On a blinding-white electronic billboard hanging above the counter at a Jugofresh juice bar inside Whole Foods Market in Aventura, pictures of vibrantly colored smoothies are accompanied by strange names such as "Almond Strong" and "Raw Power."
A rainbow of juice bottles fills an open-faced refrigerator below. They have similarly bizarre names. One is the Alkaline Gangster. It's a dark-green mixture that the label says is a blend of cucumber, celery, spinach, parsley, lemon, and ginger. There's also the Coco Carota, an orange blend of coconut water and carrots. Each 16-ounce bottle costs about $11, the same price per ounce as a reasonable Bordeaux wine.
The Almond Strong, the board claims, will lead to "brain boosting." The Raw Power is described on the label as "heart healthy" and "bone building." On Jugofresh's website, the Alkaline Gangster is alleged to help the heart, while the Coco Carota is asserted to cause "bone strengthening."
"The medical research is not there to back up claims like this," says Dr. Tania Rivera, a professor at Florida International University's Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. "These juice bars claim certain things, and ultimately it's really negative for the health community. I'll always think it's just better to eat the carrot instead of juicing it."
Jugofresh founder Matthew Sherman can't provide scientific evidence for health claims about his restaurant's juices but nevertheless defends them as accurate. He says four certified holistic-nutrition coaches have helped him design the brand's juices and make ingredient-health connections. The claims are meant to create "digestible" explanations for consumers on the benefits of particular ingredients, he says. To Sherman, terms such as "performance-enhancing" and "muscle-building" are not health-related but rather relevant information. "If we were to just write this juice contains vitamins A, B, and C, and minerals, some important information is lost to a customer who is not informed or knowledgeable about nutrition," he says.
Juicing, of course, has become big business in recent years. In 2012, Barron's reported that annual sales in the United States were about $5 billion. Cold-pressed juice, the premium stuff that generally involves no pasteurization or high-tech processing, made up about $100 million of that. At the time, there were 6,200 juice bars nationwide, according to the financial magazine.
Part of this growth came with health claims ranging from improved brain function to heart health and stronger immunity. They have recently drawn prodigious criticism. Academic experts such as FIU's Rivera, as well as consumer advocates and others, contend the claims are overblown.
In three recent court cases, some of the largest juice producers have been forced to backtrack. In 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., sued Coca-Cola over health claims made on Vitaminwater bottles. To settle the case, the firm ended up agreeing to drop health-referencing labels and note the drink was made "with sweeteners." In 2013, PepsiCo paid $9 million to settle a class-action lawsuit after acknowledging it used "a boost of vitamins" in its Naked Juice drinks, which were labeled "all natural." And in July 2014, the firm that produced the cactus-based fruit drink Nopalea agreed to a $3.5 million settlement after the Federal Trade Commission claimed it had deceived consumers via spurious health-related claims, including pain relief, reduced joint and muscle swelling, and breathing improvement.
Still pending is a lawsuit filed this past October that again claims PepsiCo's Naked labels its bottled juices as healthier than they really are. "Consumers demand what they perceive as better products," says Maia Kats, director of litigation at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which filed the most recent suit against Naked. "The Naked Juice case is now a model for litigation against these companies."
Michael Ostheimer is an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, which polices advertising claims. For years, he says, his agency has attempted to stop juice companies — mainly large-scale national firms — from making overhyped medical assertions. "We expect companies to have evidence from scientists to support claims," he says. "It's illegal if they don't have substantiation. Drink a juice if it tastes good, but don't buy it for some unfounded health claim."
Jugofresh was one of the first companies to bring the juice-bar trend to South Florida. It opened in 2012 in Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour neighborhood. Bright, pretty, and clean, it peddled juices, açaí bowls, oatmeal, and smoothies at premium prices. Lycra-clad customers snatched up the stuff, and sales ballooned. Soon the brand opened a second location, in Wynwood. Then came a warehouse in Lemon City and multiple standalone stores in Coral Gables, South Miami, North Miami, and South Beach.
But eventually, the company closed most of those locations to focus on shops inside Whole Foods Market locations across South Florida, including Coral Gables, South Beach, downtown Miami, North Miami, Aventura, Davie, Fort Lauderdale, and Boca Raton.
Today the brand makes more than 20 health-related claims about its juices. Take, for example, the El Green-Go. It's advertised as a blend of apple, celery, spinach, lemon, and parsley. Jugofresh's website contends this combination offers kidney cleansing, blood building, and anti-inflammatory effects. "Parsley is a natural diuretic," Sherman says. "This is not an opinion. By helping the body eliminate fluids naturally, it has been shown to improve kidney health."
Rivera, who has a PhD from FIU and was recognized by the American Dietetic Association as an outstanding educator, responds, "I've never heard of that. If there's medical science backing this up, I've never read it, and I am very up-to-date with new research. Kidney function has nothing to do with parsley. Regardless of what you believe, science doesn't lie."
Dawn Le-Walters, a brand manager at Jugofresh, acknowledges the company's assertions about health are not proven by conventional medical findings. Instead, they are based on Sherman's experience in the holistic health world, she explains, adding, "There is no one medical journal that we look to. We gather our information through holistic research."
Adds Sherman: "The food system has failed much of our country. A diet rich in the ingredients that we widely use is a key component of wellness."
Another juice bar and café, Dr Smood, opened a few blocks away from Jugofresh's Wynwood store in December 2015. Owned by Danish entrepreneur René Sindlev, who cofounded the jewelry company Pandora, Dr Smood sells cold-pressed juices that are color-coded to indicate six alleged health benefits. There's yellow for immunity, blue for energy, purple for general health, pink for beauty, green for detox, and orange for superpower.
A pink-labeled bottle, priced at $10, is made with orange, thyme, rosemary, rose petal, and water.
Christian Nimand Jansen, the brand's head of nutrition, acknowledges there aren't clinical studies that prove the drink will make you more beautiful. But he says Dr Smood researches juice and other combinations on the online database PubMed, which includes more than 26 million medical articles, journals, and books.
"It's not that we want to claim that you drink one juice and all your pain goes away," he says. "It's more of a lifestyle."
Virtually all juice at both Jugofresh and Dr Smood is cold-pressed, which means it's made of crushed and pressed fruits and vegetables. During the process, much fiber is often lost. Dr. Barbara Colonna, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Miami, who earned a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1999, says that's a problem.
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"There's a reason why it's important to consume whole fruits and vegetables... It keeps you full," Colonna says. "You also don't overdose on sugars. If you've drank a juice, you've basically maxed out on your carbohydrates for the day but feel like you've eaten nothing."
Two other Miami operations that sell juices avoid any health claims. At Raw Juce, a growing Palm Beach-based juice bar with six locations across South Florida, founder Barry Rabkin believes labeling juices with health claims is a "marketing gimmick... They're targeting people who stumble by their store," he says. "Juicing isn't about that. It's about leading a healthy lifestyle. You can't drink a juice one day, eat a hamburger the next, and wonder why you don't feel better."
Paul Van Hamond founded Expressed Juice, which supplies juices to hotels and stores including the Miami Beach Edition, the Nautilus South Beach, and Milam's Market. "The only claim I make is that they taste fantastic," he laughs. "But if you drink it for two days, I'm not going to claim some health effect. They should be part of a diet, not the whole diet."
Dr. Sabrina Sales-Martinez, a registered dietitian and professor at FIU, earned a PhD in dietetics and nutrition in 2015 and is an active member of the American Society for Nutrition. She explains that fruits and vegetables are great to eat but that there isn't research that connects juicing to major health benefits. "People are... interested in how food can provide effects like medicine," she says. "With that interest come products and companies that serve that demand. [But] as convenient as it is, it's not as healthy as eating a whole fruit or vegetable."