The time: the early 1960s. The country’s mood: playful. Think sand, surf, sun, and a smoothie—fruit juice blended into a beverage as fun as the Beach Boys.
Fast forward to the 1990s. The mood: healthful. Think wide open spaces, meditation, sunscreen, and still a smoothie—this time with alternative variations, including shots of herbal extracts and names such as “Liver Flush,” “Mood Buster,” and “Mellow Out.”
It’s the era of the juice bar. Not the kind that comes in a wrapper, but the kind with barstools, blenders, and herbal supplements—a phenomenon born of Southern California and once “fringe” health-food stores.
During the past few years, the juice bar has nuzzled its way into the American lunch and snack crowds, setting up shop in airports and shopping malls, even edging into conventional eateries such as Baskin-Robbins and Taco Bell in some parts of the country.
“Baby boomers have started to grow up and realize that what they put into their bodies is going to impact how their bodies are going to perform,” says Mark Siebert, president of Francorp, Inc., an Illinois-based management consulting firm. “The fast food they were eating in the past, while it may have been very convenient, wasn’t particularly good for them.”
To that end, Siebert says, juice bars aim to offer both healthy food and convenience. And herbs play a big role in each benefit, adds research analyst Lisa Lazarus. At many juice bars, herbs come in “shots” (about a dropperful) that cost $1 to $1.50 apiece to “power up” smoothies—frothy drinks that are a blend of fruits or vegetables, juice, ice, and perhaps yogurt or sorbet.
“Almost all of the juice bars offer some type of herbal addition—energy boosters, immune-enhancers, weight-loss herbs, different combinations,” Lazarus says. “They’re playing into major common trends of health consciousness” by offering “quick, whole-meal replacement”—industry jargon for lunch in a cup.
Lazarus traces the origins of the juice-bar craze to the smoothies of the 1960s surf crowd and to Starbucks, the national coffee-bar chain. Coffee bars have taught the public about “premium-priced products”—the $2.50-per-cup gourmet drink that has replaced the 25-cent gulp popular ten or more years ago. Juice bars aim to capitalize on this trend, with juice blends and smoothies starting at $2.50 and ranging up to $5 for 24 ounces, including a shot or two of herbs.
Laurrien Gilman isn’t a newcomer to the juice-bar trend. A ceramic artist, she started The Gravity Bar in a tiny downtown shop in Seattle eleven years ago, when alternative medicine and meat-free meals were scarce.
Now The Gravity Bar is a Seattle mainstay, serving herbal concoctions such as “Liver Flush,” a blend of grapefruit, lemon, garlic, olive oil, and cayenne.
Customers are more savvy today than they were when The Gravity Bar opened, Gilman says, and many request their own blends and ask a lot of questions.
“Early on, we taught a lot,” she says. “But people are a lot healthier now. They know more.”
The popularity of juice bars and the keen questioning are part of an American learning curve, Gilman says, one that’s evidence of a new, mainstream awareness of health.
“It’s nice to see alternative medicine and alternative lifestyles mix,” she says. “I hope that it lasts.”
Lasting power may depend on how well juice bars fulfill health claims. Nutritionists say that drinking smoothies is generally better than eating no fruit, vegetables, or nutritional add-ins at all. Yet the nutritional value of blended produce doesn’t match that of the ready-to-eat fiber and nutrition encased in a single orange (see page 41).
And there is the question of overdosing on a good thing.
“Juice bars definitely can offer a very, very quick way of getting a lot of nutrition,” says Pat Kendall, a nutritionist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “You can also get too much, because it’s so concentrated.”
Consumers must also pay attention to their own health needs and avoid assuming that just because the word “health” is attached to a product, it is guaranteed to be a good thing, Kendall says. Pregnant women, for example, should avoid some herbs because they can cause miscarriages (for more information, look for Women’s Herbs, Women’s Health by Christopher Hobbs and Kathi Keville, due out this fall from Botanica Press).
As for those who serve the smoothies, it may be anyone’s guess as to whether they have appropriate training.
“We’re not a college,” Gilman says. “But we do like to be able to train people, and we quiz them. We also keep articles and books on hand for the customers. There is so much to know—it takes some time. Many juice bars are some light years behind us on that, others are light years ahead. I think everybody is learning together.”
Kendall and other nutrition experts at Colorado State urge consumers to take a common-sense approach and ask a lot of questions when entering a juice bar.
Melissa Grimm, national juice-bar coordinator for Wild Oats Markets, says most of her company’s fifty-four markets across the country have juice bars, and all are well-stocked with herbal add-ins to meet customer demand.
At one of their markets, Alfalfa’s in Fort Collins, Colorado, juice-bar supervisor Stephanie Lerche says her customers most often request well-known herbs such as echinacea. One popular concoction she serves is the “Cold Buster,” a blend of echinacea, ginger, ginseng, and the juice of apples, pears, and cranberry. She serves it hot or cold, but recommends the hot juice for someone who’s really suffering.
It’s also common for a customer to come to the juice bar straight from the supplements section of the store, order a glass of seltzer water, and squirt in a dropperful of an herbal extract they’ve just purchased, Lerche says.
At The Gravity Bar in Seattle, customers who order herb-laced drinks typically want a break from a sometimes hectic world, Gilman says. They seek to cleanse, rather than get a buzz, and she supports them in that pursuit.
“We don’t prescribe—that would be dangerous for legal and other reasons,” Gilman says. “But we join in the inquiry and urge people to take some responsibility for their health.”
Jan Knight is editor of Herbs for Health. Her juice of choice includes a ginseng shot and strawberries.