Growing up, I remember starting many mornings with a glass of juice at breakfast. During cold and flu season, I’d chug some OJ in hopes of boosting my immune system. And I’ll never forget that summer in high school when (for nearly eight hours) I attempted my first “juice cleanse”.
Like many people, for most of my life, I assumed that store-bought juices were a healthy way to incorporate fruit servings into my day. Sure, you don’t need to go overboard, since by the ounce juice can carry as many empty calories and sugar as soda. But in terms of getting an extra boost of vitamins, a big glass of fruit juice is a great way to do it… right?
Is juice good for you? And is it a good way to incorporate additional nutrients into your diet? The answer to that question may depend on what kind of juice you’re drinking. Today we’re going to take a look into the world of mass-produced juice.
How is it made?
If you make fresh juice at home, you’ll know that it stays good for about a week. That’s obviously too short of a time-frame for mass-produced juice to be processed, packaged, shipped and sold before spoiling. So how do big brand juice companies extend the shelf-life of their products?
In her book, Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice, accomplished scholar and food activist Alissa Hamilton examines the mass-produced juice industry with a look at how orange juice is made. And it’s not a very natural process. Hamilton shares some of the details from her research in her guest post, Freshly Squeezed: The Truth About Orange Juice in Boxes, on civileats.com.
According to her research, once the fruit has been squeezed and strained, it’s put through a pasteurization and deaeration process. The juice is heated to high temperatures to kill any potentially harmful bacteria (also killing good bacteria and damaging vitamins) and stripped of all oxygen to avoid oxidation while it is stored in large tanks. These processes help to greatly extend the shelf life of the now colorless, flavorless juice which may then be stored for up to a year before further processing.
When it’s ready to be packaged and sold, the juice is recolored and re-flavored by the aid of flavor packs. These packs are designed by fragrance companies to suit popular smells and flavors among American consumers. Meaning that the finished product often doesn’t taste like the actual oranges from which it was squeezed.
A quick glance at the ingredient label of popular juice brands will also reveal a list of synthetic vitamins (like ascorbic acid, aka synthetic Vitamin C). These are added to the juice to boost nutritional content and make up for the natural vitamins and nutrients lost or damaged in the storage process.
Can nutrients still be derived from consuming synthetic vitamins? Certainly. Although there is some disagreement about exactly how much is being absorbed by the body and some studies that call into question the safety of ingesting large amounts of synthetic vitamins. But the better question might be: If you’re drinking juice for health benefits, why do it with a glass of heavily processed, recolored, reflavored, synthetic-vitamin-filled juice? I think most likely it’s because, like myself for years, many people just aren’t aware of what goes into the juice they’re buying.
In the last decade or so, buzzwords like “organic” and “natural” have been popping up on products as the food industry strives to cash in on current health trends. Just walk through a grocery store and you’ll see many “healthy” declarations printed on labels. But some of those labels are sneakier than they may seem. Just because a product says “made with” an organic ingredient doesn’t mean you’re looking at an organic finished product. “No sugar added” doesn’t mean something contains no or low sugar (or that it’s necessarily any better for you). And the loophole for “naturally flavored” is an interesting one.
The reason that you won’t see the words “flavor pack” printed on the ingredient list on name brand juices is due to an arguably deceptive technicality that Hamilton detailed in an interview with The New Yorker:
“Flavor packs are fabricated from the chemicals that make up orange essence and oil. Flavor and fragrance houses, the same ones that make high end perfumes, break down orange essence and oils into their constituent chemicals and then reassemble the individual chemicals in configurations that resemble nothing found in nature. Ethyl butyrate is one of the chemicals found in high concentrations in the flavor packs added to orange juice sold in North American markets, because flavor engineers have discovered that it imparts a fragrance that Americans like, and associate with a freshly squeezed orange.”
“Naturally flavored” certainly has a different ring to it than “chemically manipulated components from oranges for flavor”. And an image of a straw being placed directly into an orange is certainly more appealing than one of flavor packs being added to vats of colorless, flavorless juice in a factory.
What about 100% Juice or not from concentrate?
As it turns out, one of the main differences between concentrate and non-concentrate juices is not actually the freshness of the product. It’s the cost of producing it. According to Hamilton’s research, the cost of creating and storing pasteurized juice is a lengthier, more complicated process than concentrate.
She elaborates on some of the details in her guest post on civileats.com:
“In the 1980s Tropicana coined the phrase “not from concentrate” to distinguish its pasteurized orange juice from the cheaper reconstituted “from concentrate” juice that began appearing alongside it in the refrigerator section of supermarkets. The idea was to convince consumers that pasteurized orange juice is a fresher, overall better product and therefore worth the higher price. It worked. Over the next five years sales of Tropicana’s pasteurized juice doubled and profits almost tripled.”
Don’t be a Scientific Scaredy-Cat
Now, I’m certainly not afraid of the scientific advancements that have been made over the years in food, farming and agricultural circles. Am I advocating that all pasteurization and added chemicals in food production is bad or wrong? Certainly not. There are legitimate safety concerns about the way mass-produced foods products are processed to ensure that people don’t contract foodborne illnesses. But just because a product in a store is safe for consumption doesn’t make it the best choice nutritionally for fueling your body.
Supplements and synthetic vitamins also aren’t evil. So long as they don’t trump trying to glean a majority of your nutrients from whole food sources. If your only option to consume fruit was via store-bought juices, a pasteurized juice would be the safest option given the length of time many items spend in storage or sitting on a shelf. And if your only option for getting nutrients like Vitamin C was to consume a synthetic version of it, that would certainly be better than nothing. (Just imagine how many pirates could have sailed the seven seas scurvy-free with a sword in one hand and a jug of OJ in the other.) But fortunately, for most of us, it isn’t our only option.
Knowledge is power. Understanding how certain foods are processed can help empower you to make more informed decisions about what you consume. And if one of your goals is to build better nutritional habits, that knowledge can mean meeting goals and overcoming plateaus more efficiently.
Is having a glass of store-bought fruit juice going to kill you? Doubtful. Does it make you a bad or unhealthy person? Of course not. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional glass of juice for enjoyment. But if you’re drinking it with the specific goal of improving your nutrition, is that juice the best choice for getting in an extra dose of vitamins? Probably not. The better option would be to either make your own fresh juice or simply eat a piece of fruit with your meals.
Criminalizing Juice Companies and Employees
Since Hamilton’s research has emerged, a number of lawsuits for misleading advertising have been raised against juice manufacturers. There’s also been a level of criticism thrown at people working for such companies. It’s absolutely not my intention to demonize the individuals working within the mass-produced juice industry. Marketing teams follow health trends and try to create effective sales campaigns because that’s what they’re paid to do. Farms and processing factories for juice create countless jobs for Americans across the country. At the end of the day, many of these people are just trying to do what we’re all trying to do: Make a living and pay bills, right? My focus in this post isn’t to cast stones, simply to share information.
But that being said, it’s also true that at the end of the day, you only get one body. And you have to do what you have to do to ensure you’re taking care of it. Which includes making informed decisions about what you consume to try and live a long, healthy life. In that sense, we all have a personal responsibility to care for ourselves as best we can; to ensure our best quality of life now and for years to come.
I’m not implying that store-bought juice is going to suddenly make or break your longevity in a few gulps. But in the big picture of our lives, even little steps make up that path we follow to better health. If one of those little steps can be a positive choice, like making your own juice or just eating an orange in place of a glass of recolored, re-flavored franken-juice, I think that’s a step in the right direction.
All writing copyright © 2018 Rachel Elise Weems Woods