen they have collected into large granules, a process during which the pollen is mixed with nectar, enzymes, and other organisms. The resulting granules of bee pollen are much higher in nutrition content than untreated pollen, and is the primary food source for the hive.

Bee pollen is said to contain nearly every single nutrient the human body needs in order to survive. It’s surprisingly high in protein (20-35% by weight) and includes all 22 amino acids. It’s also jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Since bee pollen is a highly concentrated food supplement, and considering it’s harvested from flowers, it’s really important to source your bee pollen from a pesticide-free environment. Although I’ve seen bee pollen available at many health food stores and even supermarkets, my preference is to buy it from the farmer’s market so I can actually have a conversation with the beekeeper and ask about the source, how the bees are kept, etc.

Granules of bee pollen should be quite soft, and dissolve easily on the tongue. They should never be crunchy! Although many sufferers of seasonal allergies actually experience some relief when they start taking bee pollen, it needs to be introduced to the body slowly. A very small percentage of the population is severely allergic to bee pollen (particularly those who are allergic to bees or other bee products such as honey), so it’s best to use caution when trying something new for the first time. Start with a small amount (1 tsp for adults, just a few granules for children) and increase your intake slowly, by just a few grains at a time. Daily intake should be maximum 1 Tbsp for adults and ½ tsp for children. Bee pollen is not appropriate for children and infants under the age of one.

The bottom line: There certainly is a lot to love about bee pollen. The health claims around it are pretty amazing, but are not well studied. Use bee pollen if you love the flavour (I do!) and consider any other benefits an added bonus.

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  • Reply
    June 4, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Great summary of these superfoods! I particularly love hemp, maca, and spirulina and keep them on hand f or a healthy smoothie boost now and then.

    • Reply
      Katie Trant
      June 5, 2015 at 4:22 am

      I keep all of those on hand too! Also bee pollen, chia, and a few other things!

  • Reply
    June 4, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Can women taking hormonal birth control eat maca?

    • Reply
      Katie Trant
      June 5, 2015 at 4:23 am

      I’m not an expert in either birth control or maca, so I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I haven’t come across anything in my research that says not to!

  • Reply
    dixya | food, pleasure, and health
    June 4, 2015 at 10:58 am

    this is very resourceful piece of info.

  • Reply
    Alexa []
    June 4, 2015 at 11:23 am

    This is so helpful! I’ve been wanting to try spirulina, so I really appreciate the additional information on the subject!

  • Reply
    June 4, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    I have a green smoothie each morning & as part of my ingredients, I have a mixture of chia, flax, hemp, sesame seeds, oat bran & sunflower seeds that I’ve come to think of as my smoothie “supplements”. I also frequently use spurlina, though not every time since it adds it’s own flavor & while I’ve come to love it, not with all flavor combinations. I make up several days worth of my ” supplements” mixture & store in small jars and keep them in the fridge no-longer meat drawer…convenient when making a smoothie.

    I considered using maca, but after some research decided not to. I’ve had some thyroid issues in the past plus read that extended use can cause mood fluctuation for some people…possibily hormone related. (?) Though wonder about adding it in ocasionally.

    I’ll have to take a look at bee pollen again. I’m not remembering exactly why I decided not to use it.

    This is great information…thanks.

    • Reply
      Katie Trant
      June 5, 2015 at 4:25 am

      Oooh, that smoothie mix sounds great, Pamella. Maca definitely isn’t for everyone, and as I mentioned, those with thyroid issues should certainly avoid or use it carefully. I’ve read that maca is better taken in small amounts often than in large amounts occasionally, so that’s something to consider as well.

  • Reply
    Léa (Savoure la Vie)
    June 4, 2015 at 9:00 pm

    Thank you for this interesting and useful blogpost!
    I have tried maca powder but may have put too much because the flavour was too strong and I hated it! I will try with a smaller amount.


    • Reply
      Katie Trant
      June 5, 2015 at 4:26 am

      You definitely need to tread carefully with maca! I don’t typically use more than 1 teaspoon in my smoothies. Much more and the flavour really takes over everything.

      • Reply
        Léa (Savoure la Vie)
        June 5, 2015 at 4:42 am

        I’ll try it again in smaller quantities to see if it’s better! Thank you for your advice!

  • Reply
    Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat
    June 4, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    What a great post! I love maca root powder, spirulina, and hemp seeds, but haven’t tried bee pollen yet (and I have no idea why!) Sometimes I also mix chlorella powder and chia seeds into my smoothies, and I love the way chia seeds naturally thicken the texture.

    • Reply
      Katie Trant
      June 5, 2015 at 4:27 am

      I also love using chia in my smoothies! Give bee pollen a try, it’s got a really lovely flavour!

  • Reply
    June 5, 2015 at 10:23 am

    Smoothies are hype and nothing else. My doctor advises me not to drink the “healthy” smoothies. It’s the sugar. Whole fruit is health, and is digested slowly compare to smoothies.

    Next time you reach for a smooth, check the sugar content, they are usually 2x higher in sugar than a soda.

    And according to my doc, sugar is sugar.

    • Reply
      Katie Trant
      June 8, 2015 at 9:42 am

      Sure, some smoothies are nothing more than milkshakes masquerading as a healthy drink. But many homemade smoothies are loaded with whole fruits and vegetables, and are in fact very low in sugar, especially when compared to a soda. The naturally occurring sugar in fruit comes with a host of benefits attached to it, like dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The fiber moderates the uptake of sugar into our bloodstream which means we absorb it slowly and avoid spikes in blood sugar. If we were talking about juice, which has all of that fiber removed from it, then I’d be much more inclined to agree. But the right smoothie is a beautiful and healthful thing – bottoms up!

  • Reply
    Heather McClees
    June 10, 2015 at 12:15 am

    This is a fantastic post, however, the hemp seed part is incorrect regarding the fiber. Hemp seeds contain anywhere from 8-10 grams per 3 tbsp. and the protein powders also contain fiber, depending on the type you buy (ranging from 8-12 grams). It’s actually a very high fiber seed, even more than chia or flax.


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