Tropicana Orange Juice, Flavor Packs, and the Food Industry
There is something delicious about a glass of Tropicana orange juice– it always tastes so sweet, and so perfect, and so, well, so perfect. No matter where you are in the world, it always tastes the same. Hmmmmm…. I had always wondered how they managed to achieve that– but I just chalked it up to modern transportation. I guess if I had really thought about it, I would have realized that it wouldn’t make any sense to airfreight orange juice around the world, but I have to say that I didn’t think much about it. I just assumed that somehow, they made it work.
After all, the label was pretty clear about what was inside the carton: 100% Pure Squeezed Orange Juice. Not from concentrate. That doesn’t leave much room for anything else. Or so you would think.
Well, it turns out that our tasty glass of Tropicana orange juice is not all that it appears to be. Alissa Hamilton let the cat out of the bag with her book, Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice.
What they don’t tell us on the carton is that Tropicana actually uses “flavor packs” in its “100% pure squeezed orange juice” in order to achieve its consistently yummy taste.
The Making of OJ and Flavor Packs
Making OJ should be pretty simple. Pick oranges. Squeeze them. Put the juice in a carton and voilà!
But actually, there is an important stage in between that is an open secret in the OJ industry. After the oranges are squeezed, the juice is stored in giant holding tanks and, critically, the oxygen is removed from them. That essentially allows the liquid to keep (for up to a year) without spoiling– but that liquid that we think of as orange juice tastes nothing like the Tropicana OJ that comes out of the carton. To bring the flavor back in, the company adds “flavor packs“:
When the juice is stripped of oxygen it is also stripped of flavor providing chemicals. Juice companies therefore hire flavor and fragrance companies, the same ones that formulate perfumes for Dior and Calvin Klein, to engineer flavor packs to add back to the juice to make it taste fresh. Flavor packs aren’t listed as an ingredient on the label because technically they are derived from orange essence and oil. Yet those in the industry will tell you that the flavor packs, whether made for reconstituted or pasteurized orange juice, resemble nothing found in nature. The packs added to juice earmarked for the North American market tend to contain high amounts of ethyl butyrate, a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice that, juice companies have discovered, Americans favor. Mexicans and Brazilians have a different palate. Flavor packs fabricated for juice geared to these markets therefore highlight different chemicals, the decanals say, or terpene compounds such as valencine.
What about that distinctive Tropicana taste?
Well, it turns out that it is entirely engineered. It tastes more or less the same around the world because it’s chemically created.
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.
Why does it cost more?
So if “Not from concentrate” OJ isn’t a superior product, then why is it more expensive? Alissa gives an answer here for Civil Eats.
In fact, “not from concentrate,” a.k.a pasteurized orange juice, is not more expensive than “from concentrate” because it is closer to fresh squeezed. Rather, it is because storing full strength pasteurized orange juice is more costly and elaborate than storing the space saving concentrate from which “from concentrate” is made. The technology of choice at the moment is aseptic storage, which involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as “deaeration,” so it doesn’t oxidize in the million gallon tanks in which it can be kept for upwards of a year.
Food Industry Power
If this is all true, then the question remains: Why doesn’t it say anything about this on the carton? And just as importantly, how can they get away with “100% Pure Squeezed Orange Juice” on their carton?
The answer to these befuddling questions is that the food industry doesn’t have to say anything about it because the flavor packs are made from orange by-products– even though these “by-products” are so chemically manipulated that they hardly qualify as “by-products” any more. In any case, it turns out that manipulative labelling of this sort is not high on the FDA’s list of priorities.
We, the public, are being duped. If Tropicana (owned by PepsiCo) and all of the other “not from concentrate” companies can get away with claiming that flavor-packed orange juice is “100% pure squeezed orange juice”, then we really need to ask ourselves: What else is the food industry misleading us about?
Update: A previous version of this post used stronger language, but given the ridiculousness of UK libel laws, I have been advised to tone down the language to avoid the possibility of financial ruin. More on UK libel laws later.