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Orange Juice

Is the sunny image of our favorite breakfast juice actually just pulp fiction?

Published Mar. 1, 2014. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 15: Seafood Two Ways

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What You Need To Know

Orange juice is America’s most popular juice, a breakfast staple with a sunny, wholesome image. Package labels tempt us with phrases like “fresh squeezed” and “grove to glass” and with images of oranges speared with straws. Even brand names like Simply Orange and Florida’s Natural suggest that these juices are just a notch away from freshly picked fruit squeezed into a glass. There’s financial proof that these companies’ fresh-focused marketing pays off. According to a 2010 report published by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, Americans will shell out $1 to $2 more per gallon for juice that they perceive to be fresher.

But the truth is, commercial orange juice can’t be that simple an enterprise because of the complex challenge that manufacturers face. What’s at stake: how to produce (and profit from) a juice that has fresh and consistent flavor 365 days a year and a shelf life long enough to withstand transport to and storage in supermarkets. Mind you, this is all from a seasonal fruit crop with natural variation in flavor and that is susceptible to the whims of disease, bugs, and volatile weather patterns.

Given that, technology is the core focus of companies trying to engineer the most natural-tasting product. Case in point: Coca-Cola, which owns the major players Simply Orange and Minute Maid, has developed a staggeringly precise algorithm to aid in processing juice, according to a 2013 Bloomberg Businessweek investigation. Called Black Book, it reportedly analyzes 1 quintillion variables that affect the juice-making process, including the 600-plus volatiles responsible for optimal juice flavor, as well as erratic weather patterns, crop yields, and cost. The company also uses satellites to track when it should harvest the fruit. The upshot: If a hurricane barrels through Florida (or any other global region) or a cold snap threatens the trees, the company can remap its production model in less than 10 minutes.

These systems certainly turn a profit: Last year, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which owns the other major producer, Tropicana, each pulled in $1 billion of the $3.9 billion spent on orange juice in the United States. But as for the real question—whether these high-tech advances make for better-tasting juice—we’d have to see for ourselves.

To find out, we built a tasting lineup around five nationally available refrigerated orange juices. (We selected medium pulp when available, as it’s the style most akin to fresh squeezed and often the most popular.) We also included two frozen concentrates, because in previous tastings they’ve rated surprisingly high. And we threw in two lower-...

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