Americans have been drinking more orange juice than usual over the last few months, seeking out ways to potentially boost immunity amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But if you're sipping down copious amounts of OJ from a bottle without checking the label, you might not be doing yourself any favors. The commercial bottles of orange juice you can find on supermarket shelves can be misleading—and not as healthy as you think.
How healthy is fresh-squeezed orange juice?
Fresh-squeezed orange juice in its purest form—meaning literally squeezed straight from an orange—provides many nutritional benefits, says Su-Nui Escobar, M.S., RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It's high in vitamin C and folate, as well as potassium, an important mineral for heart health. Studies have shown that orange juice contains phytochemicals, which are plant compounds with potential disease-fighting properties, such as flavonoids and carotenoids, says Escobar. Additionally, because it's high in vitamin C, orange juice can help your body to better absorb the iron found in plant-based foods such as lentils and whole grains, as well as help with the natural formation of collagen, Escobar adds.
Sounds pretty convincing that we should all be downing our daily OJ, right? Not so fast. There are a few things to know about the juice-making process that can make all the difference when it comes to nutrition, so it's important to pay attention to the label (if you're drinking store-bought orange juice) before adding it to your daily diet.
What "fresh squeezed" actually means
The term "fresh squeezed" is protected by the FDA and means that the juice has not been processed in any form, says Natalie Sexton, vice president of marketing for Natalie's Orchard Island Juice, a family-owned company based in Fort Pierce, Florida. This means orange juice that's undergone any kind of processing—such as pasteurization or HPP (more on that below)—can't legally be labeled as fresh squeezed.
However, big companies will often use other similar verbiage that is misleading. "A lot of brands have taken the term and pulled out certain words to convey the message of 'fresh squeezed' without actually identifying the product as that," Sexton explains. For example, you might see labels that say, "squeezed fresh," "pressed from oranges" or even "squeezed from Florida sunshine."
Why and how commercial orange juice is processed
Most juice sold in the United States is now pasteurized, or treated with high heat to kill potential pathogens. Natalie's uses a method they call "gourmet pasteurization" in which they pasteurize for the minimum time and temperature allowed, which is about eight seconds at 180 degrees. "This kills anything harmful, like E. coli or Salmonella, but leaves live enzymes in the juice," Sexton says. Many mass-produced brands pasteurize at higher temperatures, such as 200 degrees, for minutes—sometimes a few times; others use a method called high-pressure processing (HPP), which sterilizes the juice with pressure instead of heat. It's also sometimes called cold-pressing.
These methods are used to keep orange juice safe, but also to help extend its shelf life. The more processing, the longer the shelf life, says Sexton; that's why some major brands have an expiration date that's two or three months away when unopened. On the other hand, if you leave a fairly unprocessed juice, such as Natalie's, in the fridge for 28 days, "it's going to explode," Sexton says, due to the live enzymes. Shelf life is a big factor for big companies because they don't want to have "shrink" on retail shelves, meaning products that go bad before a supermarket can sell them. That's why they put in other additives—such as citric acid—to extend the shelf life even more, says Sexton.
How healthy is it to drink commercial orange juice?
Processing orange juice doesn't singularly impact its nutrition as much as you might expect. According to research, juices processed using HPP mostly retain their nutrient value—including vitamin C. Pasteurization slightly decreases the content of vitamin C and folate found in orange juice, says Escobar; however, since these vitamins are so highly concentrated in OJ, it has a minor impact on its nutrient content. "The safety benefits of pasteurizing orange juice definitely outweigh the slight reduction [in nutrients]," she adds.
The more concerning issue is that many processed orange juices contain added ingredients beyond just orange juice. Some might be marketed as having added calcium, for example—and then have a dozen or more ingredients to get you that nutrient. (At that point, "go drink some milk," Sexton says.) If you see the word "concentrate" on the ingredient list, it means water has been added—and the brands touting 50% less calories are the biggest scam, she adds, as they're simply diluted by half with water (meaning half the nutrients, as well).
Other manufacturers add flavorings known as "flavor packs," made from compounds in orange peel and pulp, to help make up for the loss of flavor that occurs during pasteurization. While technically any product labeled "orange juice" must meet the FDA's standard of identity for that item, which doesn't include flavor packs as an ingredient, products labeled something else—e.g., "orange drink" or similar—could be allowed to have flavor packs, according to an FDA spokesperson.
Finally, if you're buying orange juice with the pulp strained out—say, to make mimosas—that also detracts from the nutritional benefits. Orange pulp is rich in fiber and helps to regulate your digestive system, control blood sugar and decrease unhealthy cholesterol, says Escobar. "Orange juice with no pulp doesn't contain this source of fiber and may cause a rapid spike in blood sugar, even if there is no sugar added," she notes.
What to look for when buying orange juice
It depends on whether you're going for nutrient-rich, fresh squeezed or a particular consistency. If you want pure, fresh-squeezed juice—which is what Escobar prefers and recommends—the safest way to get it is to make it yourself. (Steer clear of the kind labeled "fresh squeezed" in grocery stores, as it's likely not pasteurized, or they're using bottled juice and simply mislabeling it since juicing in-store is so expensive and inconsistent, Sexton says.)
When preparing juice at home, the FDA recommends washing your hands with soap and water, washing and drying the oranges thoroughly to reduce bacteria on the surface and then cutting away any damaged or bruised parts before slicing into them. You can also mix orange juice with vegetables—like tomatoes and carrots—to add more nutrients, says Escobar.
If you're looking for a consistent taste, check the orange juice label to see where its oranges are being sourced from. Commercial brands will use a specific blend of oranges from Florida, California, Mexico, etc. to guarantee a consistent product in every bottle; whereas smaller companies—such as Natalie's—will have orange juice that varies in flavor depending on where oranges are in season. Finally, check the expiration date. The shelf life of bottled OJ should be 40 days at most, says Escobar, to indicate minimal processing.
Remember, truly fresh juice in its unadulterated form is going to contain the most nutrients possible—and is your best bet for drinking OJ for health reasons. "When you start to process [orange juice], you're still retaining nutritional value," says Sexton, "but it will never be same as the pure form out of the fruit."