Orange Juice: Invention, Production, Imitation

Our speaker on Wednesday, 2 June 2004 was Pierre Laszlo, Professor Emeritus from École polytechnique de Paris, and l'Université de Liège, Belgium. Dr. Laszlo is a prolific science author, but is perhaps best known to members of the Culinary Historians of Canada, as the author of the 2001 book Salt: Grain of Life.

Those in attendance had a sneak preview of one chapter of Citrus, Professor Laszlo's latest book, soon to be published by Columbia University Press.

Professor Laszlo began his talk by describing the connection between the orange-growing region of California and Ontario, Canada. Kingston, Ontario-born George Chaffey migrated to California in the 1880s and found work as a city planner and engineer. His engineering expertise laid the foundation for the irrigation system that makes the cultivation of citrus trees possible in an otherwise arid region. His pride in his place of origin is remembered in the naming of the city of Ontario in California.

Orange Juice was first mass produced and mass marketed when there was an over production of citrus in California in the mid 1910s. Citrus growers were contemplating a plan to destroy one-third of the orange trees in California when pasteurised orange juice was invented. With pasteurisation and a national railway system, orange juice could be shipped from the sparsely populated agricultural state of California to the population centres to the north and east.

Marketing was a crucial factor in the story of orange juice. Starting in 1916 Albert Lasker's slogan “Drink an Orange ” promoted the consumption of orange juice across North America. In the 1920s orange juice was promoted as a health regimen for children. Certainly, orange juice has many health benefits as it contains easily absorbed carbohydrates, iron, folic acid, calcium and vitamin C. Orange juice is also quite palatable to children as it contains lots of sugar.

By the mid 1940s, the children of the 20s were adults making their own consumer choices, and accustomed to drinking orange juice with their breakfast. Returning WWII soldiers were familiar with army-issue orange juice made from powder. Orange juice played a part in the Americanisation of breakfast, as orange juice replaced the more British stewed fruit at the breakfast table.

Despite the healthy image of orange juice, its production is big business and sometimes it's a dirty business. Professor Laszlo revealed some startling examples of the lengths to which that companies have gone to increase their production. One company used hidden pipes to add liquid beet sugar to their run. Corn syrup and beet sugar are the most common additives. This kind of adulteration can be detected because the sucrose molecules of sugar cane, sugar beets and oranges are all arrived at by different metabolic pathways that leave their own chemical signatures. When the inspectors came to call at this factory the pipes adding beet sugar were shut off, and the juice passed the test. This fraud was only discovered with the help of a disgruntled employee.

Today, oranges grown in Brazil and Florida supply 90% of the orange juice market. Although we only see a handful of varieties in the supermarket, there are many varieties. In order to have year-round production of orange juice, the industry uses different oranges at different times of the year. The varieties in commercial use now have all been developed since 1925. They include Hamlins, ready in October, Pineapple in January, and Valencias in February.

Mexico, Italy and Israel all make their contributions as orange-growing nations. The distinctive Italian blood oranges owe their colour to climate. Oranges grown in colder climates have more colour. Although they represent a small market share, blood oranges are also grown in the foothills in California. The genetic engineering of oranges is ongoing, with ease of peel, seed reduction, and juiciness all being factored into the mix.

This talk was peppered with chemical, agricultural, and economic facts about orange juice that gave members of Professor Laszlo's audience a fresh outlook on our most popular breakfast drink.

report by Maggie Newell
July 5, 2004

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