It turns out that the reports were right – orange juice has become a luxury.
In fact, real orange juice became a luxury several years ago when Tropicana, the fruit juice producer owned by PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP), decided to market “not-from-concentrate” orange juice as a premium product.
Or so the Huffington Post and Gizmodo claimed. But their information was not rooted in brand-new evidence; rather, it came from a two-year-old story by Alissa Hamilton, the author of a two-year-old book, Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice.
What made the aforementioned publications jump on such an old story (and, to be perfectly honest, report on it as if it were brand-new?). Also, if the story is true, why didn't the news spread like wildfire back in 2009? Why is now the time that the web has chosen to embrace this tale of orange juice vats and flavor packs?
To get answers, we went straight to Hamilton, who holds a BA in Literature and a PhD in environmental studies from Yale. She also possesses a JD from the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, and was a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
Hamilton confirmed that most of the reports have been accurate. In an effort to produce enough OJ for an entire year, Tropicana and other manufacturers must gather, juice and store the oranges while they are in season. To keep them from spoiling, they have to remove oxygen from the juice, which also strips out the flavor. The flavor is then added back into the juice via flavor packs, which are made from orange oil and other parts of the orange.
Hamilton uncovered this information after visiting one of Tropicana's processing plants. She also spoke to a flavorist who works in the flavor and fragrance industry. But she would not get more specific than that. “I kept [my source's] names anonymous because I don't want to jeopardize anybody's job,” she said.
As far as the flavor packs are concerned, Hamilton is particularly bothered by the fact that they are not labeled on the juice. “I would argue that not labeling the flavor packs goes against the spirit of FDA regulations,” Hamilton said, adding that she analyzes those regulations in her book. “I think it's questionable whether these flavor packs should be labeled. It's of concern because there may be ingredients that consumers are not aware of in food that they buy, and they tend to trust the government to enforce regulations and it raises the question to what extent that's happening.”
(Hmmm, government trust. What's that?)
Still, these flavor packs should not be confused with artificial flavors. “That's different,” she insists. “In that case, it doesn't necessarily come from the orange. A natural flavor simply means that it came from something natural to begin with – it was synthesized entirely in a lab. An artificial flavor doesn't necessarily have to have any natural ingredients to start with.”
When asked if she came across any companies that produce orange juice the old-fashioned way (no flavors added or removed), Hamilton said that she assumes that there are many out there. But she could not point to any specifically, as her research focused on the bigger manufacturers, which only produce OJ with flavor packs.
“I focused on the big companies because those are the ones that people know,” Hamilton explained. “They're the ones with the advertising budgets, and my concern was that the advertising isn't consistent with the product. There's a whole history. I focus specifically on not-from-concentrate orange juice because that's what consumers pay a premium for. They pay a premium for a product they think (and they think so because it's advertised) will be fresher, less processed, pure – pretty much straight from the tree. If you watch any of the advertisements on TV, there are birds chirping, a Garden of Eden-like environment. It's far from how the product is actually produced.”
With regard to who produces the flavor packs, Hamilton would not confirm which companies are involved. But while Dior is often cited in stories relating her book, she said that there is no reason to single out that particular company.
“I think people are trying to hit home the message that the same companies that make perfumes are the same ones that make the flavor packs for orange juice,” she said.
Shortly after our interview, however, Hamilton sent us a note to clarify who actually employs these flavorists.
“You asked whether the flavorists I talked to were ‘employed' by the juice companies,” Hamilton wrote. “When I said no, I meant that the flavorist I talked to was not hired in-house by the orange juice company for whom he engineered flavor packs. However, since the juice company hired the flavor company for whom he worked to fabricate a flavor pack, I suppose you could say he was ‘employed' by the juice company.
“That said, different companies have different setups. Some have in-house flavorists. I understand (not from a firsthand source) that Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO) does most of its flavor work in-house. Since Coca-cola owns Minute Maid and Simply Orange, that may mean the flavorists fabricating flavor packs for these products may be in-house.”