Swirling and sniffing my $10 bottle of green “Genius” juice as if I was about to sample a fine wine, I closed my eyes and took a long gulp. Although it tasted like a pile of pulverized leaves, the flavor improved when I reminded myself that liquid wisdom was coursing through my digestive tract.
With four juice bars located within just a few miles of my Marin County home, I had been cornered. Despite an affinity for chewing my food, I felt compelled to explore the juice mania that’s sweeping the nation. Even if you don’t have a juice bar within striking distance (yet), you’ve probably noticed that these juices have taken markets like Whole Foods by storm. Even Starbucks has taken the plunge, betting that consumers will dive headlong into these cold-pressed fruit, vegetable and nut elixirs.
Ranging from earthy green potions like the one I sampled, to blends reminiscent of a milky bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, people are lining up for these nutrient packed drinks largely because of their purported health benefits, such as detoxifying your organs and boosting immunity, energy and mental acuity. Many of these drinks are also infused with ingredients like goji berries, turmeric and other “super foods,” long used in eastern medicine traditions to target certain health issues.
Although I wasn’t convinced that I was taking a swig from the Fountain of Youth, I was curious if integrating juices like these into my diet would be beneficial as a means of filling any nutrient gaps -- especially after some studies suggested that my life-long multivitamin regimen may do little more than turn my pee neon yellow. Was it time to swap my daily pill for a bottle of blended beet greens?
According to Dr. Melina Jampolis, President of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists and CNN’s diet expert, I shouldn’t be so quick to toss my multivitamins, which are helpful when it comes to providing missing nutrients – including ones that you won’t get through juice (like vitamin D). But there can be benefits to adding these high octane juices to our diet, which cram pounds of produce into every serving.
“Food is the best source of nutrients hands down, as it comes in a well designed package with other nutrients that likely have complementary and/or synergistic effects. Plant based nutrients also play an important role in disease prevention,” says Jampolis.
According to recent research findings, consuming seven daily servings of fruit and vegetables could cut the risk of premature death by 42 percent.
"But it can be a full time job trying to get all the nutrients you need from food on a daily basis,” Jampolis points out, citing a 2010 survey that suggested only 6% of Americans achieve their daily target for fruit and 8% achieve their target for vegetables.
“And that’s where juicing comes in -- with a few catches,” she warns.
Lost in Extraction
Although these juices are loaded with fruits and veggies, the nutritional integrity of these foods is compromised as a result of the extraction process.
As opposed to traditional juices sold at the supermarket or juices made at home with a fast spinning centrifugal juicer, these emulsions are usually “cold pressed,” a process that entails applying a crushing amount of pressure to squeeze out the liquid from fruits, vegetables and other produce. If the juices are left raw after pressing, they only last about two or three days, which is why some juice-makers also opt for a secondary non-thermal, high pressure pasteurization process (HPP) to extend shelf life. Whether raw or pasteurized, both of these extraction methods preserve more of the food’s nutrition than other juicing methods -- but not all of it.
Stripped of skin and pulp, some key nutrients and all of the fiber are lost as these foods are transformed into juice. Devoid of fiber, these drinks can trigger a spike followed by a sharp drop in blood sugar content, which can make us feel hungry and cranky. This is mainly an issue with fruit juices, which are as loaded with sugar as they are with nutrients. “Normally in whole fruits, fiber helps slow the release of sugar so blood sugar levels remain more stable,” explains Jampolis.
“The high sugar content can also pose a problem for people who are trying to lose weight and carry more of their weight in their midsection,” she adds.
One of the other benefits of fiber is that it’s filling. “We know that liquid calories are not as satisfying as solid calories,” says Jampolis, “so if you consume juice in addition to your daily diet you will probably gain weight – not lose it.”
Go for Greens
If a salad isn’t part of your daily diet, Jampolis thinks green juices are a good way to get in your leafy greens, which are loaded with vitamins A,C, K and magnesium, and can also decrease your risk of diabetes.
But what about for those of us who are already eating a salad most days: Are we at risk from getting too much of a certain kind of nutrient if we drink these juices too? Recent studies suggest that while cruciferous vegetables like kale – a staple in green juices – may reduce cancer risks, consuming them in excess amounts may cause thyroid problems. But taking a closer look at the report, it appears that the risks are really low, unless you have an iodine deficiency.
In terms of getting too many nutrients, Jampolis’ opinion is that it’s not an issue because food-based nutrients are generally safe and well-balanced.
“I’m okay with a juice a day to help you hit your daily fruit and vegetable target, ” says Jampolis. But instead of using it to replace a multivitamin, she suggests swapping it for something less healthful in our diets, like refined grains or sugary snacks.
My take-away: For people with no major health issues, neither new-fangled juices nor old-school multivitamins are as beneficial and satiating as simply munching on a colorful array of fruits and veggies every day.
If you want to give these juices a try, here are some Bay Area-based organic juice lines available in stores and online:
A pioneering Bay Area purveyor, Juice Shop was cofounded in 2008 by San Francisco native Charlie Gulick, whose raw juice regimen has helped him keep a rare liver condition at bay. Touted for their detoxifying effects, the juices are sold in returnable/refundable glass bottles, earning them extra stars in my book.
The green juices that I tried were crisp and not overly earthy. I thought “Bright Green” was especially tasty because of the pineapple and ginger kick. If you’re feeling brave there’s also 2 oz. shot called “Immunity” consisting of garlic, oregano oil, lemon and ginger. You may want a fruity chaser.
The Forager Project
This San Francisco-based company doesn’t make any health claims other than providing top notch organic ingredients. They use the high pressure pasteurization process (HPP) process so you can pick up a bottle at Whole Foods and store it in your fridge until you feel the urge to drink up.
I tried their “Greens & Apple” because of the unusual addition of sprouted broccoli, which left me with a bit of an aftertaste. “Greens & Orange” was perfectly refreshing.
This Marin County-based company makes some pretty big claims on their web site about the potential benefits of their drinks, but even skeptics may be lured by fun names like “Glow,” “Beet-A-Licious” and “After Party” (although with 34 grams of sugar per serving, I’d say the party is still going on when you drink this one).
Their leafy green juices are fruit-free, and feature some interesting ingredients like burdock root, dandelion greens and blue-green algae. Although the green blends all taste fairly similar, it was definitely more fun to drink from a bottle labeled “Genius” than “Clean.”