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Wheatgrass has been a staple of the juicing community for nearly as long as there have been juicing machines. But, juicing can be messy, time-consuming, expensive and inconvenient. Consumers averse to making their own wheatgrass juice, shots or smoothies now have a growing array of packaged wheatgrass drinks to choose from as innovation in ready-to-drink wheatgrass takes off.

Well-known to health food shoppers, wheatgrass is renowned for its myriad health benefits that range from energy enhancement to increased blood circulation and immune system support. The young grass of the wheat plant (triticum aestivum), wheatgrass is commonly used to create a healthful beverage with the help of a juicing machine or blender to pulverise freshly- cut wheatgrass to extract juice. While the exact health benefits of wheatgrass are still subject to scientific validation, wheatgrass is regarded as a rich source of dietary fibre as well as numerous vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Wheatgrass is naturally rich in chlorophyll, the pigment in plants that gives them their green colour and a compound claimed to have detoxification benefits for humans. But, wheatgrass has issues, especially pertaining to convenience and safety. Fresh wheatgrass – the raw material from which fresh wheatgrass juice is made – is perishable. Wheatgrass juice extracted from fresh wheatgrass is even more so, and should be consumed immediately after juicing. It also tends to be more prone to contamination than many other types of fresh beverage ingredients, because it grows close to the ground and thrives in damp and humid conditions that are ideal for promoting bacteria and mould growth. And, because wheatgrass juice is often consumed raw, there are potential issues with deadly pathogens like E.coli and salmonella.

Consumers interested in the health benefits of wheatgrass have really only had a couple of options until recently – either put up with the inconvenience, work, mess and expense of home juicing, or opt for powdered products that may avoid some of these issues, but may lack freshness and potency. Packaged, ready-to-drink wheatgrass juice products, however, are changing the game, and could usher in the next step in the evolution of wheatgrass as the next big superfood.

Sellers of packaged, ready-to-drink wheatgrass have made progress by addressing key issues with the raw material, including safety, shelf life and taste. On the former, new NutriBlade Premium Wheatgrass Beverage is made with a hot-fill production process that is believed to be a first for the category. Thanks to the hot-fill process, the drink requires no preservatives, yet has a one-year shelf life. Each 12oz bottle of NutriBlade contains 13 vitamins, 12 minerals, 20 amino acids, 8 grams of wheatgrass and 60 milligrams of “energy-generating chlorophyll.” NutriBlade LLC also says that one bottle of the drink has “more nutrition than two pounds of ordinary garden vegetables.”

NutriBlade is much sweeter than you would expect for a wheatgrass product. This is because the drink is sweetened with all-natural honey and organic cane syrup, which contribute to the 17 grams of sugar (and 100 calories) in each bottle of NutriBlade, but at the same time address the fact that raw wheatgrass juice has an off-putting, bitter taste.

Tony Marks, president & CEO of Perrysburg, OH-based NutriBlade, believes that wheatgrass has huge potential if it can move beyond taste issues and that the drink is perfect for consumers looking for a healthy lifestyle drink or an after exercise recovery drink. But, are consumers ready for wheatgrass? According to Marks, the answer is yes, based on the success of kale beverages, noting that “kale was hot last year, and this has helped wheatgrass.”

Another innovator getting in on the ground floor is Velu Wheat Grass, a drink identified as “wheatgrass evolved” by its maker, Miami, FL-based W Organics. The company says that Velu marks the evolution of wheatgrass from “purely nutritious to refreshing and delicious.” To overcome taste challenges, Velu blends two shots of wheatgrass with organic apple juice and organic lemon juice. Each 10.5oz bottle of Velu contains 40% juice and has just 60 calories, 14 grams of sugar, and is “loaded with super green chlorophyll, the life source of plants.” The Velu brand name is said to be derived from the Spanish words “ver luz”, meaning “see the light”, alluding to the connection between wheatgrass and the sun. NutriBlade also references the sun with the tagline “the sun’s energy, served cold” which rings the neck of each bottle. This appears to be the technique that ready-to-drink wheatgrass beverage makers are using to capitalise on the energy-enhancing reputation of wheatgrass while avoiding specific energy-related health claims about chlorophyll, though the website for Velu does claim that chlorophyll “cleanses and builds the blood.”

According to Jason Magrisso, CEO for W Organics: “Wheatgrass is an up-and-coming superfood. Yoga enthusiasts and the running community both know about it and its health benefits now.” As for the rest of the population, much work must be done if wheatgrass is to successfully expand beyond the shot format. Liquid shots have traditionally been a way to access the health benefits of wheatgrass while side-stepping its taste issues. In some respects, wheatgrass has the same issues that cod liver oil did nearly a century ago when 'The Little Rascals' (Our Gang) television characters like Spanky would recoil at the thought of choking down a teaspoon of what was then a miracle health elixir.

Wheatgrass innovation is definitely heating up, regardless of taste concerns. According to Canadean’s Product Launch Analytics database of new products, the number of new wheatgrass beverages for 2015 is running at more than double the launch rate-level of previous years. And much of this innovation is happening outside of the US. For instance, Germany’s Rabenhorst brand recently launched an Organic Wheat Grass Cocktail, pitched as a delicious breakfast drink. The bottled product is 45% wheatgrass juice, 22% organic green tea extract, 22% organic apple juice and 7.5% organic agave syrup while organic lemon juice and spirulina round out the ingredient list.

Other international innovations show potential for wheatgrass in drinkable yogurt beverages or as a partner with aloe. Probiotic-rich Dairy Home Drinking Yoghurt was introduced in a honey & wheatgrass flavour in Thailand about a year ago. China’s Mizumi Wheatgrass & Aloe Vera Drink contains aloe vera pieces with at least 10% wheatgrass juice content.

Time will tell which, if any, of these drinks stick around for the long term. Regardless, it looks like we are going to be seeing a lot more of wheatgrass in the beverage aisle than we have been used to.

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