When Local Doesn’t Work: Orange Juice

Here in New York, local orange juice isn’t possible. Local grape and apple juice, or raspberry, apple, or pear cider you can find at the farmers’ market. But oranges and other citrus fruits simply won’t survive this far north.
So what do you do when you want orange juice? There’s 5 choices, and a recent-ish article in Slate debated the environmental merits and demerits of several.

a. do without

I don’t drink a lot of orange juice, but I do love it. I enjoy eating locally and I eat a lot of my diet locally, but I’m not going to give up EVERYTHING that isn’t locally grown. Winter strawberries from Chile, yes; but not orange juice. So this option is out.

b. squeeze your own

That would probably be pretty easy with one of these neat automatic juicing machines, common in Spanish cafes. But unless you’re making a LOT of orange juice, it’s not practical. And very expensive!

A smaller mechanical juicer seems destined to be used infrequently, and take up valuable counter space in the meantime. A hand juicer takes a lot of time and you end up with a lot of leftover pith and peel. Moreover, I can’t regularly find juicing oranges (different from regular navel oranges!) in my supermarket, and when I can they tend to be quite expensive. And were the oranges flow in from Spain? Did they use a lot of pesticides? It takes a lot of oranges to make a decent amount of juice.

c. buy it fresh

This is what I do. I buy the Florida’s Natural in particular because the over 1,000 farmers behind the brand are actually part of an enormous co-operative business association. According to their website, this co-op started in 1933, right in the middle of the Depression, and has been thriving ever since. On that basis alone I’ll choose it over Tropicana every day. It’s made from 100% Florida oranges, and is also sold as Growers Pride, Bluebird, Texsun, Adams, Vintage, and Donald Duck (with Disney).

The U.S. is actually a net orange juice exporter, and most of that juice comes from Florida. I don’t have the hard figures for how much U.S. juice is from Florida, but Florida grows 70% of American citrus, so I’m assuming the majority of OJ is also Floridian. Here are some nifty charts about U.S. citrus production in 2007 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since my juice comes from Florida, I don’t feel too badly drinking it in New York. Sure, it’s not local, but it often gets shipped via rail, in these massive liquids rail containers, so at least the transportation costs aren’t as high as they could be. And I have no interest in being a local foods purist or vigilante, but it’s nice to know that all of my orange juice is from Florida.

However, according to the Slate article, my assumptions about the provenance of OJ in general may be inaccurate; some of it could be from Brazil!

Virtually all of the OJ consumed in the United States contains oranges produced in Florida and Brazil; these two industry players produce half of the world’s oranges, and 95 percent of that fruit ends up as juice. Environmentalists have long decried the recent proliferation of orange groves in Brazil, citing the crop’s insatiable thirst (up to 129,000 cubic feet of water per acre annually) and the heavy use of pesticides (though juice oranges require less spraying than those intended for direct consumption)

d. buy it frozen in concentrate

You can also buy one of those frozen tubes of orange juice and mix it with water at home to reconstitute it. At first glance, this seems great. You use water at home, so you’re not shipping heavy liquids all around. The frozen tube of OJ concentrate takes up little space, so it’s more efficient to ship. Aside from the taste issue, it looks like a winner.

But things aren’t quite that easy. You have all of the same issues of regular orange juice: distance, pesticides, water usage, and energy use in processing. Plus, as I learned from the Slate article, frozen orange juice is evaporated using heat until it is concentrated, which uses an immense amount of energy:

Concentrate can be stored in industrial freezers for several years. Running those freezers takes a lot of energy, but not nearly as much as operating the evaporators; approximately 90 percent of an orange juice plant’s energy goes toward thermal processing. So, there’s little question that creating FCOJ [frozen concentrated orange juice] requires a lot more fuel, usually in the form of natural gas, than producing NFC [not-from-concentrate orange juice].

This diagram of how frozen concentrated orange juice is made demonstrates what an industrial, energy-intensive process it is:

My assumptions about transportation also look a little optimistic. As the article continues:

According to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, making juice uses more energy than getting it into stores. In 2001, for example, it cost a Florida manufacturer roughly 20 cents to process a pound of frozen OJ, but just 7 cents per pound to truck it to the northeastern United States. And when Florida’s Natural Growers closed its Bartow, Fla., manufacturing facility in 2005, it cited the soaring cost of natural gas as the reason. (Based on its 7.5-million-gallon capacity and its projected 2006 natural-gas tab of $2.1 million, the Bartow plant would have been responsible for approximately 9,129 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions—about the same as 1,700 cars.)

The author does make the mistake here of conflating the amount of energy used and the price of that energy, but it is startling how much CO2 orange juice processing emits, even for not-from-concentrate juice that doesn’t have to be evaporated or stored in freezers.

d. buy it reconstituted

This is definitely the worst option, taste-wise. It doesn’t have the same pulpy, rich taste that fresh orange juice has, and the taste is thin, watery and kind of artificial.

It turns out that it’s also the worst choice for the environment: orange juice from concentrate is just orange juice that has been evaporated (using a huge amount of energy), shipped or flown to a processing center, where a bunch of water is added to it. Then, the reconstituted orange juice, just as bulky and heavy as fresh orange juice, is shipped to its final destination. Port Newark, actually has two “orange juice concentrate storage and blending facilities.” Port Newark, combined with the adjacent Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal, is about the 15th busiest port in the world. Can you imagine how much orange juice they must reconstitute to have TWO buildings dedicated solely to reconstituting orange juice? The scale, and the amount of energy used in the processing, transportation, and reconstitution, blows me away.

Essentially, you get the same loss of taste as in the frozen concentrate, but with a much heavier environmental burden. No thanks!

So, the take-away? I happen to like orange juice, and I will still drink it, though probably less often than I did before I found out how energy-intensive the processing is. When I do, I’ll stick to Florida’s Natural, so I can be sure the oranges are at least from this country, and I’ll be staying far, far away from reconstituted “juice”!

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5 responses to “When Local Doesn’t Work: Orange Juice

  1. I always buy Tropicana because (if memory serves me right) it has the best flavor. I’d be interested in doing a blind taste comparison of the most common brands found in New York. If Florida’s Natural tastes just as good, I’d be willing to switch. The worst OJ I’ve ever had is definitely the little single serving Minute Maid juice cartons they sell at McDonalds. It’s so watery and acidic and tangy that I always assume that the one that I’m drinking was mishandled somehow. And it probably was.

  2. Pingback: The Ethicurean: Chew the right thing. » Blog Archive » Digest - Blogs: DC compost, OJ explored, Lappe tries to save the small planet

  3. Coffee is generally allowed when I read about “Buy Local(ly)”. I’m not a coffee drinker so can I have OJ instead? 🙂 As much as I can afford I suppose! 🙂 The stuff costs like gold!

    Actually, what we drink mostly in our family is mint tea – we collect the mint leaves on our land so that makes it pretty local. Two harvests, late summer and early fall.

  4. cosmic matrix

    i am drinking florida’s natural right now. it is darned tasty and the packaging design is rad.

  5. Pingback: fresh squeezed Sevilla | a moment in the sun

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