Greenwashing the OJ Aisle
When the organic movement started gaining mainstream traction in the late '90s, the objective was simple. Identify the foods produced without loads of pesticides, fumigants, and chemicals that were repurposed into agriculture after WW2 to continue the yields of wartime profit from these chemicals. However in the past decade, all the majors like Coca-Cola, Kellogg, and Kraft-Heinz have caught up, creating a frenzy of pseudo-labeling chaos that makes it harder than ever to distinguish products that are likely to contain toxins from those that are less likely. OJ always has an "honest American... breakfast" appeal. This is what Orange Juice's marketing looked like in the '90s compared to our current "Simply Orange" branding today.
Transformative marketing, right? This week PFAS (ie forever chemicals) were reported to have been found in one of the top “natural” orange juice brands at levels hundreds of times above the EPA limit for drinkable water. At this time it's unclear where that level of chemicals came from. The EPA is infamous for setting incredibly low standards, to the point that it’s hard to violate EPA limits.
Who’s the culprit?The specific drink is “Simply Tropical”, a flavor of “Simply Orange” a brand that was created by Coca-Cola in 2001 (pictured above). Test results for other Simply Orange drinks still need to be conducted and/or have not been reported at this time.
Orange Juice Label Tricks: 100% Juice: By FDA standards, 100% juice means it should contain 100% juice. The catch is that it can be any juice, not the juice on the label. So 100% Juice with a big picture of an orange, can actually be any variety of juices “naturally flavored” to taste like orange. I have a bottle of “Simply Orange With Mango”. In fine print, the label reads, “100% Juice Blend with Natural Flavors”. The back label specifies a mano puree (not juice).
Light Orange Juice: Light Orange Juice may look like maybe they removed sugar additives or something, but it’s just the same juice diluted with water.
Juice Concentrate: Minute Maid (also now a Coca-Cola brand) invented orange juice concentrate as part of the of the WWII war effort. At first OJ was dehydrated into powder, then Minute Maid (then going by Vacuum Foods) dehydrated it into frozen concentrate. Post-war Minute Maid rebranded and used it’s shipping advantage to sell to consumers. Concentrate itself isn’t unhealthy, but today anything that’s been a concentrate uses high fructose corn syrup, additives, preservatives, and artificial flavors before it hits the shelf.
So non-concentrate is better, right?Not so fast. Since the ‘90s juice has been stored year-round to preserve off-season juice in oxygen-stripping tanks. Just because the label says “fresh squeezed” doesn’t mean it wasn’t stored in a vat for over a year. The oxygen-stripping preservation process (deaeration) renders a juice without much flavor. That’s when “flavor packs” that aren’t required on labels are added in. These include chemically engineered chemicals like Ethyl butyrate which Americans associate with the smell of fresh squeezed orange juice. The label "not from concentrate" was coined in the 80's to promote the newer, more efficient method sound healthier than concentrate when it's about the same.
Is Orange Juice from Florida?Almost all orange juice is from Brazil. The country of origin is usually on the expiration date stamp or in fine print on the back. To produce year-round most producers source from Mexico and Brazil where there's land and cheap labor in addition to Florida. The longer the transportation of the fruit/juice; the higher likelihood of alteration or lack of freshness. Personally, I don’t mind Mexican oranges, but I wouldn’t expect anything transported from Brazil to be fresh orange juice.
So Which OJ Labels Can You Trust?For the purist, DIY home-squeezed oranges is one way to go. Otherwise, labels like unpasteurized, raw, and my favorite label at the moment “one-ingredient” are better. The OG brands of organic orange juice (both founded around the late '90s) like Uncle Matt or Natalie's are generally more trustworthy than the rest. Whole Foods 365 has an unpasteurized OJ that gets positive reviews.