And why liquified produce can be $13
EC: The True Cost of Fresh-Pressed Juice
Credit: Photo via Flickr user Catherine Sharman

“YOU ARE WHAT YOU DRINK!!!!!!” my receipt screams at me. What I’m sipping seems to be telling me I’m a total sucker, because I just paid $8.71 for a bottle of lemon-flavored water spiked with cayenne pepper.

But in the high-end world of fresh-pressed juice, paying nearly $9 for this drink is standard. Raw juice can cost up to $13 depending on the flavor and size.

Juicing, the process of extracting the liquid out of fruits and vegetables and drinking the resulting mixtures in an apparent attempt to absorb vitamins and flush out toxins, has gained an elite reputation in recent years. Models swear by it. Bottles of green liquid are the accessory of choice for lithe celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Richie. Juicing has emerged as one of the trendiest ways to show off your commitment to health and wellness. It’s also shockingly expensive. But why?

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Credit: Photo via Flickr user Rob Bertholf

The true cost of these juices lies somewhere between the standard cost of doing business and the fact that juice bars sell more than liquefied fruits and veggies. They offer the intangible sense that you’re making a smart choice. And that’s difficult to put a price on.

While juice bar owners are eager to relay the health benefits of their offerings, they are reluctant to talk about the economics. New York-based chain Juice Press did not return a request for an interview. A spokeswoman for Juice Generation, another New York business, said the company doesn’t talk about price breakdowns for its products because it’s “proprietary and confidential information.” The owner of Juicery Kitchen in Williamsburg, where I bought my spicy lemonade, was willing to be interviewed, but didn’t want to give his last name.

At Juice Press, a 16 ounce bottle can cost as much as $12.99. At Make Out in Culver City, CA, the juices go for $10. Juice Generation sells its pre-bottled juices for $9.15 (you can get spicy lemonade, the main component of a trendy diet called the Master Cleanse, for $6.40.) But what consumers are getting for their money can be a bit murky.

It’s true that organic produce is expensive, professional-grade juicing machines can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and pushing pounds and pounds of apples and spinach and ginger through a tube can be time-consuming work.

“We make everything by hand, from scratch,” says Claudia Gonzalez, who runs the Make Out café with her husband. “We’re 100 percent organic. We support local farmers as much as we can.”

A study by Consumer Reports last year found that on average, organic food costs 47 percent more than conventional versions of the same products. Some juice shops swear by using only organic ingredients, including Make Out and Juice Press.

Gonzalez charges a flat rate for every juice on the café’s menu, $10. She says that’s a compromise. “You don’t make the same profit on each one,” she says. “What makes me the money in my café is not the juices. It’s the foods I serve and the organic fair-trade coffees and the retail products.”

The price of juices in local cafés also depends on the fact that they’re often raw and highly perishable—they have to be thrown out if they’re not sold within a certain amount of time, says Melissa Abbott, vice president of culinary insights at food and beverage consulting firm The Hartman Group. That’s part of why national brands like Suja, which relies on a method called high-pressure processing to make its juices shelf-stable and safe for mass distribution, are able to sell cheaper products.

Oscar, whose Juicery Kitchen doesn’t use entirely organic ingredients, is blunt about the fact that his $8 juices have a 50 percent markup. Customers would be paying much more if he sourced 100 percent organic.

“I try but 100 percent organic is impossible,” he says. “You have to sell the juice for $15 or $20.”

At one of Juice Press’s roughly 30 locations in New York City one morning, I browse an overwhelming number of green-hued and jewel-toned options from the refrigerator cases. I opt for Doctor Green Juice, a blend of apple, pineapple, kale, lemon, and ginger. I can’t believe I let myself fork over $10.99.

“The main benefit of drinking raw juice is that if it helps us skip one or more crappy meals a day, we’re 1,000 times better off!” the Juice Press website exclaims.

The juice tastes good. But I certainly don’t feel like skipping lunch. And as far as I can tell, I mostly consumed 36 grams of sugar—albeit natural sugar.

“People, rightly so, associate a cold-pressed organic juice as healthier than other beverage options,” says Heather MacNeil, vice president of marketing at Suja.

But even more than making a healthy choice, “It’s that feeling of lightness, that feeling of doing something good for yourself,” Abbott says. “You feel virtuous. And that’s the key.”

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Credit: Photo via Flickr user Rob Bertholf

Sure, juice’s elite fan base lends it a certain allure, much like the cool factor of a boutique fitness class or the halo that hovers over other wellness trends like the explosion of matcha-flavored everything. Americans are aspirational consumers, particularly when it comes to making healthier choices. Spending $10 on a bottle of juice is as much a purchase as it is a reflection of who we want to be.

“You feel like a better person,” Abbott says. “You’re paying for the feeling. It’s fairly absurd, quite frankly.”

Still, Abbott sees a ripe future for juice, because it’s convenient, relatively healthy, and offers a less painful way to add vegetables into our diets. The more brands that start scaling production, the more accessible it will become, too. But even now, she says, juice bars could likely afford to slash the price tag.

“I would say the majority of the time, there is absolutely no doubt that that price point could drop several dollars and they could still operate with a gain.”