An Unnatural History of Orange Juice

McPhee.oranges.1In 1965 John McPhee drove down to Florida during the harvest season, anticipating the opportunity to taste Florida’s famous orange juice at its freshest. When he stopped at a state welcome center promising free Florida orange juice, he was disappointed to be handed a small cup of juice reconstituted from frozen concentrate. Along the highway he noticed a sign for a restaurant which advertised orange juice, the word “fresh” still barely visible after being covered in white paint. And at a motel restaurant surrounded by orange groves, a waitress explained to him that all they offered was reconstituted juice. In 1965, nobody wanted fresh orange juice.  “Fresh is either too sour or too watery or too something,” the waitress explained. “Frozen is the same every day. People want to know what they’re getting.” McPhee wandered through the brave new world of hydroponically grown trees and frozen concentrated orange juice as an outsider—a man from another, much earlier time.  His description of the Florida citrus industry in an earlier stage of its embrace of industrialized processes is a fascinating read today, and it leaves the reader wondering if he had any idea what the next half century would bring. Could he have predicted that in 2013, most Americans would abandon the frozen concentrate, which seemed the height of modern back in the 1960s, and instead embrace something officially called “not-from-concentrate” because they believed–wrongly–it was somehow more authentic and natural, and, well, almost “fresh?”

Graphic from Business Week.

Graphic from Business Week.

Today the biggest American orange juice brands are subsidiaries of the two soda pop giants, Coke and Pepsi. A recent article in Business Week describes the very complex processes employed by soda giants to deliver consistent, “fresh-tasting” orange juice to grocery stores twelve months a year:  “The raw juice is . . . flash-pasteurized and piped to storage tanks as large as 2 million gallons each for up to eight months. Inside the tanks, the juice is slowly agitated at the bottom so it doesn’t settle. A nitrogen gas blanket at the top keeps out rot-inducing oxygen. Batches of juice from various crops and seasons are segregated based on features such as orange type, sweetness, and acidity. In-season juice is typically mixed with off-season juice.” Flavor essences are extracted from rind and pith, then eventually reintroduced into the juice. Coca Cola chemists employ an algorithm they call “Black Book” to ensure that the juices from these older and newer oranges, as well as the flavor essences, are mixed exactly right to achieve perfect consistency in taste.

squeezedThe juices created by these processes appear in the supermarket under brand names like Simply Orange, which touts itself as “honestly simple” and Tropicana Pure Premium, which declares itself to be “100% Pure and Natural.” To be fair, anyone who takes the time to visit Tropicana’s website can watch this video “Grove to Glass: How Tropicana Makes Juice,” and learn how complex the process actually is. But is it deceptive to declare that these juices are “honestly simple,” “fresh-tasting” and “100% Pure and Natural” on their labels? Alissa Hamilton, author of Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice argues that the typical consumer of orange juice believes they are getting something closer to fresh, when they plunk down extra coin for juices that tout themselves as “not from concentrate” and “never frozen.”

Perhaps Americans, caught between the conflicting desires for fresh and natural, on one hand, and convenience, consistency, and “permanent global summertime” on the fresh a perishableother are willingly bamboozled. Or perhaps the very meaning of terms like “natural” and “fresh” are in flux. In her fascinating book Fresh: A Perishable History Susan Freidberg contends that the very meaning of the word “fresh” has changed as we have developed new technologies to keep things from spoiling. Freidberg examines the changing meanings of “fresh” for a range of food products, from fruits and vegetables to milk, fish, and beef. “On the surface, few food qualities seem as unquestionably good as freshness. Dig a little deeper,” Freidberg warns, “and few qualities appear more complex and contested. At bottom, the history of freshness reveals much about our uneasy appetites for modern living, especially in the United States.”