Chemist Mom Asks What is the Secret Ingredient in Orange Juice?

Health & Wellness on 12.19.11
Contributor bio

If you clicked on the news about “orange juice secret ingredient worries” this weekend, was your reaction:

  1. concern about the health effects
  2. disgust at the newest industrial food shenanigans or
  3. satisfaction to live in such a high-tech age where juice tastes the way you like it best? 

Like so many news stories about our food, the orange juice exposé leaves in its wake a confused public. They are selling juice under slogans like “100% Orange, Pure & Natural” or “Real Orange Goodness”.  Are we pouring our kids a glass full of healthy vitamin C or a frankenfood travesty as part of their balanced breakfast? And how can you know what you are buying?

The Beginning of the Story

The bad news on a beverage that previously seemed like concentrated sunshine was broken by Alissa Hamilton in 2009, when she published the results of her investigation into the orange juice industry in the book “Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice," (Yale University Press; May, 2009). Over the weekend the topic revived as one of the authors of “They Eat That?”, Natalya Murakhver, admitted that she can no longer buy her premium orange juice brand after learning about the practice from another member in her new-moms group.

The ABC news article says “Flavor packs are created from the volatile compounds that escape from the orange during the pasteurization step,” which makes it sound like the orange juice companies just capture the flavors and aromas arising from the orange juice as it is pasteurized, adding them back later to restore the original flavor.  Surely separating juice into two parts and then combining it back together, with the intent to ensure the juice reaches the consumer free of pathogens, cannot be criticized?

Not So Simple

But the process is not so simple as an upside-down funnel over the pasteurizing tank, with a hose dripping flavor back into the juice after heat treatment. State of the art molecular distillation processes can separate individual flavor and aroma chemicals, giving food chemists a library of chemicals as stock for the creation of “flavor packets”.

As you know, human taste buds actually identify very few “flavors.” When we talk about flavor, we really mean the aromas associated with our food and drink. Orange juice without the aroma chemicals is simply sugar water. Food chemists refer to the “organoleptic” properties of these chemicals, which they formulate creatively into mixtures providing exactly the flavor each brand targets.

What, Me Worry?

The good news is that your orange juice is still 100% orange juice. Everything food chemists extract and mix back into the juice comes from the orange. If this were not the case, the label would be required to state that the juice contains “flavor”. There is no reason to believe that anything in your breakfast beverage can harm your health any more than eating a fresh orange next to a tasty espresso seasoned with orange “zest” (no espresso for the kids, of course!).

Also good news, if you wish to take it that way: your orange juice tastes good. You could say it tastes better than freshly squeezed orange juice, if that is the flavor you like. Hamilton mentions that Americans particularly favor ethyl butyrate to give their orange juice that freshly squeezed punch. Ethyl butyrate, with the odor of pineapple, is sweeter than the alternatives like valencene or decanaldehydes. One thing is certain though: the flavor in your orange juice derives from more than one chemical. The blends put together by the fragrances and flavors companies can be incredibly complex, containing 20, 50, or even 100 separate chemical components.

We will never know exactly what chemicals our orange juice tastes like, because flavoring companies rather like their secrecy, for many reasons. First, their recipes for flavor are highly guarded. Without the brand identity their flavors give Tropicana or Minute Maid, orange juice would just be orange juice. Second, all actors in the industrial food chain like to preserve the “myth of food” – that it arrived at your table fresh from the farm, where only happy pigs and chickens cavort amongst the natural beauty of the fruit groves.

Nonetheless, if you want to go looking for trouble, look in the processed frozen food department, not into the swirls of cool, orange beverage streaming from a container of "not from concentrate" orange juice.

How Can I Know What’s in my Orange Juice?

Even though the flavors added back into orange juice come from natural sources and are not unhealthy, consumers still have a right to know if they are drinking fresh juice, or if their beverage consists of year-old sugar water with reconstituted flavors.

An argument can be made that freshly squeezed juice is healthier, even when industrial juice is not unhealthy. The difference is not the absence of bad chemicals, but the abundance of good chemicals. Phytochemicals in orange juice have been credited with reducing inflammation, for example, which is a big deal considering that inflammation processes are implicated in major illnesses like cardiac disease, strokes, and heart attacks. The removal of oxygen before long-term storage certainly reduces the degradation of important phytochemicals, but time is the enemy of these delicate molecules.

But don't hold your breath until the FDA changes the regulation on labelling orange juice. Just ask the Florida citrus growers: they have long fought to preserve the word "fresh" for fruits that really are fresh, or juice that was just squeezed. After all, what juice is not "fresh squeezed"? Who would let the fruit go rotten and then make juice out of it?

Three Options for a Healthy Breakfast

The best way to know what’s in your food is to make as much of it yourself as possible. In this case, you could look at squeezing your own fresh orange juice not as kitchen drudgery, but as “quality time” with the kids. Or look for a locally produced product. You will know it is not industrially flavored when the jug you bought last week does not taste quite the same as the one you got yesterday.

But for many of us, the time for a trip to the farmer’s market, much less the time to buy so many oranges, squeeze them, sanitize the processing device, and clean up tons of orange pulp and peel just doesn’t fit in the morning schedule. Industrial juice still provides the benefits of Vitamin C and possibly other valuable nutrients. If your kids like the carefully crafted flavors, let them drink a glass of juice.

Alternatively, if you desire only the healthiest of breakfasts, skip the juice altogether. Give your kids an orange, and a glass of water. Your kids can write about it in their memoirs.

Top Articles on Juice:

Chemist Mom Explains Arsenic: What Does News on Contaminated Juice Mean for My Family?   
Is There Arsenic in Apple Juice? Dr. Oz Says Yes.
Think Juice is Healthy? Think Again