This piece is written as part of Eater’s Bowl Bowl series, a celebration of the Super Bowl... and bowls.
Rarely does anything good come from forcing an item with a specifically designed container into another kind of vessel. Yet for some reason the world now insists that everything must be served in bowls to suit the customizable, fast-casual model.
Enter the smoothie bowl: a food divined from two completely incongruous terms. Smoothies, after all, belong in cups, ideally with a straw. Few people, if any, have ever complained about this method of serving smoothies, and yet it’s been reimagined by juiceries as a far less convenient (but possibly more Instagrammable) fruit slop tray.
To get to the bottom of the smoothie bowl’s dramatic rise, one only needs to look as far as the smoothie bar trend, largely led in the mid-aughts by Jamba Juice. In the first half of its lifespan, Jamba (as it’s now known) was a colorful, jungle-themed smoothie chain frequented by tweens desiring a very large cup of blended sugar slush in flavors like strawberry-banana. By the late aughts numerous juice bars and smoothie brands fanned out across the U.S., selling an aura of wheat grass-driven wellness to customers. Despite being packed with unhealthy ingredients, many of these shops were conveniently located next to (or maybe even inside) franchise gyms, the better to serve their customers.
Simultaneously, the market for purportedly healthy treats and superfoods has grown into a whole lifestyle industry worth billions of dollars. Among the most ubiquitous of these “superfoods” is acai, an exoticized purple berry harvested from an Amazonian palm plant that marketers widely hailed for its dubious antioxidant properties. While acai has been consumed fresh for centuries by communities in the Amazon, cities in Brazil such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo began to transform the fruits into a frozen dessert in the 1990s. As the New Yorker put it in a 2011 piece:
Because açaí pulp degrades quickly, it had to be frozen before being shipped, so in Rio and São Paulo it is served like ice cream, its almost dirtlike undertaste made attractive to urban palates by the addition of sugar and, often, extract of guarana, an Amazonian fruit that is higher in caffeine than coffee.
By the 2000s, two brothers from Southern California, Ryan and Jeremy Black, began importing acai berries to the U.S. for the first time, kickstarting the frozen acai bowl craze. A decade later, Instagram emerged and began to rapidly grow its users, wildly altering the way people interact with, consume, and market food and other products. Health foods couldn’t just be made from whole ingredients anymore; they needed to be attractive for photos. Acai bowls fit perfectly into this niche. The thick blend of purple berry goo is an eye-catching backdrop for colorful slices of fresh fruits, whole berries, shredded coconut, seeds, and chia. But why stop at just acai when there are so many other frozen fruits on hand? Soon the smoothie bowl hashtag blossomed on Instagram with millions of vibrant entries by wellness influencers.
Because making acai bowls uses frozen fruit and a blender, it made sense that juice and smoothie bars would pivot and adopt the trendy treat on menus to stay relevant. Look at Jamba’s menu today and customers will find it dominated by “artisan flatbread,” juice “shots,” and, yes, colorful smoothie bowls decorated with rows of sliced banana and peanut butter drizzle. Jamba has evolved into a fast-casual health food franchise and, not coincidentally, dropped the “Juice” from its name in the process.
Still, the question remains: What exactly makes a smoothie bowl meaningfully different from a normal smoothie? The answer is, unsurprisingly, not that much.
On a recent 30-degree day in Detroit, I went out in search of a smoothie bowl — ideal conditions for what I only assumed was a large serving of chilled fruit soup. The proprietor of my local smoothie bowl shop gleefully explained the essence of a smoothie bowl: It’s far thicker than the average smoothie, making it suitable bowl and spoon food. She convinced me to try the spicy mango smoothie bowl — basically the blended version of a mangonada. And it did indeed come out thick, as if someone had forgotten to add liquid to the blender and then threw granola and honey on top. It was, admittedly, refreshing and pleasant for about four bites (maybe five if I lived somewhere warmer).
Proponents of the smoothie bowl will tell you that it is a healthy option suitable for breakfast because it’s full of fruit. But they’re not fooling anyone. It’s proximity to fitness and purportedly healthy ingredients may it feel more virtuous than eating dessert — but ultimately what people are consuming is a pint of sorbet with a bunch of honey and cereal dumped on top. And while sorbet can be enjoyable as a palate cleanser in small portions, the smoothie bowl by nature is huge, dense, and sweet, making it a chore to eat.
Smoothie bowls are, in essence, a marketing lie that’s heaved on the masses to prolong the life of the smoothie and juice bar genre. But here’s the thing: People genuinely like smoothies and don’t exactly need it to be reimagined. It’s time to stop this snack trend in its tracks and put smoothies back in their rightful place: a cup.