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The Evolution of Orange Juice

Until the late 1940's, orange juice wasn’t widely available. Small and cute glasses of orange juice were commonplace at breakfast, made from fresh squeezed oranges. It was tart, refreshing, and called for some manual labor, plus cleaning out the juicer. If you didn’t get to the table quick enough, the ‘stuff’ might end up on the bottom, and the top would be watery. Still, quite a treat.

Frozen orange juice itself was not new. Since the 1930s, citrus farmers in Florida and California had been juicing their wares, packing them into cans, freezing them, and then shipping them off to middle America. Unfortunately for drinkers far from citrus country, almost immediately after a can of frozen orange juice left the farm it started to lose all resemblance to actual orange juice. For reasons unknown to chemists, the drink’s essential oils would begin to degrade and what was once a tart and refreshing beverage quickly transformed into a discolored orange glop. “Cooked” is how one researcher described it; “reminiscent of turpentine”, claimed another. Time Magazine August 2017

But after World War II, scientists changed the American orange juice landscape forever. Determined to find a palatable intersection between preservation and flavor, they developed a new process roughly based on the one used to dehydrate food during the war effort. Instead of boiling the juice, they heated it lightly until water evaporated. Then, they added a touch of fresh orange, which gave the concoction a “fresh” taste. Orange juice “from concentrate” was born. February 2014 Quartz magazine

Then along came Tang, an artificially flavored drink mix formulated by General Foods Corporation and first marketed in powdered form in 1959. Sales were poor until NASA used it on John Glenn's Mercury flight in February 1962, and on subsequent missions. It became closely associated with the U.S. spaceflight program, creating the misconception that Tang was invented for the space program. The taste, to me, was truly awful, but it ‘traveled well’ and one could mix up a juice drink as long as you could find water somewhere (before the crazed onset of bottles of H2O everywhere.) Still, it always felt like a version of Kool-Aid.

When I traveled to Miami Beach, Florida in the late sixties (my first plane trip) having a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice was a must with breakfast, as was the mile-high key lime chiffon pie after dinner. I’d never seen or tasted anything as fresh and beautiful as either of them. They both seemed decadent and so Floridian. (In truth I’ve never encountered a chiffon pie that high or that delicious again).

In the seventies, orange juice in paper cartons appeared, but they were more cost prohibitive, for me and my family, as larger glasses were used, and juice was encouraged over soda. But frozen concentrate was still the best buy. Plus, those juice cans could be useful for other things.

(No, I don’t know the woman with the juice cans in her hair, but my sister did that once or twice, so I couldn’t resist the image.) I confess to using the OJ cans once to bake cake in; they would be the legs of the cowardly lion cake that I made for my daughter’s third birthday. See? Lots of uses.

Don’t forget the popular adult beverages made with orange juice: Mimosas (with Champagne) Screwdrivers (with Vodka) and many more.

In the 1990’s “not from concentrate” orange juice hit the shelves and blew everything else away. Rather than vitamins in a can, we now had freshness and purity in a carton. Yet, since 1998, US orange production and orange juice sales have fallen every year. Shifting American eating habits, which stigmatize sugar and leave little time for breakfast, and surging juice prices have done significant damage to American demand.

In the United States, orange juice is synonymous with Florida. It may come as a surprise to read the fine print on a bottle of Tropicana and discover that part of the product isn’t from the Sunshine State; it’s from Brazil. Today, more than 50 percent of all orange juice bottled by major companies like Tropicana is supplied by a Brazilian company, shipped in specialized fruit juice tankers from the Port of Santos in Sao Paulo. In 2017, this OJ export market was worth $1.4 billion. Brazilian orange juice companies used this cash influx to come into the U.S. and buy out Florida’s production facilities, making Brazil a financial backer of much of America’s orange juice.

A few months ago, when I found myself in Florida again, a friend from New York texted excitedly “Have you had fresh squeezed orange juice yet?” I hated to disappoint her, but…no.

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