Published March 1, 2008. From Cook's Illustrated.
High-end orange juices claim to taste better and fresher than ordinary not-from-concentrates. At twice the price, are they a sweet deal?
We’ve always grabbed our weekly carton of orange juice in the dairy section of the supermarket, right next to the milk and cream. But a growing number of fresh squeezed-style orange juices have been popping up in the produce department, where their makers clearly are hoping to encourage customers to associate them with fresh fruit. The industry term for these brands is “super-premium juice,” and they’re often packaged in fancier bottles that cultivate this image. But so-called super-premium juice costs nearly twice as much as “not from concentrate” brands from the dairy section. Is it worth it?
Super-premium juices take pains to suggest on their labels that they’re nothing more than squeezed fruit that’s been poured into a jug and shipped to your store. The reality is that they undergo many of the same processes as any bottled orange juice, including those at the lowest end of the scale. And, like these other products, they may be doctored to improve flavor without this fact being broadcast to consumers.
Here’s how it works: The freshly picked fruit is trucked to a processing plant to be washed and sorted, after which it is put in a machine that extracts the juice and strips off the pith and peel (for cattle feed and other byproducts), all in a matter of seconds. If the juice is destined to become lower-end concentrated juice, it goes to an evaporator before being pasteurized. If it is slated for middle-market “not-from-concentrate” juice, it is pasteurized immediately at a high temperature to kill harmful bacteria, deactivate enzymes, and extend shelf life.
It is at the pasteurization point that super-premium juices take a turn. Many of these brands got their start two decades ago selling fresh, unpasteurized juice. Following health scares in the late 1990s, most adopted “flash” pasteurization after the FDA began requiring unpasteurized juice to carry warning labels and demanded juice makers follow strict bacterial control measures. Flash pasteurization involves heating the juice for a shorter time and at a lower temperature than full pasteurization, preserving more of the fresh taste. While the process doubles the juice’s shelf life, it doesn’t remain viable nearly as long as the fully pasteurized product.
Fresh orange juice is a fragile and finicky product. The downside of any pasteurization is that heat destroys flavor and aroma compounds that make the juice taste fresh and, at worst, can lead to a flat, cooked taste. To restore some of those lost qualities, or to make up for a batch of oranges that falls short of the brand’s desired flavor profile, not-from-concentrate manufacturers mix in juice from other batches. (These held-over batches may have been stored frozen or just above the freezing point for months or even years.) They also mix in special “flavor packets” made from orange essence and other orange parts to correct deficiencies in taste, color, or aroma. There’s no way to tell from the label when flavor packets have been added or held-over juice was blended in, since juice makers are not required to specify this. Super-premium juice makers may also blend in held-over juice and add flavor packets, but most play that down.
So does what manufacturers describe as “light,” “gentle,” “delicate” pasteurization actually make their juice taste more like fresh and therefore worth the extra cost? Much to our surprise, the answer is no. And, as surprising, was the striking difference in flavor among the super-premium juices.
Why? Part of the answer may lie in the specifics of how each company conducts its flash pasteurization. Most juice makers told us that details of their process are proprietary and would only admit it’s not identical from one company to the next. A more transparent part of the answer may have to do with the oranges themselves, where they’re grown or how far they have to travel to reach the market. (There is no way for a consumer to know when, exactly, a juice left the warehouse; all we could do is confirm that the juices were tested well before their expiration dates.)
Experts agree that an identical variety of orange will develop distinctly different characteristics depending on where it is grown. Florida’s warm, humid days and nights produce a larger, sweeter orange, with a thinner peel and more juice. California’s dry desert climate and cool nights lead to smaller oranges with thicker peels and a more tart juice. In general, our tasters preferred the sweeter juices made with Florida oranges. The juices from California tasted slightly more sour and acidic. Lab results confirmed it, too. The California juices were higher in acidity.
Turning from the super-premium blends, we aked if it’s possible that lots of processing could actually help. By all indications—yes. Pasteurizing machines heat the juice to 205 degrees for five second, then cool it down almost instantly to 36 degrees thereby destroying more of the fresh-squeezed flavor than those producers that pasteurize at a comparatively gentle 160 degrees. But high volume producers have the ability to make every container of juice taste exactly the same, adjusting each batch with techniques including adding flavor packets and held-over juice to re-create the same taste every time. Further they can consistently acquire the best blend of oranges (we liked a blend of Hamlin, Pineapple, and Valencia oranges). Some brands bragged that they used all or predominately Valencia oranges, considered the very best oranges for juice, but that didn’t impress our tasters.
In the end, none of the juices in the lineup (not even our winner) could beat the juice we had squeezed ourselves. However, we calculated that buying oranges and squeezing them ourselves made the juice cost about $1.84 for an 8-ounce glass, or 23 cents per ounce—about three times the price of our winning super-premium juice.