I’ve just finished my first green juice packed with kale, romaine, cucumber, pear, and lemon, when my boyfriend asks if I’m feeling the effects yet.
“Not yet,” I tell him. It’s just one bottle. I’ve got 17 more to go.
“I think I’m going to try Scientology this weekend,” he mocks.
That might at least be cheaper: I’ve forked over $155 (plus an extra $10 for delivery) to D.C.-based cold-pressed juice producer Jrink Juicery to consume nothing but liquids over the next three days. That Friday morning, I received a delivery with six glass bottles for each day, a different combination of fruits and vegetables for every two to three hours.
This is an intimidating challenge for someone whose job and lifestyle revolve around food. The first day starts off shaky when office conversation turns to Panda Gourmet, and I’m working on a round-up of the best dishes I ate in 2014.
Surprisingly, though, I’m not as starving the first day as I expected to be. But I can hear my insides turning. My boyfriend brings a mushroom, goat cheese, and fig marsala pie from &pizza home for dinner. I pathetically ask if I can smell. Then I drink raw almond milk with cinnamon, vanilla, and agave.
With the new year underway, resolutions will no doubt have many others turning to juice cleanses. And lately, there are a lot to choose from. In addition to Jrink Juicery, which recently expanded to 14th Street NW and has plans for another retail outpost at its Falls Church facility, the D.C. area is seeing a proliferation of raw and cold-pressed juice operations, including Purée Juice Bar, South Block Juice Co., Gouter, Tasty6, and Khepra’s Raw Food and Juice Bar. Meanwhile, Whole Foods sells its own cold-pressed juices, and a growing number of brands will ship nationwide.
The craze is old news in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where people are more likely to take note of whatever latest thing Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson are consuming. In D.C., you can see it as another facet of the city’s booming restaurant and bar scene—or perhaps the backlash to it. Either way, the juice trend is clearly on its way from hippie fringe diet to hipster mainstay.
“They’re the new frozen yogurt bar,” says local registered nutritionist Carlene Thomas, who runs a company called Healthfully Ever After. “It’s a social gathering place. You can say, ‘Let’s go get green juice,’ instead of, ‘Let’s go get coffee.’”
Even restaurants are getting involved in cold-pressed juices, which retain more nutrients and oxidize more slowly than juices produced from centrifugal machines with a blade. Sweetgreen sold them for about two years, but decided to discontinue them this fall. (Instead, the salad chain is experimenting with green juice that’s pressed in front of guests and blended with green tea.) Chicago-transplant Protein Bar recently launched its own cold-pressed brand. And Founding Farmers—a place better known for chicken and waffles—plans to introduce a cold-pressed juice cleanse at its Tysons Corner location opening next month.
Founding Farmers Chief Mixologist and Beverage Director Jon Arroyo, who developed the cleanse, started thinking about the idea more than a year ago at Tales of the Cocktail, an annual conference in New Orleans that brings together bartenders from around the country. In addition to the usual sessions on booze, the conference also offered some mental and physical health options for bartenders. Arroyo and a friend got to talking about all the ways they beat up their bodies. “I’ve really participated in the debaucherous side of beverage sales for a while now,” Arroyo says. “Wouldn’t it be nice to also offer the option of balancing that?”
Arroyo felt juices would be a natural progression for the restaurant, since they already make fresh juices and syrups for cocktails. Plus, he says, “It makes sense for D.C. ... People work hard and they’re stressed constantly.”
That’s one big reason the trend has taken off, according to pretty much everyone I asked. And it’s true: A juice cleanse requires relatively little planning or thinking. You don’t have to go to the grocery store, cook, or figure out what you’re allowed to consume. Structure is appealing.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Jrink Juicery was founded by two women who come from very busy careers. Shizu Okusa and Jennifer Ngai met at Goldman Sachs—Okusa was in trading, Ngai was in investment banking—then later worked together at the International Finance Corporation. They started Jrink initially as a side gig, in large part because a lot of the “fast” eating options involved heavy foods.
Jrink now offers three choices for its “reboot.” (They avoid the word “cleanse.”) I chose “easy,” which incorporates more fruits, making the juices slightly sweeter and generally more palatable. My Jrink reboot guide listed a slew of benefits I “may experience”: increased energy, rejuvenated skin, normalized digestion, deeper and more restful sleep, improved mental clarity, reduced inflammation and bloating, and so on.
Juice advocates talk a big game. When I chatted with Purée Juice Bar founder Amy Waldman last week, she was on day nine of her latest juice cleanse and planned to keep going. She got into juicing about eight years ago after she wasn’t able to sleep one night and ended up watching the documentary Crazy Sexy Cancer about a woman who drastically changed her diet to fight a cancer diagnosis. The next day, Waldman bought a juicer and drank nothing but juice for 18 straight days. “I just found it incredibly life-changing. Within days, I felt better,” she says. “I woke up one morning and jumped out of bed and I didn’t have any pain. … I didn’t realize I had pain before.” She continued with a raw food and juice diet for the next two years, and ultimately lost 90 pounds in the first six months.
But if you look at the fine print from Purée—and every cleanse purveyor—you’ll find a disclaimer like this: “Purée Artisan Juice Bar, its employees, officers and owners, do not make any claims of the effectiveness of juice fasting to cure illness, heal illnesses, weight loss, or any other medical claim.”
In fact, the dietitians I spoke to say cold-pressed juices can be great as a snack and one component of a healthy diet—just not the entire thing.
“You don’t need to do a cleanse to cleanse your body,” says dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield, the founder of Capitol Nutrition Group. “We already have a detoxification system that works. We don’t need to interfere with these external gimmicks.” She explains your liver and kidneys naturally detoxify everything from the aspirin you take for a headache to environmental pollutants.
It’s also not clear exactly what toxins are being removed through a juice cleanse. “There’s no defined toxins,” says dietitian Thomas. “They’re not saying, ‘It removes exactly this.’ And I think that’s why it’s so easy to get away with.”
Cleanses also promise to “restore the alkalinity” in your body. But Scritchfield says a regular well-balanced diet will naturally produce a healthy pH balance, so there’s no need to interfere with a cleanse. Meanwhile, the cold-pressing process removes fiber, which is important for digestion. (Juice advocates counter that the absence of fiber gives your digestive system a “rest” and enables the juices’ nutrients to be more quickly absorbed by the body.)
Scritchfield says she has not seen any scientific data that shows a specific juice cleanse proven to have a specific health benefit. Part of that may have to do with the cost of studies, she admits. But when juice cleanse businesses advertise clearer skin or better sleep, they are generally relying on testimonials. “I think it’s all placebo effect,” Scritchfield says. “They don’t want to be wrong. They spent the money on it.”
Even though Scritchfield and Thomas don’t recommend cleanses to their clients, Thomas recently tried a three-day one through Fruitive—a company based in Virginia Beach that ships nationally—so that she could better understand the appeal. She found one benefit: “It helped me reset habits.”
But she doesn’t plan to do it again.
“The entire essence of what a detox is and what a cleanse is is kind of unnecessary but highly marketable,” Thomas says. “That’s why it’s so popular.”
By the second day of my “reboot,” I felt more like I was punishing my body than helping it. I was lethargic and slow. A dull headache and hunger set in. While I liked the juices individually, they were collectively sweet. I craved something, anything, savory. And chewy.
When I woke up on day three, my insides felt sore, but improved after a green juice. Then in the afternoon, around bottle No. 4, I got a sudden burst of energy. I felt wide awake and slightly jittery as if I’d just chugged two cups of coffee.
I did not experience any of the other benefits promoted by Jrink and other cleanses of its kind—except weight loss. I dropped four pounds over three days, but I gained it back within the week. My skin did not glow more, and my digestive system certainly wasn’t thanking me.
When I later talked to South Block Juice Co. founder Amir Mostafavi about my experience, he told me he felt a similar way during his first cleanse. “Day two, I was miserable. I was starving,” he says. He says it helps to ease in with a diet devoid of caffeine, alcohol, meats, dairy, and processed foods. He’ll sometimes get customers who come in after a weekend of partying and heavy eating and want to jump into a cleanse. Mostafavi will advise against it. “It’s going to be too much of a shock to your system,” he says.
Admittedly, I ate a burger, not chia pudding, the day before my cleanse began.
Part of the problem was that Jrink’s website and sign-up process make no mention of how to change your diet in the days leading up to the reboot. It’s only when the delivery arrives that you receive a guide with pre-cleanse instructions. (They forgot to include a guide in my package, but promptly sent it via email when I called.) But at that point, the drinks have a three-day expiration date, so you can’t push back your cleanse.
I tried to ease out of my cleanse better than I’d launched into it. When I was finally able to eat again, I prepared a slice of whole grain toast with half an avocado. My jaw felt heavy and awkward chewing for the first time in three days. My stomach twisted uncomfortably. I was tired.
I have picked up a juice since, but I won’t be doing this again.
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Photo by Jessica Sidman