Last Chance Foods: The Secret, Highly Processed Life of Orange Juice

These two things might not be as alike as you think.

We’ve all seen that iconic image of a straw sticking out of a picture-perfect orange. Turns out, making mass marketed orange juice is not nearly so simple or even natural.

“Not from concentrate” juice actually goes through extensive processing. “It’s really in the storage that a lot of the processing goes on,” said Alissa Hamilton, the author of Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice. “They strip the juice of oxygen so that the juice doesn’t go bad in these tanks where they keep it. And the juice can actually sit in the tanks for upwards of a year.” That’s all before it even arrives on your grocery store shelves. 

Eliminating oxygen from the juice also gets rid of essential flavor-providing chemicals. The solution to fix that? “They actually hire flavor and fragrance companies to manufacture flavor packs to add back to the juice to make it taste fresh,” Hamilton explained.

The flavorists use the chemicals naturally found in oranges and tweak them to consumer preferences. She cited ethyl butyrate as one example. “It’s one of the chemicals… that North Americans associate most with the flavor of a fresh squeezed juice,” Hamilton said. “So they emphasize that chemical. They’re up to maybe 600 chemicals that make up the flavor of an orange.” In Europe or Asia, food engineers might amp up other chemicals depending on flavor trends.

This is the process used in creating “not from concentrate” juice that’s advertised as “fresh” and “all natural.” That branding helps justify juice that’s more expensive than its “from concentrate” counterparts. As a result, and based on research from Squeezed, eight people have banded together to file a class action lawsuit charging orange juice manufacturers with deceptive marketing practices.

(Photo: Alissa Hamilton/Courtesy of the author)

That lawsuit is only one of the challenges currently facing the orange juice industry. Orange juice consumption in the U.S. is at a 15-year low owing to a combination of economic factors and health trends.

On the economic side, orange prices have skyrocketed because much of Florida’s crop is being threatened by greening, a fast-spreading disease that ruins fruit. So far there’s no cure for the problem.

Consumers are also becoming more health-conscious about sugar intake. “A small glass of orange juice contains 20 grams of sugar, that’s five teaspoons in one glass,” Hamilton said. In contrast, an orange contains 13 grams of sugar, as well as fiber.

There’s even cause to call into question orange juice’s reputation as a high-in-vitamin-C cold buster. Orange juice loses vitamins and nutrients the longer it's stored. Hamilton explained that the quantity of each vitamin listed on orange juice cartons indicates how much was present when it was packaged. For every day it sits in your refrigerator, that amount goes down. Fresh squeezed is the better choice if you're looking for vitamins.

All this news appears to be in direct contrast to the early boom days of the orange juice industry, when Bing Crosby crooned about the convenience of frozen juice and touted its health benefits. At this rate, it might take far more than a catchy song, or even an adorable animated bird, to reignite American’s love for OJ.