Feeling the squeeze

The failure of a much-mocked juicing startup

Food
Out of juice: The Juicero press and produce pack in action (©JUICERO)

At the beginning of September the American start-up Juicero announced it was suspending all sales. You may not have heard of Juicero; if you have, it’s very likely only as a result of the many articles mocking it. The company, which had attracted around $120 million in funding, produced a juicer on the same conceptual lines as the Nespresso: a press which only took proprietary pouches of prechopped fruit and veg. The difference is that Juicero sold the machine for $400. You couldn’t just buy the pouches (individual cost, $4-$7 each) — you had to subscribe to a minimum of five a week, and also own one of the presses. Then, back in April, Bloomberg revealed you could get much the same result by squeezing the packs with your hands. From that point Juicero was doomed.

Everyone loves a food-related start-up — everyone eats, everyone drinks. The trend for “healthy” juice, particularly cold-pressed from green vegetables as well as fruits, is still on the up, boosted by wellness gurus and by the fact that fresh juice is actually delicious. Making juice at home can be messy and there’s a lot of waste which is a pain to clean up. But Juicero was extremely easy to ridicule. Its press was wi-fi-enabled — it would scan a QR code on the pack and refuse to press it if it was out of date, forcing you to wonder what would happen if your juicer got hacked, and why a company would want to prevent you from consuming something you had already paid for.

Overengineered kitchen products give me perverse delight — look at Kuvée, a Boston-based start-up which makes a wi-fi-enabled wine bottle and proprietary cartridges that are said to keep your wine from spoiling for up to a month. The bottle features a touchscreen which displays information about the wine (aka — a label), and a sensor estimates how much wine is left (aka — the concept of glass).

The Juicero press was (perhaps excessively) beautifully designed, by Yves Behar’s studio Fuseproject. A study on the blog of venture capital firm Bolt revealed that it was filled with beautifully-made custom components, and concluded that “cost savings were not anywhere near a top priority”. Juicero involved hardware, software, packaging, and a network for processing and distributing fresh produce — the furthest thing from shelf-stable product. Juicero’s founder, Doug Evans, was evangelical in an interview with the New York Times: “Not all juice is equal . . . How do you measure life force? How do you measure chi?” By the time Juicero announced it was suspending all sales, he was long gone. From Burning Man, the festival in the Nevada desert beloved of tech executives, he posted on Instagram: “Peace at Burning Man. #vegan #raw #juice.”

I think the mission to get people pressing juice at home is laudable, because I’m generally in favour of any step towards making something at home. But the Juicero press didn’t actually press juice: it pressed its own “Produce Packs”, and nothing else. It’s offering refunds on the machines. which is only fair since the machines are useless if you can’t get the packs.

There’s an inherent contradiction in expensive, nice juice: the idea is that it’s natural and ridiculously good for you, but it can be enormously wasteful. (As Juicero shows , you will also get mocked.) And drinking juice can just be the nutritional equivalent of necking pure sugar. When someone talks about “juicing” they don’t mean “making juice”; they mean “drinking juice”, “habitually consuming juice”, or going on a “juice cleanse”, in which you consume nothing but very expensive juice (a fad starvation diet).

Juicing is luxurious. I sometimes get a 250ml Moju brand juice called “Daily Greens” — the label says it’s “ridiculously healthy” and made from half a kilo of veg and fruit, meaning that 250 grams of perfectly edible stuff has been chucked or composted. The phrasing suggests you marvel at how much they squashed into the tiny bottle, but in fact they left the same amount out. The largest ingredient on the back is apple juice (42.5 per cent, versus 35 per cent cucumber). I also like the Innocent brand “Easy Greens” juice — which is worse, really, because it’s 79 per cent apple juice, and a 330ml serving (the suggested size) has 25 grams of sugar. In the ongoing sugar debate it’s worth pointing out that your teeth don’t actually know the difference between “good” sugar and bad and that the NHS recommendation is no more than 150 ml of juice per day, for this reason. Juicing also leaves behind all the fibre and lots of the nutrients.

It would be fine if people enjoyed their juice but I suspect they often don’t. Recipes online for “healthy” smoothies or juices, often involving kale, talk a lot about masking the taste and texture. I don’t want to suggest that kale has no place at the breakfast table, but once you’ve put in almond butter, bananas, and blueberries I can’t see the point of adding kale when you could just cook and eat it, which is both nicer and enables you to eat a lot more of it. (Kale is delicious. Sauté it with olive oil and garlic and squeeze some lemon over it, or with fenugreek and mustard seeds.) I find myself thinking fondly of the firmly unfashionable vegetable juice V8, established in 1933, and even of Tapped, a brand of organic birch-water (literally the sap of birch trees, traditionally drunk in Scandinavia), which can now be found in supermarkets.

It’s probably better to drink your veg than not consume any at all. But when someone tells you to eat your greens, you should eat them.