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The juicing boom

With $18 drinks and Big Gulp portions, is juice really the antidote to our toxic, stressed-out lives?
Green Juice Pour from Pitcher into Glass
Maren Caruso/Getty Images
Maren Caruso/Getty Images

It’s 8 a.m. on a June Saturday morning and a convoy of black SUVs is illegally parked outside Toronto’s Greenhouse Juice Co. while the drivers—without exception, women in workout gear—run inside for their fix. Since opening in January, the juice bar offering raw, organic, cold-pressed juices in the affluent Rosedale neighbourhood has seen lineups and gridlock, which only increased after the queen of the juice cleanse, Gwyneth Paltrow, gave it a shout-out on Goop.com.

Situated in a quaint cottage, Greenhouse exudes a cool, indie vibe, more hipster than hippie: barn-board floors, exposed beams, white-tiled walls and an energetic staff offering samples and information about the $65-a-day juice cleanse. A gorgeous young woman with flawless skin pours a taste of “the Misfit,” a delicious, grape-celery-lime juice whose label promises “skin purifying, anti-aging, cholesterol fighting, hangover cure.” “It’s good to drink when your electrolytes are out of whack,” she says, adding that it helps with jet lag. Jewel-hued fruit and vegetable juices boasting similar medicinal claims fill a glass-fronted refrigeration unit. They are vibrant, flavourful and pricey, ranging from $6 to $12 for a 250-millilitre glass bottle to $18 for a 500-millilitre serving. Alongside them sit infused waters (such as the “chia seed hydrator”), “hand-crafted” nut milks and “boosters,” including a $6 “flu shot.”

The enterprise, founded by seven well-connected friends, has, brilliantly, tapped into the upper end of the current juicing moment, one in which liquefied vegetables, fruits and sundry supplements have become virtuous fast food, antidotes to the “toxicity” of modern life, preventive medicine and a route to a better self.

They are also big business. Home juicers, running upward of $600 for the coveted Vitamix Pro, are kitchen-counter staples, even if they mostly lie fallow. Outside, premium juice has taken the place of premium coffee as the preferred pick-me-up, as seen in paparazzi shots of celebrities, their Starbucks lattes replaced by moss-green liquid in plastic cups. In fact, Starbucks has its own juice line, Evolution Fresh.

Juicing crosses all class lines, with juice bars everywhere from Loblaws to the Four Seasons hotels, which recently added made-to-order juices as an amenity. With it has come a juicing class structure. Juicing’s equivalent to Tim Hortons is Booster Juice, a 15-year-old global chain serving blended smoothies and juices in Big Gulp-style plastic and Styrofoam cups, founded by Canadian Dale Wishewan, with more than 300 franchised locations. At the upper end, restaurateur Danny Meyer of Union Square Cafe fame has just introduced cold-pressed Creative Juice; flavourings include cacao nibs, dried Black Mission figs and shiso leaves, along with the requisite kale and spinach.

“Big Juicing” has arrived, as juicing start-ups angle to be the next BluePrint Juice, an outfit founded by two women working out of a kitchen in 2007, which forged a $25-million partnership with natural foods giant Hain Celestial Group in 2013; the company is grossing more than $20 million annually.

The juicing market is so new, there are no stats yet, says Joe Pawlak, a senior vice-president at the Chicago-based food research and consulting firm, Technomic Inc. “We’re just starting to put numbers behind what we know is happening.” What’s happening is certainly frenetic, particularly in the burgeoning cold-pressed segment. In the U.S., chains such as Juice Press, Organic Avenue, Juice Generation and Liquiteria are vying for turf. Big money is buying in, reminiscent of the dot-com boom. Among the backers of Juice Press, which has 18 locations in and around New York, are hedge fund managers, CEOs and New York Yankee Mark Teixeira.

Hana James, a Greenhouse co-owner, says her partners, most of whom live in New York and L.A., saw a cold-pressed juice vacuum in Canada. The advantage of cold-pressing, advocates say, is the use of hydraulic pressure to coax maximum nutrients, flavour and colour from produce (as opposed to faster centrifugal machines whose rotary blades can “cook” ingredients and, thus, it is said, neutralize nutrients and “live enzymes”). James holds a fresh bottle of  “the Good,” an emerald-green mix of romaine, spinach, cucumber, celery, lemon and Himalayan salt. A 500-millilitre bottle ($11.50) is equivalent to seven salads, she says. “Your body wouldn’t let you eat seven salads. Drinking it reduces the amount of energy your body uses to digest, which gives cells a chance to repair and rebuild.” Exactly what nutrients one is consuming in Greenhouse’s juices isn’t clear: The company doesn’t provide nutritional or calorie breakdowns, but plans to. “We call ourselves recreational juicers,” James says. “We do it because it makes us feel good and is a natural addition to our lifestyle.” Juicing provides a natural boost, she says: “I tell people new to juicing to replace afternoon coffee or a snack with a 250-millilitre juice and see how you feel. You get an energy rush without the crash.”

The old adage in beer advertising is that people drink the marketing, not the beer. So, too, it is in juicing, which exudes an aura of liquid salvation: It’s sold as a way to detoxify the body, clear the mind and the skin, and shed pounds. Ruth Tal, a juicing pioneer who founded Juice for Life 25 years ago in Toronto and now operates Fresh restaurants, reports that the “detox” labelling resonates: “Whenever I name a juice ‘detoxifer or ‘cleanse’ or ‘super-cleanse,’ it becomes the top seller.”

Likewise, Greenhouse’s brilliant branding—minimal typography, a stylish space, recyclable glass bottles—conveys juicing’s promise of a better, calmer, cleaner, more natural life. (Two of its founders, Sophie and Anthony Green, come by their branding acumen genetically as the offspring of Roots’s co-founder Don Green and his wife, Denise, who runs Roots Yoga studio.) Greenhouse staff work throughout the night on-site, like so many organic Keebler elves. By morning, they’re gone, no mess or pulpy residue behind, no reminder of the vast infrastructure—the transport, labour, the vast amount of produce—required to distill one bottle’s worth.

Juicing has always offered a promise of magical transformation, ever since Jack LaLanne, the “godfather of fitness,” shilled his Power Juicer on late-night TV in the early 1990s. LaLanne, who lived to 96, credited juicing with transforming him from an ill and frail “sugarholic” teenager into a fitness extremist able to tow boats while swimming shackled and handcuffed at age 70. He was seen as a health nut. So was Tal, whose custom-blending juice bar was regarded fringe when it opened 25 years age. She welcomes what she calles a “super-vibrant” juicing scene. Of course, she doesn’t include mass outlets such as Jamba Juice, Jugo Juice and Booster Juice as real juice bars. “They use dairy,” she says. Juicing skeptics point out there’s also an element of drinking the cosmic Kool-Aid in the juicing movement. It comes as little surprise that Boomers are prime juice junkies, drawn by the promise of longevity and improved health and weight loss, says Pawlak, who reports that his sister-in-law dropped 60 lb. in four months on a juice-based diet. But demand, too, is coming from Millennials, he says, with juice bars moving into university campuses and white-collar company cafeterias.

While Paltrow and Salma Hayek, a co-owner of Cooler Cleanse, have given “juice cleansing” the celebrity imprimatur, documentaries and social media paved the way to mainstream acceptance, Tal says. “Books like John Robbins’s Diet for a New America once were game-changers; now it’s docs exposing Big Food like Fed Up or Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” a reference to the 2010 documentary that tells the inspirational tale of Australian filmmaker Joe Cross’s two-month journey across the United States “to save myself,” as he put it. Overweight and unhealthy at the outset, Cross lost nearly 100 lb. subsisting only on fruit and vegetable juices that he pressed himself in a Breville juicer hooked up to a battery in his trunk. Now a juicing evangelist, Cross has spun his odyssey into Reboot with Joe, a company that has enrolled millions in online juicing programs.

The market for portable cold-pressed juice also reflects the needs of a population that itself feels pressed—for time (so much so, there’s no time to peel an orange or make a salad) and for good, wholesome food (reports abound on how agribusiness has resulted in broccoli and tomatoes that don’t contain the vitamins and minerals they did 20 years ago; we may need the equivalent of seven salads in liquid format).

Tal sees the mainstreaming of juicing similar to that of yoga. Bankers waved her off when she sought start-up funding decades ago; she used her university student loan instead: “They thought I was nuts,” she says. “But if you go to a bank today with a good plan for a juice bar, you’ll have no problem.”

In fact, you’ll be competing with bankers themselves. Earlier this month, Ian Paech, a former portfolio manager with a bank, opened Evolution Food Co., a “health-oriented, quick-service” spot in Toronto that offers nine cold-pressed juices. Paech, a triathlete, shies from nutritional claims: “What got me hooked was the taste,” he says. “Big industry has done a good job getting us hooked on high-fructose corn syrup. I grew up on that stuff, then realized, ‘Wow, the real stuff is 100 times better.’ ”

Taste is one juicing claim that hasn’t been questioned. Its salutary effects, however, are another matter. Nutritionists express skepticm over taking a low-glycemic vegetable and turning it into a high-glycemic drink minus most or all its fibre. Juicing’s “detoxifying” promise is also questioned; that’s what the liver and kidneys do naturally, they say. It’s better to eat your produce, not drink it, says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. She drinks juice, but in moderation: “I like carrot juice a lot, she says, “but prefer my sugar allotment in food form.”

Science on juicing is limited, says David Jenkins, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, who originated the concept of the glycemic index. Fruit juice “may or may not be in the same category as soft drinks,” he says. “Some assessments say they are.” Yet, he can’t get too worked up about it: “I’d far rather people went to any shady juice bar than frequent the burger shop.”

The problem is that people do both, says Joe Schwarcz, a McGill University chemistry professor and director of its office for science and society, who sees juicing as a fad: “I see no argument against someone who likes to add an extra glass of juice a day instead of something else,” he says. “But people are adding juice on top of everything; they’re consuming a lot of extra calories and extra sugar, even in the vegetable category.” A 24-ounce cup of the Funky Monkey from Booster Juice contains 512 calories and 67 grams of sugar—more than a McDonald’s hot caramel sundae (350 calories and 43 grams of sugar, and only 1.8 grams more fat) and quite a bit more than a KitKat bar (210 calories, almost all from fat, and 21 grams of sugars), though, of course, the latter have none of the nutrients. A lack of dietary fibre is less of a problem for the already fit, says Jenkins: “Fibre is much more important for fat people who think their juicer will help them lose weight. We have no evidence that is true.”

Janet Chappell, a professor of nutrition at Ryerson University, sees a cultural disconnect surrounding fresh-juice mania. The lionization of fresh juicing is occurring at a time when there’s a “war on juice from concentrate,” especially for children, she says. But unprocessed sugars in juice can affect insulin levels dramatically and cause weight gain, as juicing apostle Paltrow warned recently on Goop.com: “Avoid fruit juices, which are not healthy, as they flood your body with as much sugar as soda does.” It’s a claim supported by research: A 2013 study in the British Medical Journal found that nurses who ate whole fruit, especially blueberries, grapes and apples, were less likely to get Type 2 diabetes; those who drank fruit juices were at increased risk.

Juice is today both the medicine and the spoonful of sugar. Fanatics are consuming kale and celery in vast quantities in liquid form and adding ever-more virtuous ingredients, such as chia and wheat grass; it seems less food than tonic. But a majority use juice as a fast delivery system for stuff they really don’t want to eat. Chappell sees the need to tuck broccoli and spinach behind pineapple, apple and pear reflecting a culture hooked on sugar in any form: “Putting veggies in Kraft Dinner or in a venti-sized juice says we don’t like veggies and need to hide them in some godforsaken ‘good for you’ way.”

The uniformity of flavours seen in cold-pressed juice menus also reflects the bottom-line imperative, says Tal. “There are big bucks in cold-pressed, she says, “but they’re all pressing the same ingredients, the ones that yield higher profit margins: You see a lot of high-water-content vegetables—cucumber, apple, romaine—which provide more volume than vegetables like kale or parsley.”

Still, Tal, too, is entering the cold-pressed market. She just signed a deal to expand Fresh into smaller-format takeaway kiosks offering bottled juice with a two-day shelf life (versus the usual 72 hours). “You know it’s enzymatically rich, but you’re not tasting something made five days ago,” she says.

As for Greenhouse Juice Co., it’s already expanding locally after only six months. Its new production facility will have a retail outlet. It also plans to sell food. Perhaps the brand loyalty it has amassed for its coveted liquids will prove a gateway drug to the real thing.