Misunderstanding Orange Juice as a Health Drink

Juice is, nutritionally, not much better than soda. How did U.S. consumers come to believe that oranges, in any form, were an important part of a healthy diet?

Gary Cameron / Reuters

A tall glass of orange juice is the very image of refreshment, packed with vitamins and radiating with sunshine freshness. It’s part of a balanced breakfast, after all. But America’s classic morning drink is in trouble: sales of commercial orange juice are down to their lowest levels in the last 15 seasons, according to the WSJ and the Florida Department of Citrus. The industry is facing growing competition from exotic fruit and energy drinks while its “all-natural” claims are being called into serious question.

Orange juice’s fresh and healthy reputation lies in the balance today, but it was once America’s healing elixir around which an entire industry staked its hopes. Orange juice’s fabled health benefits were promoted by nutritionists, fruit producers, marketers, and the government, who credited orange juice with curing everything from scurvy to listlessness, and even a rare blood condition called acidosis. But orange juice did not always have a place at the American breakfast table, mostly because for years it was either too expensive, or just didn’t taste very good.

Here’s a taste experiment for the adventurous and historically inclined drinker: Boil some orange juice, place it in a can, and leave it on a shelf for several weeks. This is what most people knew as orange juice in the 1920’s. In lieu of pricey fresh-squeezed, average Americans enjoyed what the latest preservation technology offered: canned juice, which was essentially boiled to death. Unsurprisingly, its flavor was…somewhat lacking.

At the time, most people ate oranges rather than drinking their fruit. Coffee was the primary morning beverage. But consuming oranges in any form became an increasingly important part of a healthy diet largely because of the efforts of advertisers and an ambitious biochemist named Elmer McCollum. According to Harvey Levenstein’s book Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat, McCollum became the unofficial nutritionist of the nation beginning in the early 1920’s when he heavily promoted the life-extending and healing capabilities of vitamins and warned against the deadly effects of a vitamin-deficient diet. This “Vitamania” gave producers the perfect marketing opportunity. The National Fruit Growers Exchange, under the Sunkist brand, created a national campaign promoting drinking daily doses of orange juice for its “health giving vitamins and rare salts and acids.” But McCollum soon cast aside vitamins in favor of acid.

McCollum ignited a panic over a nebulous condition called acidosis: an excess of acid in the bloodstream which supposedly caused fatigue and lassitude. He claimed the ailment was brought on by consuming meat, eggs and bread, which were acid producers. His advice: Eat lots of citrus fruit and lettuce. These foods rather counterintuitively were transformed from acid into alkaline in the stomach. Unsurprisingly, citrus producers seized upon this new health scare.

In this 1929 acidosis awareness booklet/Sunkist advertisement, the devastating effects of untreated acidosis are illustrated: “Estelle seemed to lack vitality; didn’t even make an effort to be entertaining; hence, she did not attract the men...‘Acidosis’ is the word on almost every modern physician’s tongue.” The cure was simple: Consume oranges in any form and at every possible opportunity. And Sunkist assured the acidosis-fearing reader that it was impossible to overindulge in oranges. By 1934, scientists began calling acidosis a fad and a rare ailment unaffected by drinking orange juice, and citrus producers redirected their marketing efforts back to vitamin C. When World War II broke out, the government also turned its attention to vitamin C. Orange juice’s journey to its exalted place at the breakfast table really begins here.

During World War II the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged Florida citizens to do their wartime duty and increase production of food staples such as oranges. But the government soon recognized a larger problem: American soldiers were rejecting the vitamin C-packed lemon crystals included in their food rations—they simply didn’t taste very good. The government needed to fulfill the nutritional needs of soldiers and ward off scurvy with a tasty and transportable vitamin C product. With the support of the federal government and the Florida Department of Citrus, a group of scientists went to work developing something superior to canned orange juice in the name of science and country. In 1948, three years after the war had ended and after nearly a decade of research, frozen concentrated orange juice was born. It was heralded as a symbol of American innovation and determination, and it arrived just in time.

Despite marketing campaigns promoting the consumption of oranges as a cure for everything from singlehood to the common cold, Florida’s fertile groves were producing too many oranges. The push for production during the war was now threatening the survival of the entire Florida orange industry. The arrival of frozen concentrated juice provided mass market potential for oranges for the first time. By 1949, Florida’s orange processing plants were churning out 10 million gallons of concentrated orange juice which was, rather deceptively, marketed as “fresh-frozen.” Consumers finally had an affordable, “tasty,” convenient and vitamin-C rich product, and they gulped it down.

The post-war American Dream was an image of domestic serenity in which the national talent for creating labor-saving technology was realized. Americans were eating better for less money and in less time. “Fresh-frozen” orange juice was concentrated health stuffed into a can and its only preparation requirements were thawing, adding water, and stirring. In Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, Harvey Levenstein argues that such convenience foods became an essential part of the post-war housewife’s duty to build a healthy and happy American home. In 1952, the American Can Company advertised that frozen orange juice had saved housewives the equivalent of 14,000 years of “drudgery” that year.

Alissa Hamilton points out in Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice, that with the rapid growth of convenience foods a larger question emerged around the very notion of what normal food was: processed or untouched? People ate one alongside the other without thinking too much about it. In the 1950’s, chemists developed more than 400 new additives to aid in processing and preserving food (taste was an afterthought, at best). Canned meals, powdered foods, frozen seasonal and exotic produce were now readily available year-round. Women’s magazines extolled these “new” foods and their miraculous time-saving attributes. But the idea that something processed could also be “fresh,” was provoking questions. By 1960 the FDA was becoming concerned with the misrepresentative “fresh” labeling of commercial orange juice. Not only was it far from fresh, but sugar and water were being added. Federal standards and regulation ensued.

Frozen concentrated orange juice remained the breakfast drink of choice until the mid-1980’s when technology finally got closer to quenching consumer’s thirst for fresh-tasting juice with the creation of reconstituted "Ready to Serve" juice. Portraying orange juice as practically fresh-squeezed was now the primary pursuit of marketers, like this Tropicana commercial with the enticing “squeeze me a glass” jingle. In the 1990’s “not from concentrate” orange juice hit the shelves and blew everything else away. Rather than vitamins in a can, we now had freshness and purity in a carton.

But as Hamilton details in her book, there is practically nothing fresh or pure about it. Most commercial orange juice is so heavily processed that it would be undrinkable if not for the addition of something called flavor packs. This is the latest technological innovation in the industry’s perpetual quest to mimic the simplicity of fresh juice. Oils and essences are extracted from the oranges and then sold to a flavor manufacturer who concocts a carefully composed flavor pack customized to the company’s flavor specifications. The juice, which has been patiently sitting in storage sometimes for more than a year, is then pumped with these packs to restore its aroma and taste, which by this point have been thoroughly annihilated. You’re welcome.

Recently there has been a series of lawsuits against PepsiCo, Tropicana’s parent company, disputing its “all-natural” labeling, in part because of Hamilton’s exposure of industry practices. Meanwhile, growers plan to roll out a marketing campaign to address some of these health concerns by promoting drinking smaller glasses of juice. “The industry is trying to revive its healthy reputation against all odds,” says Hamilton. “Not only is orange juice heavily processed, but it’s straight sugar which today people recognize as contributing to obesity and diabetes.” Hamilton admits that orange juice is low on the FDA’s list of priorities, but the British government is taking action by calling for a tax on fruit juice and warning consumers that it has as much sugar as Coke and should be consumed sparingly. In the meantime, though the acidosis scare may be long forgotten, most of us still like to think we can find health in a glass of orange juice—at least more health than in a can of soda. Maybe that classic breakfast isn’t so balanced after all.