Remember when juice was just juice? 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. Thanks to cleansing celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, and Blake Lively, cold-pressed blends of kale, celery, lemon, chard, and ginger are the new ambrosia of the stars. Bill Clinton juices. Hip-hop ambassador Russell Simmons extolled green juice in the New York Times. Entire workplaces juice together. Bridal parties juice. Juice (the unpasteurized designer stuff, not your standard OJ) has become a $5 billion industry, projected to grow by 4 to 8 percent a year.
According to Barron’s, more than 6,200 juice bars are now churning out swamp-colored elixirs across the country. Starbucks recently spent $30 million to acquire Evolution Fresh, a cold-crafted juice operation, hoping to capitalize on what one spokesman called “a major lifestyle trend” of seeking “healthier alternatives.” Chairman Howard Schultz says he intends to glamorize juice “in the same tonality that we have reinvented, over the last 40 years, the basic commodity of coffee.” But the nutrient-rich fruit and vegetable potions may not need his help. In premium supermarkets like Whole Foods and boutique outfits like Organic Avenue and Juice Gallery, 12- to 16-ounce bottles of liquid produce already sell for around $10 apiece. If our bodies are our temples, juice is what we worship—and no form of prayer is more American than opening up our wallets.
Yet juice is a jealous god. True devotees don’t just chug it alongside their organic quinoa; they go on juice cleanses. (JC: also the initials of Jesus Christ. Coincidence?) These programs, which exclude solid food and might last anywhere from three to five days to a couple of weeks, have names like Renovation, Excavation, Glow, Clean, and LOVE Deep. They promise to flood your cells with hydration and nutrition, restore your alkaline balance, and “gently rid your body of impurities.” (A rosary of the best-known companies: Clean Program, Master Cleanse, Life Juice, BluePrint and Clean Cleanse.)
Participants quaff six or seven bottles of product a day, in a predetermined sequence. Some recipes contain cashew milk and hemp seeds (for protein), while others fuse ingredients like beets, chlorophyll, and dark leafy greens. They taste ... well, it depends on who you ask. Testimonials range from “delicious” to “incredibly delicious” to “war on everything delicious” to “like kissing a cow” to “like drinking everything bad that ever happened to me in high school.” But the payoff is supposedly great. Juice, say the websites, and your hair will shine, your skin will shimmer with vitality, you’ll have tons of energy and a clear mind, your immune and digestive systems will recover and approach an indestructibility heretofore associated with Norse gods. Those are some of the humbler claims: The BluePrint program, which charges $75 per day, also mentions that “clients who have more serious cases or are using [BluePrint Cleanse] in cancer therapy have continued on a cleanse indefinitely, until they are healed.”
One thing that actually will happen to most juicers, though of course it is not their motivation, is that they will lose weight. At around 1,000 calories a day, the cleanses resemble religious fasts—purifying rituals undertaken during Ramadan or Yom Kippur, or by medieval Christian mystics. (In the New Republic, Judith Shulevitz traces the history of holy figures starving their bodies to nourish their souls—“though they didn’t call it detox at that time.”) Juicing also has a lot in common with more terrestrial crazes like the cabbage soup diet and going Paleo. Be virtuous! Purge your body! Look hot in jeans! (For only $525 a week!) Somehow, with JC, all of these directives miraculously become one.
But juice cleanses accomplish exactly none of their physiological or medical objectives; they fetishize a weird, obsessive relationship with food, and they are part of a social shift that reduces health (mental, physical, and, sure, spiritual) to a sign of status. They’re annoying as hell.
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Someone should design a comedy routine in which nutritionists are lined up and asked to complete the sentence: Juice cleanses are ... The responses I got included “nonsense,” “unsustainable,” “bone-headed,” and “not the answer”—and I think my interlocutors were trying to be polite. We need protein and fat in our diets. We also need to consume enough calories to reassure our bodies we aren’t starving, or we risk all kinds of metabolic and electrical freak-outs. Plus, liquefying fruits and vegetables means getting rid of fiber, which aids digestion by sustaining the microflora in our gut. (LOL! Let’s obsess over how immaculate we can make our insides even though our intestines host trillions of bacteria.)
“We have cave-people bodies that are built for survival,” says Dr. Elizabeth Applegate, a senior lecturer in the nutrition department at the University of California–Davis. “We do a good job recouping our losses, but that doesn’t make juice cleanses at all healthy.” Nor are they effective at keeping off pounds. “On a cleanse diet, you shed water weight as your body breaks down its glycemic stores, but it comes back once you start eating adequately again.”
Yet the real JC sales pitch is not about microflora or nutrients or even—ostensibly—weight loss. It’s about toxins. You cleanse to flush your system of impurities, flecks of blight (some would say sin) lodged in your cells. “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,” observes Shulevitz in her New Republic article. BluePrint and Life Juice are meant to scrub away the effects of our pizza Mondays, our martini weekends, our polluted air and water. Get right with your gut, the cleanse companies urge. Get right with God.
Which is pretty vague, and perhaps explains why after days of Googling I still have no idea WTF a toxin is. “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality,” wrote Virginia Woolf, another woman with a tortured relationship to food. The juicing industry is counting on that.