If you’ve channel surfed over the past few years, maybe you’ve stumbled upon an infomercial starring a curly-haired man wearing a turquoise sport shirt. Standing in front of a countertop piled high with fruits and vegetables, the man, whose name is David Wolfe and who is billed as a “longevity and nutrition expert,” explains his mission to a small audience. “Over the last 30 years, we’ve become the most overfed yet undernourished nation in the entire world,” he says. “That’s why I’m so excited to bring you a machine that’s going to change your life the way it changed my life.”
The machine looks like a lidless blender. It consists of an upside-down plastic cup screwed onto a blade, which attaches to a motorized base. But Wolfe is quick to clarify that, contrary to appearances, the NutriBullet is not a blender—it’s a “nutrition extractor.” “It’s completely different from anything else out there,” he promises. “This machine is designed to break down the cell walls of your food, releasing, unleashing the nutrients inside, transforming ordinary fresh foods into superfoods.”
To demonstrate the transformative power of the NutriBullet, Wolfe blitzes different combinations of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. He blends kale with pineapple, cucumber, cashews, and flaxseeds. He follows this up with a beet-grape-blueberry-pumpkin seed–broccoli–olive oil elixir. The audience members appreciatively sip the smoothies, which Wolfe calls “NutriBlasts.” His recipe demos are interspersed with testimonials from NutriBullet users who credit NutriBlasts with helping them lose 22 pounds in six weeks, prevent hot flashes, stop taking sleeping pills, stave off migraines, regrow a thick head of hair after chemotherapy, and relieve the symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Maybe you’re the kind of person who scoffs at the claims in infomercials, changing the channel or clicking the TV off when they come on the screen. But even if you don’t know anyone who would order two NutriBullets for the price of one, all for only six easy payments of $19.99 (plus an inexplicably steep shipping and processing fee of $39.90), you still might have come across the NutriBullet. On Amazon, the NutriBullet is the No. 1 best-seller in countertop blenders, with an average customer review of four stars. You can buy the NutriBullet—and its higher-end siblings, the NutriBullet Pro 900 Series and the NutriBulletRx—at Target, Walmart, and Costco, in addition to department stores like Macy’s and Sears.
And even if you’ve never seen a NutriBullet for sale, you might have heard someone talking about it. The NutriBullet has 1.5 million fans on Facebook and 400,000 followers on Twitter. (By comparison, Vitamix, widely regarded as the best commercially available blender, has only 247,000 Facebook fans and 52,000 Twitter followers.) I first heard about the NutriBullet from my boss, who’d seen the infomercial while his wife was in labor and wanted me to find out whether it worked. When I decided to test it out, another colleague immediately reached out to say, “I’m obsessed with the Nutribullet—have fun! I’ve used mine for years.”
Unlike so many failed infomercial products that came before it—the Eggstractor, the Slap Chop, the Fushigi Magic Gravity Ball—NutriBullet seems to be a legitimate crossover hit. Is that because it really does what it claims to do? Can the NutriBullet really make the nutrients in fruits and vegetables easier to absorb, cure your health problems, and increase your sense of vitality? Or is it all so much snake oil?
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When I reached out to the NutriBullet’s PR rep to ask if I could borrow a machine for review, I failed to mention that I was not exactly an impartial judge. I was predisposed to dislike the NutriBullet and its miraculous claims of weight loss, better health, more energy, improved mood, you name it. That’s because I used to believe such claims. I spent a good portion of my adolescent and young adult life believing that if I could just find the perfect diet, I could lose the weight I thought I needed to lose, which would lead to popularity; desirability; and, finally, happiness. It took me several years of being caught in a cycle of dieting and binging for me to realize that there was no silver bullet.
An aftereffect of my history of dieting is that I now find most diet programs—and products that promise amazing physical results—despicable. I got conned by “the fantasy of being thin” when I was younger, and now I am exceptionally cynical about products that prey on people’s insecurities and feed them lies about how easy it is to transform your body and your life.
So why try out the NutriBullet at all? My dirty little secret is that there is still a tiny part of me that craves some sort of magical solution to all my problems. I don’t like to talk about this part of myself—it’s childish to believe that there is one weird trick that stands between me and a blissful, glamorous life. But occasionally I see a commercial or read an article or hear someone raving about, I don’t know, kombucha, and, even as I roll my eyes, I feel my old buttons being pushed. Because what if this is the thing that will make the gears of my life lock into place, that will give me the boost I need to get to work on time every day, reach out to my friends more often, balance my budget, reach inbox zero? What if this is the thing that will nudge my default mode from fine to great?
Perhaps now you understand why I felt a lot of conflicting emotions when I took my NutriBullet Pro and all its accessories and recipe booklets out of the box. It did not escape my attention that the base of NutriBullet, though billed as “sleek copper,” was really more of a silver color.
In addition to that base, the NutriBullet Pro (which retails for $129.99) came with four plastic cups of various sizes, two “extractor blades” that screwed onto the cups, several lids and plastic rings to screw onto the lips of the cups after the nutrients had been blasted, and three booklets. The booklets—a “User Guide & Recipe Book,” a “Pocket Nutritionist,” and a book of “NutriBullet Life Changing Recipes”—were bafflingly redundant. Each explained the basic formula of the NutriBlast: You fill your cup halfway full with leafy greens like lettuce or kale; fill the remaining space with various fruits; add a handful of nuts, seeds, or “super boosts” like goji berries, cacao nibs, or maca powder; add water; and then process. The user guide also included a six-week diet plan called the “SUPERFOOD 6-WEEK TRANSFORMATION PLAN” (caps and bold in the original). “Boundless energy, restful sleep, mental clarity, and the overall feeling of well being that comes from true nourishment awaits!” the pamphlet promised. “The more you blast, the better you’ll feel!”
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David Wolfe, the host of the NutriBullet infomercial, has a long history promoting dubious diets. According to his bio on NutriLiving.com, the health website run by NutriBullet LLC, Wolfe “is a health and nutrition expert and the author of numerous best-selling books.” As it happens, I read one of Wolfe’s books—The Sunfood Diet Success System—when I was an impressionable teenager trying to lose weight. In these books, Wolfe promotes a vegan raw foods diet, which is not only extremely restrictive (I only lasted a few days, as I recall, before caving and eating a tortilla) but also medically questionable—raw food plant diets are associated with low levels of “good” cholesterol and vitamin B12 deficiencies. However, even if a raw foods diet were indisputably better for you than a diet including cooked foods, Wolfe’s rationale for it would seem, well, crazy. Here’s a taste of how cooked foods poison you, according to Wolfe:
We know that the more perfectly clean your body, the more perfectly it will radiate your super-natural powers. The first things to evaporate in a toxic environment are the super-natural abilities provided to us at birth. These powers are possessed by wild animals, and formerly by humanity. As soon as the body begins to be poisoned, the powers slip away. In any biological degeneration, the higher powers fade first. However, your natural superior abilities have not been totally destroyed by improper food, they are only dormant and are capable of rebirth, regeneration and resurrection.
There’s plenty more hooey like that, interspersed with original poetry, Bible verses, Kirlian images of raw foods purporting to show their auras, a chart ranking foods by their karmic value (“Raw plant foods prepared with Love” good, “Milk taken from enslaved animals” bad), and a thoroughly insane refutation of Darwinian evolution. To put it kindly, Wolfe is … indifferent to scientific consensus. In a recent speech, he announced that “It turns out that there is a logic to each color, and that logic metaphorically cascades down through all different kinds of phenomenon,” ergo the key to happiness is a yellow pigment found in fruits and vegetables. A quick glance at Wolfe’s Twitter page reveals that he is also an anti-vaxxer, believes in chemtrails, and thinks you can “conquer cancer via complementary medicine.” (I reached out to Wolfe through his agent and invited him to defend his controversial views. Wolfe did not respond. When I asked a NutriBullet spokesman about Wolfe’s views on raw foods, vaccines, and chemtrails, he replied, “We can’t really comment on David Wolfe’s views and beliefs outside the context of the work he’s done with us.”)
In the NutriBullet infomercial, Wolfe tones it down just enough that his claims seem borderline plausible. Cucumbers, he says, are “great for hydration, great for the kidneys.” Raspberries possess “volatile oils which help to support female reproductive health.” Apples have “malic acid which cuts right into arthritis.” There is, at best, a smidgen of truth to each of these statements—but while I was watching the infomercial, I wondered whether it was really so crazy to believe that drinking these healthful ingredients could improve your health. “All I’m asking you to do is have one NutriBlast a day and give your body the tools it craves to increase performance and even reverse the symptoms of aging,” says Wolfe. Later, he vows, “If you have a NutriBlast every day, you’re going to look better, you’re going to feel better, you can live longer, and you will love longer.” This part of it—improving your health by consuming more fruits and vegetables—sounded reasonable and not unappealing.
I started drinking daily NutriBlasts on the first Saturday in May. I was excited, in spite of myself: I’d stopped at Whole Foods the night before to stock up on produce; my shopping basket looked healthier than it had in years. Following the formula spelled out in my NutriBullet user guide, I filled the 32-ounce cup halfway with kale leaves (including stems), then I filled the rest with half an avocado, strawberries, blueberries, and a handful of almonds. I felt very smug as I added water, screwed on the blade attachment, and pushed the vessel into place. The NutriBullet roared to life and quickly blended—excuse me, extracted—the produce into a pale green liquid dotted with black, brown, and white specks. I let it keep going for a minute just to make sure everything was fully extracted, then I took a sip.
It did not taste great. For one thing, it was lukewarm—I should have added ice—and the flavor was mostly absent, with a slightly bitter undercurrent. But the biggest problem was the grainy texture. The NutriBullet had broken down the kale stems and almonds, but it hadn’t thoroughly liquefied them, and their fibrous texture tickled my tongue with every sip. I felt full after drinking half the NutriBlast, but I powered through to the end.
The fact that I had a productive, satisfying day—biking around town, running errands, seeing friends—after drinking the NutriBlast was almost certainly some combination of chance and the placebo effect. But it made me eager to make another NutriBlast the next day, which tasted better, and then another the following day. I experimented with adding flaxseeds, matcha, and—having purchased some on a whim—goji berries. I tried arugula instead of kale, banana instead of avocado, cashews instead of almonds. On my fifth day, I voluntarily made a NutriBlast for dinner, even though I’d already had one for breakfast.
That first week, I noticed that my skin wasn’t breaking out as much as it usually does. Maybe it was a coincidence. But the little quixotic part of me wanted to believe it was the NutriBlasts.
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The NutriBullet is the descendant of a product called the Magic Bullet (tagline: “the personal, versatile countertop magician”). The 2003 infomercial for the Magic Bullet demonstrated that it could grind coffee, chop onions, beat eggs, juice fruits and vegetables, and make smoothies, muffin batter, salsa, chicken salad, sorbet, frozen cocktails, pasta sauce, chocolate mousse, nacho cheese sauce, guacamole, and milkshakes. The Magic Bullet “was the first of its kind when we introduced it in 2003, and created a new market space for personal blenders that enabled users to drink beverages directly from the blending vessel,” according to a NutriBullet representative. But the long list of the Magic Bullet’s capabilities could be overwhelming. In 2010, the team behind the Magic Bullet began targeting different markets with slightly different versions of its signature product. The NutriBullet, which has a more powerful motor and larger cups than the original Magic Bullet, is the fastest-selling product to come out of this strategy, with more than 14 million machines sold since its introduction in 2012. (You can also buy the Baby Bullet, which makes baby food; the Party Bullet, which uses stemmed plastic cocktail goblets in place of plastic cups; and the Dessert Bullet, which processes frozen foods into ice cream–like substances.)
All of the Bullets have the same upside-down blender shape as the NutriBullet. But the NutriBullet makes the biggest promises about what that upside-down blender can do. In addition to “nutrient extraction,” the NutriBullet infomercial promises that the machine mixes ingredients with a “cyclonic action” that forces liquids up around the sides of the cup and then down to the blades. Cyclonic action or no, I was impressed by how quickly and thoroughly the NutriBullet pulverized the ingredients in my NutriBlasts. (The NutriBullet Pro I was testing has a more powerful motor than the original NutriBullet, which retails for $89.99, and a less powerful motor than the NutriBulletRx, which retails for $199.99.) Within seconds of starting, the NutriBullet had sucked all the ingredients from the top of the container down to the blades, and within a few more seconds the mixture looked uniform in texture.
I found myself wondering why all blenders aren’t designed this way. What’s the point of having a lid that snaps on one end and a blade that screws on the other end, when you can simplify things by just having one attachment, like the NutriBullet? I most appreciated the straightforwardness of the NutriBullet’s design when it came to cleanup—after making each NutriBlast, I simply rinsed off the blade and put it on my drying rack. After I drank each NutriBlast, it took only a little scrubbing to clean off the plastic cup and lip ring. (And, in the event of extreme laziness, the NutriBullet cups are dishwasher-safe.) Fear of a complicated, demanding cleanup—my main reason for not making smoothies more often—is not an issue with the NutriBullet.
As great as it is for making smoothies, however, the NutriBullet isn’t the perfect blending machine. For one thing, it doesn’t do a great job with thick mixtures. One night I tried to make the batter for my favorite vegan, gluten-free peanut butter cookies in the NutriBullet, and it took about 10 minutes—including lots of interventions in which I unscrewed the blade and scraped down the sides of the cup—to get it smooth. The NutriBullet can’t handle hot liquids, and the motor shuts down if it gets overheated, which it will if you blend anything for more than about a minute at a time.
To be fair, the NutriBullet isn’t marketed as an all-purpose blending machine. It’s marketed as a “nutrient extractor.” But this, unfortunately, is a rather misleading notion.
Watching the NutriBullet infomercial, you get the impression that the NutriBullet is the only machine that can break down cell walls and unleash nutrients inside cells. You might think that without a NutriBullet, your body is incapable of breaking down cell walls and absorbing nutrients, or at least at a distinct disadvantage. In fact, it’s fairly easy to rupture cell walls and release nutrients. Pretty much all well-designed blenders do it. (As nutritionist Monica Reinagel explained in an excellent explanation of blenders’ effects on nutrients, scientists frequently use blenders to rupture cell walls.) More importantly, your body does it. When I asked nutritionist and all-around food expert Marion Nestle about the idea that you need a machine to break down cell walls in food, she replied, “That’s what teeth do. And enzymes. Really, the body is highly efficient at extracting nutrients from foods.”
Furthermore, you’re probably better off extracting nutrients from food by yourself than buying a machine to pre-extract them for you. As Reinagel explains, blending breaks down the fiber in fruits and vegetables, possibly making it less effective in promoting satiety and regularity. Blending also effectively increases the calorie content of food, since your body and the friendly bacteria in your gut don’t have to work as hard to break food down. When you eat whole foods, your body doesn’t usually absorb every last calorie contained therein, but when you process whole foods before eating them, their calories are “unleashed” (to borrow a term from the NutriBullet infomercial). This makes blending a good strategy if you’re trying to gain weight, but most NutriBullet consumers presumably aren’t. As for the vitamins and minerals unleashed in the NutriBullet infomercial, well, you’d absorb them just fine if you ate the fruits and vegetables whole, and, as Nestle notes, “Americans are hardly vitamin deprived.”
If you were truly interested in thoroughly rupturing the cells of your food and making it as easy to digest as possible, there may be reason to think the NutriBullet would do a better slightly better job than other blenders. When I asked NutriBullet’s spokesman whether he had any evidence that the NutriBullet is better at breaking down cell walls than other blenders, he sent me the results of a small study commissioned by NutriBullet and executed by the consulting firm Inovafirst, in which the NutriBullet, the NutriBullet 900, and the NutriBulletRx broke down more cell walls in kale than competitors did over the course of three trials. The NutriBullet models ruptured 97 to 98 percent of cells, on average, while the Vitamix ruptured an average of 94 percent and the Ninja 1500 95 percent. Two of the blenders tested—the Oster 1400 and the BlendTec—didn’t manage to liquefy the kale at all, which is a testament to the range of quality in commercially available blenders. However, once you have a blender that can liquefy kale, whether it’s a NutriBullet or a Vitamix, it’s a safe bet that it’s capable of breaking down the vast majority of cell walls (which, again, is not necessarily desirable).
The NutriBullet’s greatest innovation, apart from its hassle-free design, is to elevate a fundamental fact about blenders—and about the way food works—to a miraculous-sounding mantra. In a stroke of advertising genius worthy of Don Draper, the makers of the NutriBullet figured out how to make the mundane sexy. In reality, any blender that’s powerful enough to purée whole plant foods is a nutrient extractor—and human bodies are nutrient extractors, too! But the NutriBullet was the first product to call itself a nutrient extractor, and that semantic sleight of hand has made all the difference.
The NutriBullet seems to be moving away from its infomercial roots, or at least branching out from them, to reach a younger, more discerning demographic. The NutriBullet used to be clearly geared toward older Americans: The booklet features a section called “Slowing Down the Aging Process,” and the infomercial voice-over says the NutriBullet helps you “fight arthritic pain, balance hormones … and turn back the hands of time five, ten, even 20 years.” The stock photos and B-roll footage in NutriBullet’s marketing materials primarily feature older, mostly white adults. Julie Hennessy, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, observes that NutriBullet “probably started with what marketers traditionally advise, which is: Start with a target that cares a lot about what you’re good at.” In this case, that target was older adults with health problems.
But it turns out that the ostensible benefits of the NutriBullet—weight loss, increased energy, better sleep—are “pretty powerful benefits that an awful lot of people would care about,” as Hennessy puts it. NutriBullet’s current marketing is pitched to a broader audience than the infomercial was. “You’ve got a sort of secondary target, which are people who are just very, very into eating healthy … that’s going to be a millennial target,” says Hennessy. Now, when you go to NutriBullet.com, the first thing you see is a picture of a young woman of color, sporting an afro and a nose ring, sipping a NutriBlast through a straw. The NutriBullet recipe and health website, NutriLiving.com, is sleekly designed and easily navigable, with reputable (if dry) information about topics like depression and diabetes. Many of the recipes—like, say, the Liver Cleansing Detox Blast—make unrealistic promises, but none more outlandish than the promises in, say, a women’s magazine. David Wolfe, the “longevity expert” from the infomercial, is relegated to a short bio halfway down a page of registered dieticians and physicians—contributors with medical bona fides. If you didn’t know the NutriBullet got its start in infomercials, you probably wouldn’t guess from its current online presence.
For all its transitioning away from the half-crazy assertions of the infomercial, NutriBullet hasn’t abandoned its claim of being a uniquely valuable “nutrient extractor.” How can it? The brand’s entire identity is staked on the notion that it is different—better—than every other health and wellness product out there. Without the nutrient extraction assertion, the NutriBullet is just another blender—just another reasonably priced, easy to clean, well-designed blender.
Which is how I’ve come to see it. After that first euphoric week, life got back to normal, in spite of my daily NutriBlasts. I had a rough day at work and took it out on a friend. I overslept several days in a row. I got a weird bug that knocked me out for a day. I forgot to respond to emails. I do still think my skin looks better, but that could just be wishful thinking.
Am I disappointed that the NutriBullet didn’t transform my life? A little bit. Mostly I’m reminded that it takes work to get your life in order and that there aren’t any shortcuts. On the bright side, I do like starting the day with several servings of fruits and vegetables—no matter how much higher in calories they are when blended—and I’ve settled on what I think is the perfect NutriBullet recipe: arugula, half an avocado, half a banana, frozen pineapple, cashews, flaxseeds, and matcha. It’s delicious, and—unlike some other grayish combinations I’ve tried—its hue is a truly beautiful mint green. I’ll probably keep making it. Only instead of calling it a NutriBlast, I’ll just call it a smoothie.