Orange juice: basic beverage isn't so simple

Before dispensing a box a day of OJ into your child's lunch box, consider that the ubiquitous drink, while generally healthy, has a lot more to it than you might think.

Canadians consume far less orange juice than beer or soft drinks, but among fruit juices, the squeezed citrus is king. Average annual OJ intake totals about 12.5 litres — twice as much as apple juice, though six times less than lager.

Among younger children, juice is still the beverage of choice after milk and water. Toddlers aged one through eight imbibe more fruit juice than pop or artificial "fruit drinks," according to Statistics Canada, although the numbers flip once kids reach 14.

But before dispensing a box a day of OJ into your or your child's lunch box, consider that the ubiquitous drink, while generally healthy, has a lot more to it than you might think.

What's in it: orange juice

The basic blends come in two forms: frozen concentrated orange juice, dominated by Coca-Cola's Minute Maid brand, and not-from-concentrate juice, led by rival PepsiCo's Tropicana label. The former, in its most rudimentary incarnation, contains only filtered water and concentrated orange juice. Tropicana trims it down even more, boasting "100 per cent fresh-picked oranges — nothing added, nothing taken away."

Orange juice sold in grocery stores contains far more than just squeezed oranges. ((Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press))

Such claims amount to semantic chicanery, according to Alissa Hamilton, a lawyer, food policy expert and author of Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice. "A product such as not-from-concentrate, which is marketed as a higher-quality, fresher product than, say, from concentrate, is a heavily processed product," Hamilton told CBC News in an interview last year.

It works like this: Once the juice is pressed from the fruit, it's pasteurized, whether it's destined for concentrate or a carton of "fresh-picked." Juice for concentrate is then heated in an evaporator that boils off much of its water but also burns away bitter oils from the orange peels, oils that can contain pesticides and degrade the juice's taste. So-called "fresh" juice, however, has to have those oils removed mechanically. It also has much of its oxygen stripped in a process called deaeration. This is to prevent spoiling because the juice will spend up to a year in million-gallon vats before it's packaged, sold and consumed.

Fit for a prime minister: John Major, the then British PM, sips a glass of OJ in October 1993. (Kevin Coombs/Reuters)

"When you strip the juice of oxygen, you also strip it of flavour-providing chemicals, natural chemicals to the orange juice, so the juice companies then hire flavour and fragrance companies — the same ones that make high-end perfumes and colognes — to manufacture flavour packs to put back into the juice to make it taste fresh," Hamilton said. Without the flavour packs, the juice "would taste like sugar water, essentially," she added.

The flavour packs are made by taking the oils and other substances lost during processing, breaking them down into their component chemicals, then reassembling them in trademark combinations that get reinserted into the juice. As a result, North American orange juice has higher-than-natural concentrations of ethyl butyrate, Hamilton said, because beverage producers have discovered consumers associate its smell with that of fresh oranges. Other chemicals — various esters and aldehydes — have also been found to be important to orange juice's aroma, and their levels are manipulated to try to redress the effects of pasteurization. 

What it means

Filtered water

Under Canada's Food and Drugs Act, this can mean demineralized water (treated to remove impurities), but also water that contains fluoride or chlorine. Water is often fluoridated with a chemical called hexafluorosilicic acid, a byproduct of the manufacture of fertilizers. It can be chlorinated using one of several chlorine-containing chemicals, including hypochlorous acid, sodium dichloroisocyanurate and trichlor.

Concentrated orange juice

The Food and Drugs Act regulations define "concentrated orange juice" as orange juice "that is concentrated to at least half of its original volume by the removal of water." In addition, concentrated OJ can contain a sweetening ingredient and one or more of orange essence, oil or pulp. There are strict rules about what qualifies as orange essence: It has to be taken from the peel or oil of sweet oranges, and must have a particular strength. The ethyl butyrate added to orange juice is an isolate of orange essence, and is also used in flavoured alcoholic drinks, perfume products and a variety of fragrances. Like almost any substance, it has a toxic intake level, which in rats has found to be 13 grams per kilogram of body mass, at which point it can induce a coma. A person drinking orange juice, even litres upon litres of it, wouldn't approach this amount.   

Orange juice

The federal regulations require that orange juice be extracted from "clean, sound, mature oranges." Citrus juices generally also benefit from their naturally occurring amino acids, which add to their nutritional value, indicate fruit maturity and combine with sugars to darken the fruit's colour. So the federal rules stipulate a minimum amino acid concentration for orange juice. Other requirements pertain to the potassium content (not less than 115 milligrams per 100 millilitres of juice) and the level of citric acid.

Manufacturers can also add a variety of things to the beverage and still only call it "orange juice," including orange essence, oil or pulp; various kinds of sugar (invert sugar, dry dextrose, glucose solids); a preservative; and the enzymes amylase, cellulase and pectinase. The preservative can be one of myriad chemicals, including methyl-hydroxy benzoate, benzoic acid, potassium benzoate and sulphurous acid, many of which can have side-effects like headaches and an upset stomach for people who are sensitive to them and take in a high enough quantity. The benzoate preservatives in particular are cause for caution because they can, in the presence of certain other common food chemicals, degrade into benzene, a known carcinogen.

The bottom line

You can avoid all the processing, tinkering, chemicals and label flim-flammery, author Hamilton advises, by simply eating whole oranges. That option is even more nutritious, because it's guaranteed to provide the fibre found in the fruit's pulp, which is also the source of healthy flavonoids.