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What is really in your orange juice

Kathryn Matthews is a New York City-based lifestyles writer, editor and Certified Holistic Health Coach. She has written extensively about food, dining, nutrition, health and travel for numerous publications, including The New York Times...

Orange juice isn't what you thought it was

I was clueless about the orange juice that I once drank — as well as my other favorites, including grapefruit, apple and cranberry. In all likelihood, you are too.

When my sisters and I were growing up, we drank orange juice made from frozen orange concentrate. The taste? Kind of flat — nothing special. That’s what my mother bought, so that’s what we drank. On our birthdays, however, my mother would always make us a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice — a treat we loved. Even as a child, I wondered why fresh-squeezed orange juice tasted so drastically different (better!) than orange juice made from frozen concentrate.

When my boyfriend (now husband) moved to New York City after graduate school, he began drinking Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice with no pulp every morning. When we started living together, I followed suit. I liked how every carton of Tropicana tasted exactly the same — no surprises. The flavor was consistently sweet, smooth and "orange-like."

Like most Americans, what I failed to realize is that orange juice is a highly processed food.

Juice concentrates

Juice concentrates are designed to be shelf-stable. Machines extract the juice of ripe fruit. To become a "concentrate," this natural fruit juice receives a heat treatment that evaporates most of its water, resulting in a syrup-like consistency. Through a reverse osmosis process, water is added back — it also involves adding and subtracting certain chemicals and natural fruit by-products to produce a condensed version of a "natural" fruit juice. There was a reason why I thought frozen concentrate orange juice tasted blah: turns out that fruits and vegetables are stripped of their flavor when they are converted to concentrate, and it’s the reason why companies re-flavor your juice — so that it tastes "fresh."

Not from concentrate (a.k.a. pasteurized juice)

Sounds healthy, right? Not! “Not from concentrate” refers to a process where, after the oranges are squeezed by machines, the juice is stored in holding tanks. Oxygen is then removed from the juice, a process called deaeration, which prevents oxidation and spoilage, enabling commercial producers to keep the liquid for up to a year.

Removing oxygen from the juice also renders it flavorless. According to Alissa Hamilton, the author of Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice, juice companies then hire flavor and fragrance companies — the same ones that develop perfumes for high-fashion designers­ — to create flavor packs to reintroduce that "fresh" orange juice taste.

You won’t find flavor packs listed on a food label, however. At civileats.com, Hamilton states: 

Although flavor packs are technically derived from orange essence and oil, "those in the industry will tell you that the flavor packs, whether made for reconstituted or pasteurized orange juice, resemble nothing found in nature. The packs added to juice earmarked for the North American market tend to contain high amounts of ethyl butyrate [scroll to the “human toxicity excerpts” — not nice!], a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice that, juice companies have discovered, Americans favor."

Potential toxin exposure

You may think of Florida as the “Orange State,” a place where oranges are grown and processed for juice. That was once true. But, in her book Squeezed, Hamilton notes that since 1962 when the first major freeze hit Florida’s processed orange juice industry, members of the Florida industry helped set up a juice processing infrastructure in Brazil. In 1985, Brazil had surpassed Florida's orange production and has since become the world leader. And, by 1995, the U.S. began importing “not from concentrate” orange juice from Brazil.

In 2012, low levels of carbendazim, a pesticide used to kill fungus — and banned in the U.S. — were found in orange juice imported from Brazil. In animal studies, carbendazim has been linked to birth defects and chromosome problems. As an aneugen, it interferes with cell division and can cause mutations.

While the FDA declared the juice safe to drink after testing because the fungicide was below "unsafe" levels, the question is whether you want to take that risk. While the use of carbendazim as a pesticide is outlawed in the U.S., it is legal to use in other countries — like Brazil.

Nutrition

Like pasteurized milk, the idea behind pasteurization is to heat the juice to the point that potentially harmful pathogens (bacteria, viruses, molds) are killed. Mission accomplished. Unfortunately, pasteurization also kills off valuable enzymes, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in the juice — the very reason so many of us drink it in the first place.

By drinking processed orange juice, you are no longer eating a whole food that contains a diversity of phytonutrients, including flavonoids found in the white pith of the orange, vitamins (like vitamin C), minerals (such as potassium) and fiber.

And, by drinking processed orange juice, you are essentially drinking sugar. Did you know that an eight-ounce glass of orange juice contains eight teaspoons of sugar and at least 50 percent of this sugar is fructose? In fact, you get 25 grams of fructose, which well exceeds your daily requirement. Because there is no fiber, orange juice acts just like sugar, entering your bloodstream quickly and spiking insulin levels. Overconsumption of fructose (think of the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup in processed foods) is linked to the rise in obesity and other health problems.

The best solution? Consider orange juice an occasional treat and squeeze your own, using organic oranges — especially for children.

More on health

5 “Healthy” foods that can hurt your gut
How many toxins is your baby getting in the womb?
The downside to antioxidants

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