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

Friday, March 07, 2014

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.


Alissa Hamilton

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Comments [7]

james & kelly

Can you send me though mail not email po box 948 sherbunre NY 13460 and thank you for your time that you send anything you have inform anything pleases again thank you

May. 28 2014 09:00 PM
Maryann Loiacono from Highland, NY

I know a nutritionist who always says drinking juice is worthless, just sugar(fructose) and water. Better to eat the actual fruit so you get the benefit of the fiber.

Mar. 10 2014 10:00 AM
Michael Zullo from Manhattan

Excellent report on OJ. Wow - it's an eye-opener. I was turned off on OJ when we went to the Sunshine State a few years ago to get away from Manhattan's cold winter months. The cost of Tropicana and Minute Maid in Florida's PUBLIX supermarket was the very same it costs us to purchase in NYC's supermarkets. Go figure why...However, my wife still enjoys her OJ in the morning. And, I still go to Food Emporium to get it for her (only when it's on sale) but maybe she'll make the switch to 100& pure apple juice after I forward her the WNYC web link to read this article.

Mar. 10 2014 09:09 AM
Sislowitz from NYC

Crosby should have been singing "Minute Maid Orange Juice is better for my wealth" He was a major shareholder in the company.

Mar. 09 2014 09:04 PM
Sandy Drayton from NYC

Do you think OJ from concentrate is actually the better option? Can we assume that the concentrate does not include the flavor pack? This is so depressing. Hats off to this book and also to Dan, above, for working on a list of juices that are flavor pack-free.

Mar. 09 2014 10:06 AM
Kenneth Fingerman


Mar. 09 2014 12:40 AM
Dan Wich

While it doesn't address all the issues with non-fresh-squeezed OJ, I've been working to catalog which brands use flavor packs here:

I wonder if flavor pack-free brands have more of the nutrients retained, since that would imply they're fresher.

Mar. 08 2014 12:52 PM

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About Last Chance Foods

Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.


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