What’s natural about orange juice?

Over millennia, we humans have developed exquisitely creative and nourishing foodways. That’s how we managed to populate this wide world.  We used our smarts to figure out what’s good to eat. We used our very best smarts to figure out how to make whatever was available become good to eat.

More recently, we’ve been using our smarts to figure out how to get people to eat more of whatever it is we have plenty of — and want to sell. 

And this is why we put orange juice on the breakfast table.

The first oranges in Florida got here via seeds brought from Europeans hundreds of years ago. Before long, the plants escaped the colonizers’ gardens and took hold in the lush wetland swamps that covered the peninsula, growing in clusters here and there. To this day, a farm of orange trees is still called a “grove,” rather than an orchard, a sort of tribute to these wild patches that predated commercial growing.

Cut to the Great Depression.

By this time, farmers had spent more than a century trying to make a go of selling these prolific fruit to the rest of the country. There were just so darn many of them. But before refrigeration, how many could you really ship out, and have them last long enough to make it worthwhile?

Now circumstances were dire. But, a glimmer of hope: America was in the grips of “Vitamania,” and oranges had plenty of the anti-scurvy vitamin itself, the celebrated Vitamin C.  Floridians tried to sell Americans at large on the benefit of drinking tinny-tasting canned O. They didn’t have much success. But the oranges kept coming! And there wasn’t much else for the state’s economy. So they kept trying.

Then, a lucky break. Florida’s orange growers finally found a market for their perennial surplus of fruit in the 1940s — overseas troops fighting WWII.

By the end of the war, the orchards had grown vast, their juice processed in enormous production facilities. It was relatively easy to scale up the supply, thanks to the ready labor of some 10,000 of the German POWs housed in Florida.

Meantime, they kept working on the problem of how to make old juice taste good.

Through high-tech wartime efforts that rivaled those which brought us the electronic computer during the same time period, scientists poured nearly a decade into inventing a way ship maximum orange within minimum space. And it had to be stable enough to travel anywhere.

It came down to this: Scrape out some of the stuff that makes oranges taste good. Oils, peels, and whatnot. Crush and boil down what’s left into a devitalized, largely flavorless goo. Stir some of that flavor back in. Can. Freeze.

This technology has been tweaked to industrial perfection over the decades. Frozen concentrate in your grocer’s freezer today might be made from year-old orange remains. The “flavor packs” mixed in during canning might laboratory creations that approximate the fragrant oils and delicately flavorful compounds of a tree-ripe orange. 

But! Had it not been for some dedicated juice boosters in the right places, the nascent frozen OJ industry would have died on the vine.

Why? By the time the frozen concentrated orange juice technology was ready, the war was over.

The swamps and glades of Florida were by now mostly drained, so that you no longer needed a canoe to get from Orlando to Ocala. Grids of trees heavy with fruit covered much of peninsula, along with industrial plants. And now this way to make and store juice, juice, juice.

 But who was there to drink it?

You already know the answer. 

Consider the following.

There are 26 grams of sugar — two grams shy of a full ounce — in one 8-oz. cup of orange juice from concentrate. Also some Vitamin C. The sugar developed naturally, the orange tree’s way of storing sun energy as carbohydrate. Humans crush the tree’s fruit, add flavoring, and put it in containers. We pour it into a glass and drink it down within a few minutes.  

There are 26 grams of sugar — two grams shy of a full ounce — in one 8-oz. cup of soda pop. The sugar develops naturally, the sugar cane’s way of storing sun energy as carbohydrate. Humans crush the grass we call sugar cane, add flavoring, and put it in containers. We pour it into a glass and drink it down within a few minutes.

Until recently, that was a whole week’s worth of sugar.

What’s the difference between these two plant-based beverages?

Marketing.

That’s the reason we call one health food and we call the other one junk food.

To be fair, higher quality brands like Kirkland/Costco and Organic Valley make OJ not from concentrate. They don’t use flavor packs or BPA.

However, if you are following a ketogenic, low-carb diet and you’re restricting your carbs and your sugars, please be mindful of the implications for your health. The sugar is the sugar.

The keto, low-carb path and the whole foods path lead you to flip around the way you eat. Then you’ll find you start noticing things. Assumptions collapse. What you took to be longstanding custom can turn out to be well-executed marketing. Sometimes, what you thought you knew instinctively can turn out to be just what you were used to hearing .

Oh! Almost forgot. If you should choose to eat an entire orange, you’ll take in about 9 grams of sugar.

(Don’t read this paragraph if you want to avoid descriptions of eating something all of whose calories comes from carbohydrate. When I find out how to put in one of those spoiler-text-hider thingies, I’ll put it in.) You’ll also take in that sweet, bracing aroma that only comes from tearing open an orange’s peel. And the pleasure of teasing apart the sections. And of biting through the carpels, as it turns out those plump little juicy thready things on the inside are called. 

Here’s wishing you sunshine throughout your day. Enjoy!

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