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What’s in This?: Tropicana Orange Juice

One thing’s for sure, 100-percent orange juice means a whole lot more than 100-percent orange juice

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on) themselves.

This edition: Tropicana Pure Premium Original (No Pulp) Orange Juice, which is surprisingly made from only one ingredient, which we’ve explained in extreme detail below.

The Ingredient

1) 100% Orange Juice: Yes, there’s only one ingredient in Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice. However, there’s a lengthy, controversial history behind this ingredient, so let’s take it from the beginning.

In 2009, Civil Eats released a bleak report that detailed that less-than-natural processes adopted by Tropicana (and other big OJ corporations) to ensure that the taste of their orange juice remains consistent. They explained that, once the juice had been squeezed, these companies proceeded to remove any lingering oxygen, which allowed the liquid to keep for up to a year without spoiling. However, removing the oxygen also removed the natural flavors from the oranges, which as they reported, meant Tropicana and other massive juice manufacturers had to add so-called flavor packs to their now-flavorless, but ever-enduring OJ:

“The formulas vary to give a brand’s trademark taste. If you’re discerning you may have noticed Minute Maid has a candy-like orange flavor. That’s largely due to the flavor pack Coca-Cola has chosen for it. Some companies have even been known to request a flavor pack that mimics the taste of a popular competitor, creating a ‘hall of mirrors’ of flavor packs. Despite the multiple interpretations of a freshly squeezed orange on the market, most flavor packs have a shared source of inspiration: a Florida Valencia orange in spring.”

In the report, Civil Eats further explained that these flavor packs aren’t listed on the label because they’re technically derived from “orange essence and oil.” In 2015, CBC News released a video that explains this process in detail (and if you have 20 minutes, their video also dives even deeper into the many secrets behind commercial OJ):

In 2011, the Huffington Post re-circulated that Civil Eats report, prompting Karen Mathis, the public relations director of the Florida Department of Citrus at the time, to send them a letter attempting to describe the process in a better light. However, the letter didn’t really dispute any of the things the report exposed. Here’s the gist:

“On behalf of the Florida Department of Citrus, I am writing in response to the article on HuffPost Food, entitled ‘Why 100% Orange Juice is Still Artificial.’ Please allow me to share further information.

“Purchased by nearly 70 percent of American households, people choose 100 percent orange juice for its great taste and nutrition benefits. Both ‘from concentrate’ and ‘not from concentrate’ orange juice are healthy options that provide a variety of nutrients. By utilizing state-of-the-art technology, Florida is able to provide a consistent supply of high quality, nutritious orange juice year round.

“By law, 100 percent orange juice is made only from oranges. The basic principle of orange juice processing is similar to how you make orange juice at home. Oranges are washed and the juice is extracted by squeezing the oranges. Seeds and particles are strained out. Orange juice is pasteurized to ensure food safety.

“During processing, natural components such as orange aroma, orange oil from the peel, and pulp may be separated from the orange juice. After the juice is pasteurized, these natural orange components may be added back to the orange juice for optimal flavor.”

This is the kind of thing that you expect when you write about the food industry, of course — I myself received a similar letter from a meat industry insider in response to my analysis of ground beef. But moving on…

In 2012, shortly after the HuffPo article, a California woman actually filed a false advertising lawsuit against Tropicana, arguing that the company shouldn’t be able to market their orange juice as “not-from-concentrate” and “100-percent pure and natural” when, as she claimed, it’s actually heavily processed, colored and flavored. Six years later, in 2018, a federal judge denied her class certification (where several plaintiffs come together to file a suit collectively). It’s important to note, though, that the motion wasn’t denied because it couldn’t be proved that Tropicana orange juice is highly processed: It was denied because the plaintiff couldn’t prove that everyone involved was really mislead (and potentially harmed) by Tropicana’s claims.

As a quick aside, “from concentrate” means that, after the juice has been squeezed, the excess water is removed. This basically allows for more efficient packaging and transportation, both of which can be extremely costly when dealing with tons and tons of OJ. Then, once the now-concentrated juice has been transported, the water is added back in before it hits the shelves. Therefore, “not from concentrate” obviously means that they simply never removed that excess water. Interestingly enough, whether the juice is from concentrate or otherwise has virtually no effect on the nutritional content — “not from concentrate” is really just a marketing ploy meant to push this idea that their OJ goes straight from the orchard to your glass.

Back to this highly processed notion, though, which is hardly only a Tropicana thing. In the CBC News report embedded up top, it’s reported that several commercial brands of orange juice were tested, and found to have significant evidence of those alleged flavor packs. Specifically, they discovered unnaturally high levels of a chemical called ethyl butyrate, which is found naturally in many fruits, but should almost certainly be considered a flavoring agent at the amounts present in these commercial OJs.

The Takeaway

Look, I don’t believe that any of these details are enough to convincingly argue that Tropicana orange juice is brimming with hidden, dangerous ingredients. Even considering the removal of oxygen and the whole flavor packs fiasco, this OJ is still way less processed than most of the many other foods and drinks I’ve covered in this column.

But that’s not to let Tropicana off the hook entirely. The lengthy, unnatural process that the juice undergoes is a far cry from the orchard-to-bottle image their marketing teams sell us:

So, sure — maybe consider squeezing your own orange juice every once in a while. If anything, you can rest easy knowing that you ain’t no corporate fool.