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 goodwill 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." 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.
Get juices flowing
Yet juice is a jealous god. True devotees don't just chug it alongside their organic quinoa; they go on juice cleanses. These programs, which exclude solid food and might last anywhere from three or 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."
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 whom 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."
Like religious fasts
But the payoff is supposedly great. Juice, say the websites, and your hair will shine, your skin will shimmer, 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 BluePrintCleanse 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.
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.
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.
"We have cave-people bodies that are built for survival," says Dr. Elizabeth Applegate, a senior lecturer in the nutrition department at UC 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 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 writer Judith Shulevitz in the New Republic. 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 what 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.
"The whole cleansing concept is silly," Applegate told me on the phone. "The body doesn't need any help getting rid of compounds it doesn't want. That's what your liver and kidneys are for."
What about the advertised psychological benefits of cleansing? The euphoria?
"Placebo effect," Applegate replies firmly. "Or ketosis. It's a survival mechanism. You're all amped up and alert because you need something to eat."
And the popular claim that, during a fast, energy normally used in digestion flows to the brain, "enhancing one's ability to solve problems"?
"If every time we ate, our brains shut off, there'd be no more working lunches," Applegate says.
But the cleanse mentality is more than just judgmental and irritating: It's dangerous. Making each meal a drama of discipline, deprivation and control? Floating along on a superior high that isn't really about how much weight you're losing (but actually kind of is about how much weight you're losing)? Seeking to express your achievements, be they moral, social or financial, in the most visible terms you can manage? Does anyone else think this sounds a lot like an eating disorder?
"There are certainly commonalities if we consider who is likely to develop an eating disorder and who is likely to undergo a cleanse," says Linda Antinoro, a nutrition specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "The diets seem compulsive and perhaps addictive. The restrictive tone is the same." While Antinoro notes that "few people can sustain that level" of deprivation for long periods of time, which would be necessary for full-blown anorexia, she worries about juicers "getting hooked on the immediate gratification" of weight loss. "Suddenly you can fit into your tiny dress."
Anyway, I wasn't surprised to read that Dr. Pauline Powers, chairwoman of the scientific advisory committee for the Global Foundation for Eating Disorders, considers cleanses "the perfect pathway to disordered eating." Like traditional eating disorder symptoms, cleansing has an almost magical power to structure our chaos. As Slate's June Thomas recently noted, the "liberation" of cleansing comes from "feeling disciplined, in control, and ... able to resist temptation." Or, as Vanessa Grigoriadis put it in New York Magazine: "With juice, you can wash everything away, all the things that make you feel helpless. ... You are above it all. You spent the money on the juice ... and you will be a success. There's no reason to be anxious, because you have everything under control."
This is not to say that everyone who cleanses has, or will soon have, an eating disorder. Nor am I suggesting that all juicers are being disingenuous about their interest in health. But both cleansers and people who struggle with disordered eating show a tendency toward enfolding their dietary choices in myths and religiosity, poetry and rapture. The author Francine du Plessix Gray discovered "mental clarity and spiritual worth" in anorexia. A quarter of a century later, Juice Press founder and CEO Marcus Antebi achieves "remarkable physical, emotional and spiritual status" by sucking down six atomized salads a day. Maybe we've always sought the holy in our daily rituals, whether those small routines are good for us or not. But if juice cleanses make us feel so special, it's worth asking why that is -- and whether any of our woozy, kale-fueled enlightenment comes at a price.