The sad truth about orange juice
Being that now through May is Valencia orange season in Florida, and that these delicious globes of sunshine are stacked high in netted bags at the store — irresistible, ready for fresh squeezing — I wanted to share with you a bit of the underbelly of the juice industry, and how those ubiquitous cartons at the other end of the store get from grove to market. It ain’t pretty. And whenever I juice these oranges, filling my kitchen with bright aromas of citrus and summer, I despair a bit at how we arrived at this sorry state.
Can we not even trust the simplest of grocery staples, the carton of orange juice? Apparently, no.
Commercial orange juice production has a long, checkered history. I haven’t consumed it since the 1990′s. I’d like to say I already had the spark of food activism back then, but the truth was, I just didn’t like it. The texture was never right — either too thin or too syrupy — and it usually served only to make me more thirsty.
Back then, I had a job in the IT department of a large law firm that was defending consumer goods giant, Procter & Gamble (whose headquarters is in my hometown, Cincinnati) against a lawsuit claiming fraud and deception with regard to their orange juice brand, Citrus Hill.
(Sadly, I have no glam, behind-the-scenes gossip to share, as my most significant contribution to this case was to get out of bed at 3 in the morning in response to a panicked page and drive downtown to unjam the printers or add toner to the fax machines for the attorneys working 24/7 on this case. Let it be known that corporate law is not as glamorous as “The Good Wife” makes it out to be. At 3am under office fluorescence, no one is glamorous.)
Anyway, the core of the suit revolved around P&G’s use of the term “fresh” to market and label its Citrus Hill juice, while the juice was actually (and admittedly) reconstituted from frozen concentrate. At the time, we were all shocked. Not just at P&G, but at the entire industry, since all companies used concentrate for their juices, but didn’t label it as such.
Shocked, because frozen concentrate just sounded so icky.
It pales, of course, to what we now know is in our food, but at that fairly innocent time, frozen concentrate seemed a blasphemy and a betrayal to the consumer. It suddenly made perfect sense why commercial juice tasted nothing like freshly squeezed: it wasn’t freshly squeezed, not even close.
Simultaneous to this court action — and more significantly so (although in Cincinnati, everyone was better versed in the lawsuit) — the FDA was trouncing all over P&G for this very issue, “fresh” vs. “concentrate,” even going so far at one point as to raid a Minneapolis warehouse and seize crates of juice.
The “100% orange juice” industry was (and is) fiercely competitive with the big guns (Minute Maid and Tropicana) using every weapon at their disposal … especially words and phrases. Third-place Citrus Hill was arguably just trying to gain a foothold in the battle by incorporating “fresh” into its brand — a strategy, P&G contended, that was used by their competitors, up and down the ladder. The FDA agreed, but claimed it was too busy to proactively police the entire industry for misuse of the word “fresh,” whereas it already had P&G in its sights.
Eventually, these various external forces led P&G to discontinue its Citrus Hill brand, and all matters were closed.
But even now, in 2013, the orange juice story is not over. Far from it, in fact. I say this because many of us scrutinize what we buy at the grocery store for artificiality and are relieved to see the words, “not from concentrate” on the orange juice container.
Not-from-concentrate sounds much, much better, right? Fresher, more natural?
Even though P&G took the brunt of the fresh vs. concentrate scandal, the issue was not soon forgotten. With their masks stripped off, juice manufacturers began developing other methods for producing orange juice in the not-from-concentrate form we are now used to.
In 2010, Alissa Hamilton’s book, Squeezed, documented the bizarre history of commercial orange juice, including its disturbing current incarnation.
Frozen concentrated orange juice is out; pasteurized, deaerated, stored-long-term, re-flavored, not-from-concentrate orange juice is in.
Wait, what the what? “Deaerated?” The first time I saw the term, I had to look it up: A process that removes oxidizing air from the juice so it can be safely stored for a very long time — up to a year — in huge, aseptic tanks. The orange juice you buy today was likely squeezed last summer.
But deaeration removes something else as well: the orange flavor. Before packaging, manufacturers have to mechanically add the orange flavor back in.
The mind reels.
Here’s the summarized view of the process:
Juice oranges are shipped in from wherever oranges are in season (most often Brazil, which is the world’s largest producer of oranges — not Florida). The type of orange is inconsequential. We, the naive, trusting public would like to believe it’s always the Valencia orange, the best and most flavorful of the juicers, and always from our very own Sunshine state, Florida. But not always. Not even usually.
The oranges are squeezed and their juices go through pulp reduction, deaeration and pasteurization processes that prepares them for storage in aseptic bulk tanks.
Now, with the deaeration process having removed most of the “orange” flavor from the juice, manufacturers have to get that flavoring back in there; otherwise, the juice would be intolerable.
And so, they turned to the fragrance industry. The folks whose noses produced your favorite high-end perfume are the very ones who create orange juice flavors.
Manufacturers go to considerable lengths to perfect the essence of the orange in chemical form* and protect their unique signatures. (Small brands looking to break into the industry often hire fragrance houses with the instruction to mimic Minute Maid’s or Tropicana’s flavor packs.)
(* Orange juice does not get dinged by the FDA for artificial flavors because fragrance houses begin with natural orange essences and break them down into their constituent chemicals. From there, those chemicals are reformulated into flavor packs, which are then added back to the juice to restore flavor and aroma.)
And this is why I still don’t buy packaged orange juice: “natural” or not, it still doesn’t taste anything like freshly squeezed at home.
(Oh, and, as I mentioned, most juice oranges come from Brazil, where federal standards for safety concerning pesticides and other handling practices are much lower than ours. So, if you’re consoling yourself that at least your orange juice is safe, we can’t be certain that is the case.)
This, above, is a pitcher of freshly-squeezed Florida Valencia orange juice. Light, softly sweet, and thirst-quenching, it positively shames the thick, almost gritty, commercial juice. (The first photo at the top shows the oranges this juice came from.)
Valencia oranges are in season for the next month or so — seek them out, squeeze some fresh, and test the difference yourself.
And while we’re talking about juices … all of my life, I never liked apple juice. Dark amber and almost syrupy, bottled apple juice was over-the-top gross. I couldn’t, and still can’t, stand it.
Then I bought my juicer, and I tried freshly pressed juice from Honeycrisp apples (photo above) for the first time. Just look at that juice! Pure golden apple essence. And the taste … omg.
I find it completely confounding that the juice industry has taken nature’s most gloriously flavored fruits and reduced them to a hot mess of weird and processed liquids. I understand the trials of mass production, product safety, and supply chain distribution, but, in my opinion, they should not be allowed to call it juice.