Juicing UP

Health-conscious folks are thirsty for drinks enhanced with vitamins, herbs

February 16, 2000|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

Juice junkies in search of liquid health are squeezing more and more of today's popular, super-enhanced drinks into their diets.

The colorful juices often are infused with astronomical amounts of vitamins or such miracle herbs as spirulina (gives you protein), echinacea (intensifies immunity), St. John's wort (makes you happy) and ginkgo (sharpens your mind).

Names like Wellness, Get Smart, Serious Ginseng and Spirulina Spin promise not only to quench your thirst, but to make you a shiny, happy person in the process.

"They're part of this whole phenomenon we call New Age," says Gary Hemphill, a spokesman for Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York-based consulting and research firm. "Products tend to have a healthy image. They may or may not be."

And not everyone is wild about their appearance -- including Steven Levine, a chef at Odwalla, a company that produces a variety of juices.

"It looks like pond scum," says Levine, when describing Superfood, Odwalla's top-selling nutritional drink, a dark green liquid spiked with barley grass and wheat sprouts. "It's disgusting-looking."

Looks aside, these drinks accounted for about 1 percent of the entire beverage industry last year, says Greg Prince, executive editor of the trade magazine Beverage World.

"Any 1 percent you get in this business is pretty amazing," he says, considering the juices are up against milk, beer and every other staple of the American liquid diet.

The juices, in signature rectangular bottles, indeed seem to be sprouting up everywhere. Catch them in displays at upscale grocery stores like Fresh Fields, spot them in gym beverage coolers or snag one at the local yuppie coffee oasis.

Odwalla, based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and Fresh Samantha, based in Saco, Maine, probably have the most market visibility. But Naked Juice, Rocket Juice, Nantucket Super Nectars, Saratoga, Grainaissance and many other brands are out there, too.

Most of these companies started with smoothies and fresh juices, steadily developing these health drinks, also referred to as "nutraceuticals" over the past five years. (Odwalla calls them Nutritionals; Fresh Samantha, Body Zoomers; Saratoga, Fruit for Thought.)

"People's minds are open to more things these days," Prince says. "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Some maintain that nutraceutical juices are socially acceptable, stylized throwbacks to the power drinks of the fitness boom of the '70s and '80s.

"There's not the stigma that the only people who would drink liquid health foods are hippies and freaks," Prince says. "Carrot juice used to be a punch line."

Douglas Levin, chief executive officer of Fresh Samantha, never understood the stigma. His parents had an alfalfa-sprout business when he was growing up.

"I didn't look at it as strange health-nut food," he says. "I definitely see a trend toward fresh, more natural food."

When determining the amounts of healing herbs to add to a Fresh Samantha drink, Levin says he exercises moderation. After all, Fresh Samantha is named after his young daughter.

But are these high-calorie, high-end, highly perishable drinks that have enough strange additives to make you somewhat high on life worth it?

At around 300 calories and $3 for a 16-ounce bottle, some people use these drinks as liquid lunches when they're not really viable meal alternatives.

"It's just carbohydrate. There really isn't any protein to speak of," says Leslie Bonci, director of sports medicine nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "People are looking for alternatives, a quick fix, something that tastes good."

Before you juice up, drink in the label.

Several nutraceutical drinks offer far more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins. Fresh Samantha's Desperately Seeking C has a shockingly citrusy 2,000 percent of your RDA of vitamin C.

"That's wild," says Paulette McMillan, a licensed nutritionist in Bethesda. "That's unnecessary."

Bonci says 250 percent of any given vitamin or mineral is all the body can absorb at once. The rest is naturally disposed.

"It ends up being a very expensive drink resulting in very expensive urine," Bonci says.

McMillan adds that filling up on echinacea, and other healing herbs too often, may blunt their benefits when you actually need them.

Plus, the world of echinacea, ginkgo and other trendy Eastern herbs and medicinals is unregulated, Bonci says. It's sketchy how much you actually need to elicit any effect, if there even is an effect.

In other words, don't quit your shrink and invest in 700 cases of Fresh Samantha's St. John's wort-enhanced Oh, Happy Day.

"It's just a beverage," Levin says. "It's not medicine."

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