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Chase Chauffe

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Is Your Juice Really ‘Fresh'?

Freezing, concentrate, added sugar, and more

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Biting into a whole fruit is a multisensory experience. A perfect apple is crisp—not mealy—slightly juicy, with a sweet tang. Grapefruit is just as much about the aroma as the watery fruit itself. Get a dry grapefruit and that character is lost, replaced entirely by the feeling of chewing on tiny gel caps. And then there’s the orange. Its flavor in whole form has so far been impossible for chemists to replicate exactly. Russel Rouseff, a citrus flavor researcher since 1974, described the taste of orange as "the holy grail of most flavor people," to Alissa Hamilton, the author of Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice

By the very nature of transforming whole fruit into juice, we lose some part of the fruit in the process. The question is: How much are we willing to give up to drink our daily servings of fruits and vegetables on the go?

Over the last 100 years, the concept of "juice" has changed from a beverage squeezed by hand or pressed in a cider mill to a commercial product that is often heated, pulverized, stored in large tanks, and/or reconstituted. In fact, the very concept of "freshness" has been twisted by the juice industry, who has applied it to every iteration of product, regardless of how much processing occurred between fruit and bottle.

Over the last 100 years, the concept of "juice" has changed ...

Whether you consider yourself a not from concentrate Nancy, a cold-pressed Pete, or concentrate-happy Charlie, the truth is that you probably don’t know what you are really buying. Unless the juice is freshly made in front of you (or purchased in bottles from a store that makes its own), it has to be processed according to FDA regulations.

Take unassuming orange juice, for example. Cartons of Tropicana, the best selling brand, depict a straw sticking out of an orange, read "NEVER from concentrate" in bold lettering, and advertise as "pure premium 100% Florida orange juice." Another popular brand, Simply Orange, is labeled "100% pure squeezed pasteurized orange juice." That wording may seem confusing, but it's the intentional result of a campaign to hide the processes that commercial juicing requires.

It all started in the 1940s. Before that, Florida’s orange growers mostly sold to the fresh fruit industry. Canned juice, writes Hamilton in her book, had been around since the turn of the century, but it wasn’t very good. The boiling required to can the juice "evaporated the flavor" to such a degree that it could fairly be compared to battery acid. Scientists got to work on something called concentrated juice based off the dairy industry’s methods for making condensed milk. This wasn’t great either. Hamilton writes that it "produced a viscous and brownish mixture that lacked fresh flavor." Would-be concentrators then froze the browned orange slurry. Shockingly, that did not make it better.

Vintage orange juice ads via Flickr/ alsis35, Classic Film.

Eventually, those working on the project discovered that "fresh, full-strength orange juice tasted just as good after freezing as it did before" and tested adding fresh orange juice into the concentrate. This resulted in a concentrate that not only retained flavor, but standardized the percentage of sugar in every batch—each can of concentrate would taste the same as the last.

The process was patented in 1948. But it didn’t take long for customers to start complaining that manufacturers were "adulterating orange juice with water and sugar." The FDA, Hamilton writes, felt that labeling concentrated orange juice as "fresh" was a misrepresentation of the actual product. They called to create standards of identity for orange juice, which would have specified what orange juice must (and could not) contain in order to bear that word. Today, some of the most common commercial juices like tomato, artificially-sweetened lemonade, grapefruit, and—oddly—canned prune, all have their own standards, too. Creating these guidelines was highly political. Whether the juices were from concentrate or pasteurized, manufacturers all wanted to be able to call their juice "fresh." More importantly, companies that were heavily processing their juices by adding sugar, tweaking the amount of pulp and flavor, also wanted to still be able to label the finished product "orange juice."

Whether the juices were from concentrate or pasteurized, manufacturers all wanted to be able to call their juice "fresh."

In the early days of commercial juice, concentrated orange had two main competitors: reconstituted orange juice—essentially concentrate that a company had added water to instead of the consumer—and something grocery stores labeled "chilled orange juice"—heat-treated, pasteurized juice sold in ready-to-drink bottles. Because pasteurized juices had to ship their product at full volume (reconstituted juice could ship the concentrate and add water in store), it cost up to six times the price of the reconstituted variety. Put both products in clear packaging, and it would be difficult to tell them apart.

To differentiate their product, Tropicana executives invented the term "not from concentrate" in the 1980s. It was an unmitigated success, and the tagline can be found on many different juice brands today. "Not from concentrate" implied that juices were freshly squeezed, and consumers bought it. But that wasn’t the whole story. Sure, machines had squeezed juice out of oranges at some point (just as they did for concentrated juice), but this was not fresh juice. After pasteurization, the biggest companies store the juice for up to a year in large, air-tight metal tanks that zap the orange-pulp liquid of its flavor. The only reason the flavor resembles orange juice at all is because companies add in "flavor packs" specifically targeted to mimic the aspects of orange flavor consumer groups like most. (Because true orange flavor, as mentioned earlier, is still impossible to replicate.)

In effort to educate consumers that pasteurized juice had been processed, the FDA insisted that the word "pasteurized be shown on labels in letters not less than one-half the height of the letters in the words 'orange juice.'" Today this description can be found printed on the bottom of Tropicana bottles in the same thin, easily overlooked script the company uses to write the number of ounces inside the container.

"People call it fresh but it's technically not fresh juice because it has been pasteurized," Karl Maggard, the senior vice president of sales for Tropicana Products told the New York Times in 1990. It wasn’t exactly a secret that these "not from concentrate" juices didn’t just drip out of an orange, but for customers who simply read the labels at the grocery store, it wasn’t clear, either.

According to FDA guidelines, a product can be called "fresh" if it is pasteurized as long as "the term does not suggest or imply that a food is unprocessed or unpreserved." They give the example of milk which "consumers commonly understand … is nearly always pasteurized." In 1969 the FDA said that using the word "fresh" for food that was "heated or chemically processed would be considered 'false and misleading'" reported the New York Times. Evidentially, "fresh" pasteurized orange juice did not fall into that category, as the word can still commonly be seen on packaging today.

"Not from concentrate" implied that juices were freshly squeezed, and consumers bought it.

Most juices have a processed version and a slightly more natural cousin. The difficulty is telling which is which since in many juices—like orange—both varieties look more or less the same. That’s not always the case with apple juice or other varieties that give customers a choice between strained and clear, or pulpy and cloudy. Until companies start replicating the rustic look of some juices, it’s a fair bet that cloudy juice retains more of the stuff that gives whole fruits such a good name. One study in the Journal of Food Science and Technology found that the consumption of whole apples or cloudy apple juices (like non-alcoholic ciders) "may be more beneficial to human health than the consumption of clear apple juices." These clear juices and the heavy filtration required to produce them cut down on the number of antioxidants present in the juice.

Maybe the relationship between juice and its whole food counterpart wouldn’t matter so much if consumers didn’t treat juice like a nutrient replacer. Sarah Krieger, Registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says, "People get the message that they need to be eating more fruits and vegetables." Most people look at juice as an easy way to get a lot of produce into their diet easily, she explains. That’s just not how it works. In addition to juice being high in sugar while low in fiber (which gets edited out during the juicing process), they have fewer of the fats or protein that make bodies signal us to stop eating. "You can drink a lot of calories and not feel satisfied for very long."

An ad campagin for BluePrint and stock imagery for Harmless Harvest. [Images via Facebook]

When Hamilton published Squeezed, the book revealed that "premium," not from concentrate orange juice was just as processed as the freezer-aisle concentrate consumers ignored in the hopes of something more natural. Class action lawsuits popped up across the country against Tropicana, Simply Orange, and even smaller producers like Florida brand HomeMaker Premium. Reflecting on the reaction that followed, Hamilton says, "It’s not just consumers that are upset at this advertising—companies have no way of differentiating their product." If a small company doesn’t want to use flavor packs they may not have the marketing budget to explain the difference to consumers. "Nobody cared about the flavor packs until they heard there were flavor packs."

Orange juice isn’t the only culprit. Today there are still many juices in the store proudly displaying the "not from concentrate label." But simply not being from concentrate is no longer enough for people looking for freshness. Now everyone wants something called "cold-pressed," too. In grocery stores, cold-pressed juices may also be labeled "not from concentrate," organic, non-GMO, and any other tags to convince the public that these juices are worth the extra money. Depending on the brand, cold-pressed juice can easily cost $12 for 12 ounces. That’s a big leap from a four-dollar half gallon of Tropicana. The question is whether this is just a new way to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes and make them choose one product over another.

In general, cold-pressed juices are simply those processed without any kind of heat, be it temperature-based pasteurization or centrifugal juicers whose motion can heat up the fruit or vegetables inside. The type that’s made fresh in stores (and can cost upwards of $7) lasts only a few days since bacteria growth could easily make customers sick. Often stores that bottle these juices in house throw them out at the end of the business day regardless. Such a short shelf life doesn’t work for companies who want to produce products that can be shipped throughout the country.

In theory, HPP juice retain color, flavor, texture, and nutrients to a greater degree than heat-treated juices, though there has been no testing to prove it.

By the beginning of 2015, the cold-pressed juice industry was estimated to be worth $100 million per year. Big companies wanted in and they adopted a technique called High Pressure Processing (HPP) to make it happen. As the name suggests, HPP juices are sealed and surrounded by water which exerts a high pressure on the liquids inside that container, killing bacteria, mold, and yeast in the process. In theory, HPP juice retain color, flavor, texture, and nutrients to a greater degree than heat-treated juices, though there has been no testing to prove it.

An HPP juice can last up to three weeks. When Starbucks purchased Evolution juice in 2011, the company became the first to adopt HPP. BluePrint, sold to teamakers Hain Celestial in 2012, switched to HPP soon after. If the product is for sale at a local grocery or corner store, chances are it was made with HPP. Such products sold "out of house" need pasteurization.

Many companies like Harmless Harvest, makers of coconut water, use HPP on their drinks but still call them "100% raw," a term for which the FDA has no definition. Like the orange juice industry, companies selling HPP cold-pressed juices have also faced consumer lawsuits alleging false marketing.

It’s important to note that none of these processing techniques—whether concentrate, pasteurized, or HPP—need to be avoided. The resulting juices do still contain some good-for-you nutrients and, more importantly, many people just like the taste. But customers who think they are buying a fresh product, something comparable to a pure, squeezed-in-the-kitchen juice, are being misled. As Hamilton says, "The best thing you can do is buy [fruit] whole … more of the good and less of the bad." It may be more time consuming (and certainly more expensive to eat the number of oranges contained in a glass of pasteurized orange-slurry juice), but it’s better for the farmers who get a higher price for whole fruit, and it’s better for you, too.

Juice-drinkers are on an almost obsessive quest for freshness, but there is no magic drink (yet) that can make up for all the lost servings of whole fruits and vegetables. Sure, blended drinks like smoothies do retain more fiber and nutrients, but people often treat them like snacks, adding in ice cream, frozen yogurt, or even chocolate chips—that’s in addition to the juice, milk, or other liquids that are often necessary to help with mixing. All together, these beverages often contain 300 to 400 calories—roughly the equivalent to one meal. These drinks are often treated as meal supplements, not substitutes.

Since orange juice first became part of a "balanced breakfast," people have been looking for the freshest and best tasting version. First concentrated orange juice replaced canned. Then people decided "not from concentrate" had to be the freshest. Today it’s cold-pressed. Undoubtedly, there will be other juice processing techniques in the future. But juice—even the kind made at home—is by definition processed. If consumers really want to put fresh foods in their bodies, the best thing would be to put down the apple juice and pick up an apple.

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