︎︎︎episode 55

Drinking the Kool Aid: The Cult of Juicing

Sept 14th, 2021

︎︎︎︎ Listen on Apple
︎︎︎︎ Listen of Spotify
︎︎︎︎ Listen on Stitcher

We are going to start this story...not at the beginning, but at the end...and the end of this story is in 2018, with a headline from The New York Post:  “Why no one does juice cleanses anymore.” One could argue that if the New York Post says a trend is over then it’s been over for years...or conversely, maybe the trend is just getting started again?

The protagonist of this article is Sorah Kim, then 22 years old, and it lays out her own journey from embracing the juice fast to gagging over green juice to now shifting into soup fasting?  Yeah, that’s it’s own weird thing, but to be fair, I do think broth was a trend for a few years there.

We talked about juice cleanses in the “that girl” series, but that was weeks ago, so let’s recap what a juice cleanse is: 
  • A juice cleanse is a type of diet that involves consuming only juices from vegetables and fruits in an attempt to lose weight and “detoxify” the body.  This weight loss is very temporary (usually weight returns as soon as the person returns to solid food). And guess what? The body already detoxifies itself.  Just stay hydrated.
  • Most people with any kind of medical education will tell you that while these “cleanses” might make you lose weight thanks to the restrictive calories, the lack of fiber, protein, and fat make them unsustainable for a longer period of time.  And they may also cause kidney issues? Certain types of juice contain oxalate, an acid that can contribute to kidney stones and other kidney problems.
  • The other issue is the sugar--this is going to be a recurring trend as we talk about the history of juice.  We know that sugar (or at least avoid sugar) has its own trend cycle. 
  • Dr. Frank Lipman, who is a “celebrity doctor” and has his own line of probiotic drinks, told the NY Post that juice was “soda without bubbles.” And he’s on to something here...yes, fruit is good for you. And yes, it has sugar in it, naturally occurring sugar.  But it is the fiber of the fruit itself that allows your body to process that sugar in an efficient way that is very different from the way your body would handle a soda. But removing that fiber--which is what juice does--turns into a glass of sugar water (with some good vitamins).  A 2013 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that while a greater consumption of certain whole fruits is significantly associated with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, consuming fruit juice is associated with a higher risk. 
  • Furthermore, for people with IBS and other digestive issues, the sugars in juice can feed bad bacteria in the gut, upsetting the natural balance of microbes, increasing inflammation and other stomach issues.  This is something I have experienced firsthand!
  • As this news slowly spread across the internet, juice began to see a decline in popularity.

2013 was an interesting year for the world of juices...on one hand we had this study indicating that juicing was probably not that great for your health.  And on the other hand...we had Moon Juice growing bigger and bigger.  I could literally do an entire episode about Moon Juice but fortunately Maintenance Phase already did that for us! So give that a listen.  Or read the Eater article that I’m going to share in the show notes.  We also had all kinds of juice brands emerging in the big cities and taking lots of investment money, like Pressed Juicery and Juice Served Here.   The Cut published a wild article by Vanessa Grigoriadis  called “Juice Heads: How the Newest Liquid-Nutrition Cultists Are Mastering Their Intestines” declaring  “If you can make it through a juice cleanse, you can make it anywhere.” Everyone should go read this article because it’s such a journey, it’s written in such a lovely style, it made me laugh, it made me cringe...it did all the things.

And there are few just wild moments that I must share right now.  First off, Grigoriadis interviews Marcus Antebi, the founder owner of the chain Juice Press.  He makes some very strong assertions about juice and food:
  • “Your vital forces are smothered by the consumption of garbage, including ­creativity and spiritual happiness.” Here the pursuit of “purity,” of that “clean food” leads to some sort of creative and spiritual epiphany.

  • “You eat something processed, or steak, you’re not eating something alive. It’s completely dead. It’s inanimate matter. Juice ­contains living things that your body feeds off and cooperates with. It enhances the electrical force in your own body. Now, a Ph.D. at Columbia University hears that and says I’m an idiot. They say I can’t prove it. Well, I don’t have to prove it. Ph.D.’s drink coffee, and they don’t drink juice.”  You start to see a little bit of anti science, anti intellectualism vibe here, right?  Not unlike say the entire campaign around the previous president of the United States. 
  • “I’m like the pink poodle at the rich guys’ party, right—‘Look at him, he’s covered in ­tattoos,’ you know? But maybe someday, I’ll be an eccentric billionaire with long fingernails, with a space program, and farms where things are grown in bubbles, with naked women pressing juice.”  I’m not sure what to say about any of that but I had to include it in this episode.

Yeah, all of this is really EXTRA, but it paints a picture that really captures a lot of the psychology around purity and control that we discussed in the “that girl” episodes, with an extra dose of populism.
  • “Big Food” is here to destroy us, control us, it’s the fuel of the slovenly sheeple.  It’s no wonder that at the time of this article, there was literally a poster inside Juice Press locations that said, “It’s time to wage war! With tomatoes not guns! War against the giant corporations that disguise poisons and processed foods as ‘indulgences’ or even as light and healthy choices. Wake up people! You’re being made sick by people who stand to profit from your complacency.”
  • Those in the know, the elite, the smartest, the most resourceful...they see the truth about nutrition and health that is hidden from everyone else. 
  • And those people who see that truth, who switch to drinking juice, will be rewarded with a better, happier, more fulfilling life.  Another blurb from the Juice Press propaganda:  “Achieving remarkable physical, emotional, and spiritual status is just a few raw salads and juices away.”
    • I read another lovely piece from The New Republic, written by Judith Shulevitz comparing the juice cleanse culture to various religious rituals.  It’s called “Jesus and Moses Went on Cleanses, That doesn't mean you should.” I highly recommend this piece because it counters all of this “drink juice/reach spiritual nirvana” nonsense.  WE’RE TALKING ABOUT JUICE HERE, PEOPLE?!    Shulevitz calls out how fasting has always been a big part of spiritual  “growth,” that reaching a higher level of “physical purity” was guaranteed to lead to higher level of spiritual realization as the body abandoned the earthly sins of gluttony.
    • In this century, we took sin out of the equation and replaced it with “toxins.” We must shed ourselves of toxins!  But it’s still lots of disturbing “purity” talk.
    • Schulevitz says, “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.”  Btw this article is also from 2013.

The thing is...even as much as the internet was loving writing thinkpieces about juice in 2013, it was already seeming like perhaps the trend was peaking? Going back to that piece from the Cut, a friend of the writer confided to her, “I like drinking juice, because it gives me so much energy. But honestly, I don’t tell my friends about it. They’d make fun of me. It’s such a yuppie thing to do.”

We’ve been traveling backwards here, right? It’s 2021 right now, we started this episode in 2018 when the New York Post declared that juice cleanses were over, and we just spent some time in 2013, where it seemed everyone was obsessed with writing about juicing, but it was already beginning to seem uncool.  Well, now we are going to travel forward to 2017 for a moment, when apparently enough people were still into juice to do something called a Juice Crawl, a three-hour-long event that involved working out for an hour and then binge-drinking up to 30 different kinds of juice, traveling as a group from juice bar to juice bar.

The juice industry was shocked? Appalled? Blindsided?  By the overnight demise (all of the stores literally closing their doors for good overnight)  of Juice Served Here, a very premium brand of juice served across LA. We’re talking $12-15/bottle, and it made the other “big” LA juice brand, Pressed Juicery, look like a hot deal with its plastic bottles.  This brand was known for its minimal (blanding) branding.  I was a big fan of one of their coconut cream drinks and I would often use it as meal substitute, because I work in fashion, where disordered eating is encouraged! 

In 2014, the company had received $10 million in funding that it had used to open 9 stores in LA, with a very expensive build out, in very expensive locations.  And they just ran out of money! It’s a tale as old as this century!

In a statement on the JSH website, CEO Alex Matthews said, “In 2015, we noticed a shift in consumer habits in our stores, and within the juice category. The buzz for cleansing was fading. The desire to dine on juice for 3 days in a row was just not as popular as it was years prior.”

I went down a very strange and totally unnecessary rabbithole of the economics of a juice business, and long story short:  a profitable juice business is very hard to run.  It’s all about making just the right amount of juice to meet customer demand because it spoils so quickly.  And juice is expensive to make! It requires so much fruit/vegetables, which aren’t cheap to begin with.  And many businesses struggle to achieve this balance.

We have seen the juice trend hit its peak in this century...but juice is a thing that has been coming in and out of trend for centuries…

We’re going to go way back now to 100 BC to 70 AD, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, telling readers to drink "a pounded mash of pomegranate and fig" to give you "profound strength and subtle form.”

All ancient cultures and societies have had some kind of juice “thing” and all of it involves juice as a miraculous cure-all.  Juice has gotten pretty weird over the centuries:
  • In 1877, the U.S. Dispensatory of Medicine (already sounds very un-legit) advised that onion juice aided digestion, cured bronchitis, and was a great treatment for water retention.
  • 16th-century bald men would stand “in the sun while rubbing onion juice [on] the scalp to stimulate the hair follicles."
  • The ancient greeks actually thought that onion juice was an aphrodisiac.
  • Physicians administered antiseptic garlic juice to soldiers' wounds during World War I
  • Every once in a while, a juice remedy would end up being truly beneficial, like sailors finding that regular doses of lemon juice prevented scurvy.
  • But others were just some kind of torture...like “meat juice,” which was all of the “juice” that could be extracted from raw meat.  It was bottled in the late 1800s by a man named Mann S. Valentine, who swore it was a cure-all.  He even wrote a book about it! And in that book he mentioned combining it with gelatin to cure constipation.

When we talk about juice, we tend to think of, well, the fancy juices I was talking about earlier...but think about all of the other juice in the world.  It’s literally its own aisle in a standard grocery store.  We’ve got Juicy Juice, Capri Sun, Ocean Spray, Sunny-D, Minute Maid.  Juice has always been a beverage for children (you’ll find it on a lot of kids menus even today) and throughout the 20th century, a glass of orange, grapefruit, or even tomato juice was the standard part of a “balanced” American breakfast.

But it’s important to remind you that before the 20th century, juice was--like all the other things we think of as basic grocery store items like pasta and jell-o--a luxury item.  Why? Because you need a lot of fruit and vegetables to make even one glass of juice.  And in a world without refrigerators, a glass of freshly squeezed juice pretty rapidly begins fermenting into wine or hard cider.

Like a lot of the things we eat today, or at least ate previously, juice became part of the standard western diet in the late 1800s.  And it begins with Thomas Bramwell Welch, a Methodist minister/dentist.  Because everyone was a multi-hyphenate back then? The mass production of grape juice began innocently enough:  in the mid 1800s the Methodist church rejected all use of alcoholic wine during communion (it was a religion that forbid any alcohol consumption). The problem was that just about any grape juice pretty rapidly turned into wine because it was unpasteurized. Welch invented a method of pasteurizing grape juice so that fermentation was stopped, and the drink was non-alcoholic. He sold this juice to local churches, calling it "Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine."  The grape juice was just a side hustle as he continued his lucrative dental practice and crusaded favor of Prohibition.  His son Charles grew up, became a dentist like his dad, and also helped with the “grape wine” business.

But Charles thought there was something big there with the grape wine. He thought it could be a bigger idea.  His father told him, “Now don't think I'm trying to discourage your pushing the grape juice. It is right for you to do so, so far as you can, without interfering with your profession and your health."

Charles took the reins and rebranded the company as “Welch’s Grape Juice” and he began taking out ads in magazines and newspapers, declaring his juice's ability to cure everything from typhoid fever to peritonitis—"all forms of chronic diseases except Diabetes.”  He also started two different pamphlets that focused on the Prohibition movement, called The Acorn and The Progress, which were filled with anti-alcohol content and ads for...Welch’s grape juice!  He took the popular temperance movement slogan, "The lips that touch wine will never touch mine.  And updated it to “The lips that touch Welch's are all that touch mine." 

In 1893, Welch took his juice to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which  was basically Coachella.  Thousands of visitors tried his grape juice...and many food historians consider this the moment that the modern juice industry was born!

In the early years of the 19th century,  the US Navy banned alcohol on its ships, supplying grape juice instead. This was a major boon for Welch’s, who said in a magazine ad of the same era:

“Welch's Grape Juice has attained its popular and professional favor through merit alone. This product has been perfected and marketed under the personal direction of the physician whose name it bears and whose purpose from the beginning was to produce a liquid food possessing all the nutrient essentials necessary to metabolism in sickness and convalescence.”

Sadly, by the time Prohibition passed in the 1920s, grape juice was overshadowed by another innovation, SODA, and sales of grape juice suffered.   In 1956, Welch’s was bought by the National Grape Cooperative Association.

For generations of Americans, orange juice was another household staple.  I know we always had in our house.   But until the late 1800s, only people who lived in regions warm enough to grow citrus actually drank it.  Which meant, not very many people. But citrus farmers saw some potential there.  And so in 1893, the Southern California Fruit Exchange was formed.  15 years later, it came to be known as Sunkist.   They followed Welch’s technique of flooding magazines and newspapers with articles about the health benefits of orange juice. And they had the help of “Dr. Vitamin,” aka Dr. Elmer V. McCollum, Between 1922 and 1946 he wrote regular columns for McCall's Magazine "to translate the mysteries of the laboratory into kitchen commonplaces."  His big “thing” was acidosis, a condition in which you have too much acid in your bloodstream.  And it was caused by eating too much bread, dairy, and meat. This condition caused any number of illnesses but he told everyone not to worry! They could continue to eat as much bread, dairy, and meat that they wanted as long as they increased their lettuce and citrus consumption.  Of course Sunkist jumped on this and included it in their advertising!

And it worked to a certain extent...between 1920 and 1940, sales of orange juice tripled.  But orange juice at that point was not as amenable to mass production as grape juice had been.  Consumers had two options:  fresh squeezed (which meant buying oranges, not juice) or pasteurized and canned.  The problem with canned orange juice is it was disgusting.  Heating and then canning it turned the flavor very bitter.  After World War II, scientists stumbled upon the idea of “orange juice from concentrate,”  essentially taking a huge batch of freshly squeezed juice, heating it slowly and lightly until it lost most of its water, then adding a splash of fresh orange juice (and a bunch of water). 

It was a hit:  Per capita orange juice consumption jumped from under eight pounds per person in 1950, to over 20 pounds per person in 1960. Florida’s production of concentrated juice leapt from 226,000 gallons in 1946 to more than 116 million in 1962

In 1958, a German scientist named Max Gerson, published a book called A Cancer Therapy: Results of Fifty Cases.  The gist of it was that everyone suffering from any kind of illness or malady from migraines to constipation to cancer should reject modern medicine and the evil food industry.  And instead they could treat themselves via their food.  All they had to do was eat three salt-free, plant-based meals a day and drink 13 glasses of raw carrot-apple and green juices made from only the freshest organic fruits and vegetables. This practice was called the Gerson Therapy. 

Drinking all of this juice would have been difficult...but fortunately in the late 1930s American Norman Walker--a man who occasionally claimed to be a doctor, but did not seem to be--invented a juicer called the Norwalk Juicer and that company still exists today.  Walker wrote a series of books promoting a vegetarian, raw food diet.  He felt that all cooked and baked foods were bad for the body, saying “while such food can, and does, sustain life in the human system, it does so at the expense of progressively degenerating health, energy, and vitality.” He was, however, totally okay with frozen food. And he also felt that constipation was the root cause of just about every illness, so this raw, juice focused diet would prevent that.

Each decade or so, another juice trend would pop up:
  • In 1955, the world got its first masticating juicer, the Champion;
  • In 1971, Jack LaLanne created the Power Juicer. He is considered the father of the modern fitness movement and to be fair, he lived to be 96!!!
  • In 1991, Jay Kordich, "the father of juicing," released the Juiceman, selling 2 million units in 1992.  Kordich credited juicing with curing the bladder cancer he had in his 20s.  He lived to be 93.

Thanks to Kordich and his Juiceman, juicing picked up a ton of momentum in the 90s.  It was a fast way to lose weight! It supposedly helped us detox and live longer and maybe it cured diseases?  This was the narrative.  And juicing became sort of a “niche” thing for people who shopped at health food stores, who might call themselves health nuts 

At the same time, all of the other juices--apple, grape, OJ, etc--saw a decline in sales as people saw them as sugary, empty calories. 

But this fancier juice picked up momentum going into the aughts, as magazines shared article after article about this and that juice diet that celebrities were using.  And it was a great concept...sure you’ll never *be* Blake Lively or Sarah Jessica Parker, but even YOU can drink juice and get as close as possible.   Juice was an aspirational brand  It said you had money, you were healthy, you looked good, you had the luxury of buying a $10 juice.  As Vanessa Grigoriadis said in the Cut, "Juice says you don't do manual labor: You make money with your fingers in the new economy, nails painted a cheery neon or pastel gel as you text."

Soon all of these juice brands took off, we saw smaller brands like Odwalla and Naked were acquired by big companies (like Coca Cola and Pepsi) and brought the juice lifestyle to middle america.  And soon we were being sold $199 juice fast packages, Moon Juice sold us silly things like “Sex Dust,” and Goop became a massive brand.

For discussion: does athletic clothing trend alongside juice?