The morning of September 23rd, I woke up the juicing cynic I had always been — unimpressed with juicers’ cultish devotion, suspicious of what I saw as exorbitant prices, and flat-out disdainful of juice cleanses. “Just eat a salad if you want the nutrients!” I’d exclaim when the conversation turned to the “detox programs” offered by BluePrint or Liquiteria. My skepticism made me the natural choice to attend “The Juicing Summit,” hosted by food mag Edible Manhattan and kitchen-appliance (read: juicer) manufacturer Breville, and there extract the truth from the hype.
The question I set out to answer: How good is juice for you, really? Is it $8-to-$14-a-bottle good? What I didn’t realize was that I’d also uncover the simmering competition between juice companies, plus the rivalry between juice and its upstart, blended sibling, the smoothie. All I knew as I arrived at the Ace Hotel for the day’s first event (“Healthy breakfast and juice bar”) was that I’d be running out for coffee during the morning break. You can bring a girl to juice, but you can’t make her drink.
The summit itself was billed as “a gathering of members of the juicing trade or journalists in the health and wellness field to discuss the ins and outs of the industry,” starring such wellness celebrities as Joe Cross (star of the documentary Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead) and Karliin Brooks, founder of juicing company The Squeeze. At breakfast I was pleasantly surprised to find coffee carafes stationed next to glasses of a liquid medley of kale, spinach, cucumber, apple, orange, lemon, and extra-virgin olive oil. I was surprised again by how much I liked the juice — it was richer than I thought juice could be, the olive-oil flavor unexpected and pleasant (granted, I’d eat packing peanuts if they were drizzled in olive oil, but so far, Juice 1, Cynicism 0).
The answer lies in how the juice is created. There is a war raging in the juice world, people — a heated debate that centers around pasteurization. Purists insist that juice should be crushed and then squeezed, or “fresh-pressed” (from organic ingredients, naturally), which is the method that produces the lowest amount of heat and highest yield of any kind of juicing. It also produces juice with the shortest shelf life. Juicers consider heat the enemy, as it leeches nutrients from plants — especially water-soluble nutrients such as vitamin C and vitamin B — by breaking down plants’ cell walls. (Though raw produce isn’t always more nutritious than cooked: The balance varies by nutrient.)
On the other end of the juice spectrum, most mass-produced juice — think Tropicana, Florida’s Natural, or Minute Maid — is either thermally pasteurized or “from concentrate” (water is extracted from the juice to create a product with a long shelf life and then added back in later). These processes destroy harmful bacteria (bye listeria, E. coli, and salmonella), but also some of the vitamins and antioxidants that whole produce provides. There is, however, a middle-ground method: Enter high-pressure processing, or HPP, a non-thermal pasteurization treatment that applies, true to its name, high pressure (100 to 800 MPa, or up to 116,000 pounds per square inch) to a sealed bottle of juice to kill bacteria and extend shelf life. It’s possible that HPP minimally changes the cell structure of organic matter, although as of yet, there’s no evidence of this effect. HPP-treated juice is much cheaper than fresh-pressed: The HPP poster child is Starbucks’ Evolution Fresh line of juices, which go for $4-$6 a pop.
The question for Rubin, Brooks, and Bates, then: With HPP on the market, how would they sustain and grow their businesses, based as they are in costly juicing machinery and pricey organic produce (up to six pounds of the stuff per 16-ounce bottle)? “I think juicing is reaching critical mass,” City Bakery’s Rubin stated flatly. He’d quickly established himself the panel’s weary realist. “There’s food-informed, sophisticated New Yorkers — you could call them foodies, but please don’t — and then, there’s everybody else. You’re just talking about two completely different societies, and the gulf is getting larger and larger… I’m a total skeptic about growth — I wonder if juicing hasn’t already peaked.”
When asked how they could drive down prices, the panelists paused. The price of organic produce at the Union Square Greenmarket, Bates ventured, could run up to $12 for a quarter-pound, depending on what you were buying. Profit margins were already, well, squeezed. “We can do what BluePrint does,” Brooks offered drily, “which is add water to our juice.” The audience gasped; this was the juice-world equivalent of major shade.
When the conversation turned to the power of juice to fight diabetes and obesity, I rolled my eyes for the first time. How big is the the overlap between the demographic at risk for diabetes and obesity and those who can drop $10 on a bottle of juice? Can we all just get off our high horses and admit that we’re catering to the already-healthy and wealthy here? Rubin had poked at this issue with his comment about New Yorkers, and after the panel I wound over to him, sweet-potato-orange-cilantro juice in hand, to ask whether he thought juice really did have the potential to improve the health of, say, people living in food deserts. “No, no,” he said, with a wry smile. “It’s a lot of talk.” He edged out the door before I could corner him with any more of my social justice concerns. Fair enough.
At the next panel (“Juicing: Facts & Fiction”) I found myself seated next to an excommunicated juicer, the luminous Paige Gregor of LuliTonix, a smoothie company — or rather a blending company, to differentiate it from such establishments as Smoothie King. My first thought: For skin like hers, I’ll have whatever she’s having. What Gregor is having is lots and lots of blended greens. “I’ll always still have green juices as well,” she told me, “because that’s immediate nutrients to every part of your body. But, smoothies are a slower release of that.”
The word “smoothie” connotes a sugar-bomb that is almost entirely fruit, maybe with yogurt or even ice cream added. But Gregor’s smoothies are low on fruit, with ingredients similar to anything you’d find in fresh-pressed juice, only blended — which is why she often calls them “blends” instead. “We have one blend that’s all greens,” she told me, “with a quarter of a fig in the whole thing.” Gregor and I murmured back and forth about smoothies as the juicing experts onstage debated whether one could live indefinitely on juice (JuicePress‘s Marcus Antebi insisted that one could, while Dr. Richard Ash, MD, returned “errr, not so much”).LuliTonix smoothies, Gregor explained, are “a prepackaged meal — by blending, you’re cracking open all of the enzymes and breaking open that cellular wall to get the nutrients to your body without having to chew 50 times. We’re all lazy, we’ve forgotten how to chew.”
While there’s no evidence that blending’s enzyme-cracking is any more effective than good old-fashioned mastication and digestion, smoothies — like juice — deliver a quick hit of nutrients. Unlike juice, they preserve fiber content, meaning greater satiety. (When it comes to habitually replacing entire meals with smoothies, though, tread carefully, and listen to your body: Dietitians hold that a filling, complete meal includes carbohydrates, protein, and fat, and both smoothies and juices can be light on the latter two.) Juicers claim that the heat generated by whirring blender blades can degrade nutrients, but there’s no evidence that this heat is high enough to make smoothies significantly less nutritious than juices. Blending devotees, meanwhile, point out that because fiber slows the absorption of starches and sugars, smoothies lead to less dramatic blood-sugar spikes than juices and so provide longer-lasting, more even-keeled energy. If you’re looking for fullness, a smoothie may be the way to go; if you’d simply like a boost in between or with meals, go for a juice (keeping in mind that the chewing process contributes to satiety, and mainlining liquids can lead to consuming more than you’d like).
In a nutshell, smoothies outsource chewing, while juices outsource digestion. Sure, you could sit around and thoroughly chew five green salads — or you could drink a smoothie or juice. At the end of the day, they’re both vegetable vehicles. If you aren’t consuming enough vegetables (you’re not alone, the average American consumes only 59% of her daily recommended vegetables), drinking them is an easy way to increase intake, as well as to replace other not-so-good choices. JuicePress’s Antebi shared that “his guru” had described the benefit of juicing as “putting the focus on what we need out of our diet.” Whether or not you’re impressed by guru wisdom, it’s not hard to agree that consuming something green instead of a doughnut in the morning will lead to a better day. As Dr. Ash put it, “You’re really a function of what you eat, assimilated and absorbed.” There was a statement I could get behind. Also, the sweet-potato juice I was drinking was really, really good.
That night, I admitted to my partner that I was thinking about buying a blender. “Oh no!” he cried, mock-dramatically, “they got you too!” Maybe “they” did. Fueled by produce and coffee (rather than my usual coffee and sugary energy bar), I’d actually felt pretty good that day. I’m not planning on undergoing a juice cleanse anytime soon — there’s no evidence that the “glow” cleansers feel is from their all-juice regimens rather than from simply replacing pizza with produce — but I could definitely get down with a juice or smoothie thrown into my daily mix. As long as my cup can also runneth over with coffee and Kahlua when the moment’s right, there’s room in it for kale.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Click HERE to read more from Refinery29.