Is frozen orange juice concentrate better for the environment?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Feb. 19 2008 4:03 PM

Carton vs. Canister

Is frozen orange juice concentrate better for the environment?

Orange juice
Orange juice

I like to start my day with a glass of orange juice. I've always used the fresh-tasting juice from the carton, as opposed to those frozen crystals you have to mix with water. Is my preference eco-hostile? Those cartons contain fewer servings per cubic inch of packaging than the aluminum freezer canisters. That results in lots more fuel being expended during the trip to market, right?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let's address the inevitable objection to questions of this sort: No, changing your mode of orange juice intake isn't going to save the planet, especially since—as we'll soon see—concentrate-filled canisters are hardly an environmental boon. But your OJ quandary provides an excellent opportunity to peek behind the food industry curtain and better grasp the vast amounts of energy that go into everyday luxuries.

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The fact that orange juice is so prevalent on America's breakfast tables is something of a modern marvel. 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).

For simplicity's sake, let's assume your juice is produced entirely in Florida, using only locally grown oranges. Juice manufactured in the Sunshine State's plants ends up as one of two products: frozen concentrated orange juice (FCOJ), which is then rehydrated by either the supplier or the end user, or not-from-concentrate juice (NFC), which is sold under such brand names as Tropicana Pure Premium.

The production processes for FCOJ and NFC are identical right up to the final steps—both, for example, are pasteurized using heat. (Manufacturers have long experimented with alternatives methods of pasteurization, such as microwave technology, but none has yet proven economically feasible.) After pasteurization, the juice destined to become concentrate is run through a hot evaporator, which sucks out most of the water content. The result of this evaporation is FCOJ with a typical concentration of around 65 degrees Brix.

The not-from-concentrate juice is spared the evaporator; any heat beyond the bare minimum required for pasteurization may irrevocably damage the product. It is instead subjected to a less energy-intensive process to remove bitter peel oils, which can harm the flavor and may contain pesticides. To receive Florida's Grade A label, juice must contain less than 0.0035 percent peel oil. (The evaporator burns off the oil in FCOJ.) Not-from-concentrate juice is also deaerated, in order to preserve taste and vitamin content.

The NFC can then be stored in aseptic tanks for up to one year; the concentrate, meanwhile, 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 requires a lot more fuel, usually in the form of natural gas, than producing NFC.

A serving of not-from-concentrate juice takes up five to six times more space than a serving of dehydrated FCOJ, so the transportation issue you cite certainly can't be ignored. But 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.)

In the end, not-from-concentrate orange juice sold by the carton comes out slightly ahead of frozen OJ sold by the canister in terms of energy use. As a green consumer, your worst choice would be to buy juice that's been rehydrated by the supplier, then placed in cartons (such as Minute Maid Original). If you prefer juice from concentrate, whether for the lower price or more Tang-y taste, it's better to rehydrate it yourself.

What about squeezing your own OJ? Keep in mind that, unless you live in Florida or California (the nation's No. 2 orange producer), chances are those Valencias traveled a long, long way to get to your grocery aisle. And transporting enough oranges to yield six servings of juice requires nine times more cardboard waste than transporting a 12-ounce canister of FCOJ.

The juice industry also claims that its manufacturing process is much more efficient than drinking squeeze-your-own, since factories waste no part of the orange: The rinds are turned into cattle feed, the oils into food flavorings. Some researchers even contend that the byproducts of OJ manufacturing can be made into biofuel—though, given the recent controversy over ethanol, the Lantern remains highly skeptical of such innovations.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday. (And apologies to those who've yet to receive responses to their inquiries—the Lantern tries to reply to each and every one, but is currently dealing with a massive backlog as well as a newborn son. Patience, please.)

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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