Saturday, June 12, 2010

The ugly truth about orange juice

It was the grown-up version of learning that there's no Santa Claus. My revelation: Not-from-concentrate orange juice is basically an artificially fabricated beverage.

I was in the library recently, and chanced upon Squeezed: What You Don't Know about Orange Juice by Alissa Hamilton. This slim tome is a concisely written commodity study that examines the history of, industry, and marketing practices associated with orange juice. As a regular and at times voracious drinker of orange juice, I was piqued by the subject material and checked it out forthwith.

Here are some choice tidbits I learned from the book:

The product labelling for orange juice is, at best legally correct but ambiguous; at worst almost perniciously misleading. 'Not from concentrate' actually means pasteurized. It was a marketing term that the industry stumbled upon by accident, and subsequently exploited to sell more orange juice. 

During standardization hearings in the 1960s, the FDA mandated that the industry print the word 'Pasteurized' on the label for pasteurized orange juice packaging in letters 'no less than 50% of the size of the words Orange Juice'. The industry's creative response? Make the words 'Orange Juice' very small on the label, and instead emphasize the brand -- 'Tropicana Pure Premium' for example -- and use a large graphic (e.g. an orange with a straw in it) instead. That meant they could print 'Pasteurized' in inconspicuous type. (In the US, the Simply Orange brand doesn't even use the word juice!)

'Not from concentrate' was a term that coincided with a sharp rise in the price of pasteurized orange juice, due to a series of Floridian winter freezes in the 1980s. Tropicana had no choice but to raise the price of 'Not from concentrate' -- but their marketing department cleverly realized that they could use this to differentiate from reconstituted orange juice, and imply that the premium was because the juice was fresher and healthier -- and more pure.

Which is arguably not the case. 

The orange juice you buy from the grocery store is a heavily processed liquid whose relation to the 'original oranges' is woefully distant. 

You may think that orange juice simply gets squeezed, refrigerated, and then shipped to your local grocery, but the manufacturing sequence is far more complicated. When the label says 'Made from fresh squeezed oranges in Florida', that is literally, legally true, but conveniently omits many intervening steps. 

Yes the oranges were fresh, and squeezed (mostly) in Florida. But then the juice was pasteurized, deaerated (to remove all the oxygen), de-oiled, stored in an aseptic tank for up to a year, blended, re-flavoured using flavour packs, and then heat treated again before packaging.

The de-oiling and the use of flavour packs would strike many consumers as unnatural, if they knew that it happened. The constituents of the oils and flavour packs that get reintroduced to orange juice typically do not come from the original fruits that the juice was squeezed from. In fact the industry often de-oils and strips volatile essence to a greater degree than necessary, so that when they add it back in later on they can achieve uniform consistency in the product. And the juice may have been squeezed in Florida but the oranges may come from Brazil and California. 

It is difficult to find an orange juice consumer who is not bothered by the fact that a product that is made out to be fresh sits in storage, sometimes for upward of a year, and is made palatable only by the addition of a flavor pack. p206, Hamilton

The industry has constructed a liquid, using individual juice components, that does not exist in nature. You could not get the contents of an orange juice container from squeezing a bunch of oranges.  

The last point of interest is the fact that Minute Maid and Tropicana are respectively owned by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. In many respects these parent companies are branding organizations whose strengths lie in marketing and distribution -- they outsource the processing to companies like Cutrale. There's a distinct... corporate layering between the people who make the orange juice and the people who sell it to you.  

I will make one comment in the industry's defense. When you examine the mechanics and logistics involved in creating, storing, distributing, marketing and selling the sheer, incredible volume of orange juice that is consumed across North America, you realize that industrial food manufacturing techniques have to be applied. It would be impossible to economically make that much fresh squeezed orange juice.

So -- have I stopped drinking processed orange juice? Not entirely, alas. It's like an addiction to cigarettes. But I've significantly cut down on my consumption. If you want to learn the ugly truth about orange juice, I recommend reading Squeezed. If you want to maintain your illusions about that jug in your fridge, give it a pass.  My conclusion -- the best way to get fresh squeezed orange juice is to squeeze it yourself!

Update: Read the Department of Citrus response to this post...