Born in the juice bars found in Californian health food stores in the early-1990s, smoothies have certainly made an impact in the UK. But what is happening elsewhere? Annette Sessions investigates.

It is boom time for smoothies in the UK as National Smoothie Week - a marketing campaign aimed at extolling the health benefits of juices and smoothies being run by leading manufacturer of own label smoothies, Orchard House - gets underway.

In an industry renowned for not standing still, these drinks have proved one of the fastest growing sectors, albeit from a small base. In 2003, UK sales of smoothies grew by 17% in retail value to £69m. According to AC Nielsen the main players in the market are PJs (40% value share), innocent (26.1%) and private label (29.1%).

But what exactly is a smoothie? The Refresh Juice & Smoothie Report 2004 says that the UK category breaks down into fruit (made from crushed/pureed fruit) and dairy (with a yoghurt base) but some manufacturers believe that drinks containing other ingredients such as sugar, water, preservatives, colours and flavourings, should not be classified as a smoothies. Meanwhile, Mintel International defines the smoothie as "a drink that is made with pure crushed fruit and a small amount of juice or puree, yoghurt or milk and is smooth in texture."

This problem of definition is highlighted in the Middle East. The term smoothie is not recognised. There are drinking yoghurts - deemed dairy products - and juice/milk blends - deemed soft drinks as they are predominately juice drinks with a small dairy element added - and then there is laban.

The Arab world has been drinking laban, a cultured liquid milk drink, for many years but now value-added products, such as fruit drinking yoghurts and fruit labans, are being successfully launched.

For example Almarai, the largest dairy foods company in the Middle East, has recently introduced Zady, a drinking yoghurt targeted at children and mothers. Although it's a moderately small market at the moment, Almarai marketing manager, John O' Kelly, expects it to grow by around 20% over the next three years. "This product does not compete with the carbonated soft drink sector or the juice sector. It's competing with unflavoured labans and by doing so it's growing the overall consumption to children," explained O'Kelly

Another new value-added product from Almarai is laban with natural fruit puree. Rich in vitamin D the drink - in mango, strawberry and peach/apricot flavours - claims to give you energy and vitality. Meanwhile, Danone, the French conglomerate, is active in this area with the launch of Danao, a juice/milk blend, while Danone has also introduced Actimel, the probiotic, to Arab consumers.

Such smoothie-styled drinks are very much in their infancy but analysts predict that as retailing becomes more sophisticated in the Middle East there will be concomitant growth.

In North America smoothie consumers are more likely to get their fix of fruit juice, fruit, crushed ice, or non-fat frozen yoghurt or soy milk by visiting a juice and smoothie bar restaurant. Juice Club, later to become Jamba Juice, and Smoothie King were the first companies to take the smoothie concept to a new level. These pioneers created an entirely new category as they began opening multiple locations serving an array of blended-to-order smoothies, fresh juices, supplements and healthy snacks, positioning themselves as healthy alternatives to fast food.

Today, the US juice and smoothie industry is still growing strongly. "The industry's revenue total is up more than 20% from last year's figures," reports Dan Titus, President of Juice Gallery Multimedia, a publishing firm that caters to entrepreneurs and business start-ups. "We are definitely seeing a renewed interest in the industry as more and more consumers opt for healthier food alternatives."

Success has been mirrored with the packaged smoothie, spearheaded by entrepreneurs such as Greg Steltenpohl and Bonnie Bassett, founders of Odwalla Inc, now part of Coca-Cola-owned Minute Maid. Odwalla is now the largest fresh juice brand in the western US, enjoying an average growth rate of approximately 40%.

In US supermarkets, a wide choice of smoothies can be found from Tropicana Smoothies, with 100% vitamin C and 50% calcium, in Mixed Berry, Peach, Tropical Orange and Strawberry flavours, and Hansen's Soy Smoothies from the Hansen Beverage Company to Luzianne Smoothies from Reilly Foods Company. The latter comes in concentrated form, with consumers adding water, juice, milk or soy milk themselves. There are Strawberry Banana, Mixed Berry and Peach Mango variants.

European consumers are already familiar with juice/milk blends. Innocent is testing the waters in France with its smoothies, while thejuicecompany has an expanding international distribution in Europe and North America, with Hong Kong following soon.

With health and obesity issues top of mind worldwide, innovation that the smoothie makers have brought to the industry truly addresses government and watchdog concerns. Expect to hear more.