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Is premium orange juice worth the wallet squeeze?

"Super-premium" juices take pains to suggest they're nothing more than squeezed fruit that's been poured into a jug and shipped to your store. The reality is that they undergo many of the same processes as any bottled orange juice, including those at the lowest end of the scale. Cook's Illustrated deciphers packaging labels and investigates which brands are actually worth the extra cost.
/ Source: TODAY

Curious what “premium” and “super-premium” mean when it comes to orange juice? Does it mean they taste better, help you perform better or are they just a marketing gimmick? Cook's Illustrated deciphers packaging labels and investigates which brands are actually worth the extra costs:

We've always grabbed our weekly carton of orange juice in the dairy section of the supermarket, right next to the milk and cream. But a growing number of fresh squeezed-style orange juices have been popping up in the produce department, where their makers clearly are hoping to encourage customers to associate them with fresh fruit. The industry term for these brands is "super-premium juice," and they're often packaged in fancier bottles that cultivate this image.

But so-called super-premium juice costs nearly twice as much as "not from concentrate" brands from the dairy section, such as Tropicana or Minute Maid. Is it worth it?

To find out, we compared five of these upscale juices with ordinary Tropicana Pure Premium, the not-from-concentrate winner of our previous tasting, which focused on middle-market juices including frozen concentrates. Prices ranged from $3.99 for a 64-ounce container of Tropicana to $9.99 for the same quantity of a gourmet brand.

From tree to jug
Super-premium juices take pains to suggest on their labels that they're nothing more than squeezed fruit that's been poured into a jug and shipped to your store. The reality is that they undergo many of the same processes as any bottled orange juice, including those at the lowest end of the scale. And, like these other products, they may be doctored to improve flavor without this fact being broadcast to consumers.

Here's how it works: The freshly picked fruit is trucked to a processing plant to be washed and sorted, after which it is put in a machine that extracts the juice and strips off the pith and peel (for cattle feed and other byproducts), all in a matter of seconds. If the juice is destined to become lower-end concentrated juice, it goes to an evaporator before being pasteurized. If it is slated for middle-market "not-from-concentrate" juice, it is pasteurized immediately at a high temperature to kill harmful bacteria, deactivate enzymes, and extend shelf life.

It is at the pasteurization point that super-premium juices take a turn. Many of these brands got their start two decades ago selling fresh, unpasteurized juice. Following health scares in the late 1990s, most adopted "flash" pasteurization after the FDA began requiring unpasteurized juice to carry warning labels and demanded juice makers follow strict bacterial control measures. Flash pasteurization involves heating the juice for a shorter time and at a lower temperature than full pasteurization, preserving more of the fresh taste. While the process doubles the juice's shelf life, it doesn't remain viable nearly as long as the fully pasteurized product.

Flavor fix
Fresh orange juice is a fragile and finicky product. The downside of any pasteurization is that heat destroys flavor and aroma compounds that make the juice taste fresh and, at worst, can lead to a flat, cooked taste. To restore some of those lost qualities, or to make up for a batch of oranges that falls short of the brand's desired flavor profile, not from-concentrate manufacturers mix in juice from other batches. (These held-over batches may have been stored frozen or just above the freezing point for months or even years.) They also mix in special "flavor packets" made from orange essence and other orange parts to correct deficiencies in taste, color, or aroma. There's no way to tell from the label when flavor packets have been added or heldover juice was blended in, since juice makers are not required to specify this. Super-premium juice makers may also blend in held-over juice and add flavor packets, but most play that down.

"Ideally, you shouldn't have to add anything, but you can use [flavor packets] to enhance certain features," said Russel Rouseff, professor of food chemistry at the University of Florida and co-director of its Citrus and Beverage Technology Center.

Squeezing out the competition
So does what manufacturers describe as "light," "gentle," "delicate" pasteurization actually make their juice taste more like fresh and therefore worth the extra cost? Much to our surprise, the answer is no, with one notable exception-our winner, Natalie's Orchid Island Gourmet Pasteurized Orange Juice. The other gourmet juices rated abysmally. The even bigger surprise? Everyday dairy-section Tropicana came in second, beating out juices twice its price, as well as its own fancier sister brand, Tropicana Pure Valencia.

Tasters praised the Natalie's brand for a fresh taste that was just a notch below the true fresh squeezed juice we included in the lineup. They were also impressed by its superior blend of both sweet and tart flavors. Tropicana got high marks not for tasting particularly fresh, but for its overall good flavor. The rest of the super-premium juices, on the other hand, were panned for being acidic and sour and tasting closer to concentrate than to anything approaching fresh-squeezed. One of the most expensive juices in the lineup, Odwalla, was also criticized for containing strange flavors reminiscent of cardamom and even pine, landing it at the bottom of the list.

What accounts for the striking difference in flavor among the super-premium juices? Part of the answer may lie in the specifics of how each company conducts its flash pasteurization. Most juice makers told us that details of their process are proprietary and would only admit it's not identical from one company to the next. Only Natalie's Orchid Island was willing to share its formula: "We do six seconds at 170 degrees, then drop it down to 33 (degrees) immediately," noted Michael D'Amato, director of sales for Natalie's Orchid Island Juice, based in Fort Pierce, Fla. Other companies, D'Amato maintains, bring the juice up to as high as 200 degrees and "cook the heck out of it."

A more transparent part of the answer may have to do with the oranges themselves. In our tasting, all the top juices (Natalie's, Tropicana Pure Premium, and Tropicana Pure Valencia) relied mainly on oranges grown in Florida; juices squeezed from California-grown oranges (Bolthouse Farms, Naked, and Odwalla) took the bottom three spots. The fact that the Florida juices didn't have as far to travel to us here in our offices in the Northeast may have contributed to a better and literally fresher taste. (There is no way for a consumer to know when, exactly, a juice left the warehouse; all we could do is confirm that the juices were tested well before their expiration dates.)

But experts do agree that an identical variety of orange will develop distinctly different characteristics depending on where it is grown. Florida's warm, humid days and nights produce a larger, sweeter orange, with a thinner peel and more juice. California's dry desert climate and cool nights lead to smaller oranges with thicker peels and a more tart juice. In general, our tasters preferred the sweeter juices made with Florida oranges. The juices from California tasted slightly more sour and acidic. Lab results confirmed it, too. The bottom rated California juices were higher in acidity.

The power of processing
The origin of oranges and the length and level of heat used in flash pasteurization may help explain why Natalie's rated so much higher than the other super-premium juices. But it doesn't explain why a super-processed brand of not-from-concentrate juice like Tropicana so soundly trounced the less processed competition. Could it be that lots of processing, at least in the case of Tropicana Pure Premium, actually helps?

By all indications-yes. Tropicana's pasteurizing machines heat the juice to 205 degrees for five seconds, then cool it down almost instantly to 36 degrees, thereby destroying far more of the fresh-squeezed flavor than Natalie's does pasteurizing at a comparatively gentle 160 degrees. But Tropicana is also an industry giant that buys 40 percent of all oranges grown in Florida and processes more than one million gallons of juice a day.

Over the years, the company has poured millions of dollars into figuring out how to successfully put flavor back in. Its goal, according to Rachel Jordan, principal scientist for Tropicana, is to have every container of juice taste exactly the same. It analyzes more than 300 attributes of the juice and adjusts each batch with techniques including adding flavor packets and held-over juice to re-create the same taste every time. Its blend of Hamlin, Pineapple, and Valencia oranges also seems like a winning combo; it's the same mix used by Natalie's. Other brands bragged that they used all or predominately Valencia oranges, considered the very best oranges for juice, but that didn't impress our tasters.

The verdict
In the end, none of the juices in the lineup (not even our winner) could beat the juice we had squeezed ourselves. However, we calculated that buying oranges and squeezing them ourselves made the juice cost about $1.84 for an 8-ounce glass, or 23 cents per ounce — about three times the price of our winning super-premium juice.

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