From 7 in the morning ’til after 7 at night, the “juicologists” at Greenleaf Juicing Company in Portland’s Pearl District prep and drop produce down a rumbling chute before they’re transformed into $8 cups of greenish liquid. The shelf above the juicer is stacked with rows of labeled jars: Cacao nibs. Turmeric. Spirulina. Maca. Hemp. Chia.
But what does it all do? Do the thirsty consumers shelling out an hour’s worth of minimum-wage pay for the mysterious concoctions have any idea?
Modern cleanses rose to popularity in the 1990s with Scientologist and entrepreneur Peter Glickman’s “Master Cleanse,” which, according to The New York Times’ Judith Newman, involves “lemon juice, cayenne pepper, maple syrup and 10 days of your life.” Since then, juice cleanses have become ultra-fashionable, especially in health-hooked cities like Portland and amongst people with New Year’s resolutions, post-breakup depression, or hefty salaries.
“Remember when juice was just juice?” wrote Katy Waldman at Slate. “It has become so much more. A verb, for one thing, and, as the Wall Street Journal reports (what you already know), a status symbol.”
As with just about every other commodity, from push-up bras and sneakers to shampoo and candy bars, the wellness industry taps into consumers’ fears and insecurities to move product.
While modern people are spending more time and money on wellness than ever before, many are looking for a quick fix. This makes for ideal consumers: impatient, anxious, and vulnerable to manipulation.
“I honestly think that if someone were to put a pill in front of someone and be like, ‘Hey! You can take this pill, and it will make you completely healthy and well,’ everyone would jump on board with it, because they’re getting all these benefits without having to put in the work that we as a society know we need to do,” says Portland State University health educator Taylor Schwab.
This “magic pill” mentality stems from the modern preoccupation with convenience. As with fast food and fast fashion, modern consumers want fast health. The idea of a prepackaged bottle of nutrition that will rid the body of everything bad and cure all ills is, understandably, tantalizing to the modern consumer — it’s quick, easy, and turns the concept of health into a commodity practically begging to be shared through a Facebook status or Instagram post.
“I think [marketers are] using wellness as a scapegoat, as their marketing tool and their brand, and hoping someone will buy their product in hopes of getting results,” says Schwab. “When they don’t get the results because they’re not really changing their behavior, they’re going to keep buying the products to get them to their results.”
Nate Higgins, founder of Portland-based juice bar chain Kure, is well aware of the modern superpower that is marketing. “The internet has also given us the opportunity to explore our own mortality in a way that has never been experienced before,” he says.
Higgins uses this awareness of mortality as a marketing tool — the juice bar’s Instagram tagline and oft-used hashtag reads, “Live fast, die last.”
“We live in an age of what William James called ‘medical materialism,’ so instead of fretting about a fallen world, we speak of a poisoned one,” writes Judith Shulevitz in her New Republic essay titled “Jesus and Moses Went on Cleanses: That doesn’t mean you should.”
The word “toxin” is a buzzword in the wellness industry and a propagator of fear in consumers. Its “toxic” connotations imply that those who do not flush their bodies are being poisoned by them. The truth is pretty much the opposite: Human organs are designed to do most of the heavy lifting.
According to Stephen Barrett, M.D., the theory of autointoxication, or poisoning by a toxin formed within the body, has been around since the early 20th century but was discarded by scientists in the 1930s. From a scientific standpoint, toxins are typically foreign poisons that enter the body, such as snake venom. The so-called ‘toxins’ pilates instructors and juice bar owners warn their customers are essentially empty threats.
“People are interested in this so-called detoxification, but when I ask them what they are trying to get rid of, they aren’t really sure,” says Dr. James H. Grendell, chief of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, NY. “I’ve yet to find someone who has specified a toxin they were hoping to be spared.”
New York-based internist Dr. David Colbert also questions juice fanatics’ lack of specification. “You have to ask yourself this question: With a juice cleanse, what are you really cleaning? Really, nothing. The bowel self-cleans. It’s evolved over millions of years to do this.” Our bodies naturally filter the undesirable stuff through the liver, kidneys, and intestines, and cast it out through urine, stools, breath, and sweat. As seductive as cleansing the body sounds, our bodies already have this covered through basic biological survival processes that date back to the dawn of civilization, long before anyone had ever uttered the word “kale.”
“A month ago I went on a juice cleanse,” wrote Judith Newman in “The Juice Cleanse: A Strange and Green Journey” for the New York Times. “You know what it clears out of you best? The will to live.”
The root of juicing’s success — and its problem — is blind consumption. Consumers chug juice because it’s supposedly healthy, but they often have little understanding of its specific benefits or downfalls.
“The purpose of a juice cleanse should be to recalibrate your body and, more importantly, your habits,” says Greenleaf’s co-founder Matt Trenkle. Greenleaf’s founders worked in finance in Chicago before starting the company. Greenleaf’s juice cleanses start at $24 a day or $168 a week, for three bottles of juice each day.
“What happens when you finish that juice cleanse?” asks Schwab. “Your body’s gonna go right back to where it was… If you don’t change the bigger, broader health behaviors and health habits you’re going to go right back to where you were and it’s not sustainable.”
Beyond their lack of long-term impact, juice fasts can also wreak havoc on the body during the process. Sugar content in a 16-ounce bottle of juice ranges from six to 56 grams at Greenleaf Juicing Company, and from six to 70 grams at Portland Juice Co. According to an article by Denise Minger on Livestrong.com, the human body absorbs juice more quickly than whole fruits and vegetables, which can cause blood sugar levels to skyrocket. Not only is this dangerous to diagnosed diabetics, but it can raise the risk of diabetes in others.
Juice also lacks substantial healthy fats and proteins, Minger adds. “Few fruits contain significant amounts of fat and protein, and vegetables that contain these macronutrients — such as avocados, beans, and lentils — do not lend themselves to juicing. Without sufficient protein, your body has no raw materials with which to build new tissue. A lack of fat leaves your skin and hair in poor shape and contributes to malabsorption of fat-soluble vitamins.”
“The biggest myth [about juicing] is people thinking they are starving themselves,” says Trenkle. “As more and more information comes out, it is becoming easier to earn the trust of the public and become educators of sorts ourselves.”
Certified health coach Nancy Kalish disagrees. “Your body wants and expects food,” she told Judith Newman. “And as with most crash diets, which is really what this is, your body thinks it’s starving. It doesn’t know it’s going to get more food. So it lowers your metabolism, and if you do this enough, it can lower your metabolism permanently.”
Many health experts agree that eating nutritious, substantial whole foods will always be healthier in both the short and long term, and that building healthy habits is an ongoing learning process that will take longer than a few juice-chugging days.
The mythology that juice has magical medical abilities is a major part of its appeal and success.
“A lot of people come to us with medical issues,” says Luka de Moses, Chief Operating Officer of Portland Juice Co. In the middle of our interview, de Moses stops himself. “I’m trying to be careful what I say,” he says. “There’s a lot of skepticism out there… We’re not selling dreams.”
Higgins carries a similar self-awareness. Despite Kure’s marketing strategies and the medical implications of the juice bar’s name, he recognizes that juice cleanses are mostly mumbo jumbo. “I felt like we were selling snake oil and we were producing so much plastic waste,” he says, referring to Kure’s now defunct cold-pressed juice program. The chain now focuses on smoothies and food, with limited sweet juice options. “Sugar should really always be consumed with fiber, and sweet juice may as well be soda as far as your body is concerned. Nobody needs a juice.”
The simple fact is, nobody needs juice and everyone needs food. With juice cleanses, you’re essentially drinking your money while depriving yourself of real sustenance for a few days and then, poof, you’re back where you started. Juice won’t cure your diseases, or cleanse you of all sins and evils, or postpone the inevitability of death. And that’s just the truth.