In lawsuits, critics punch holes in 'natural' orange juice labeling

Tropicana and other brands are under fire for billing orange juice as “natural” when, some say, the juice is highly processed.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2010)

Tropicana and other brands are under fire for billing orange juice as “natural” when, some say, the juice is highly processed.

A recent burst of lawsuits against Tropicana and other big orange juice producers is punching some holes in the use of the word "natural" on OJ carton labeling and raising questions over the citrus industry's broader "fresh from the grove" marketing message to consumers.

Maybe we're all too naive. But a typical citrus industry TV ad showing a mom in a grocery store reaching for a carton of "not from concentrate" OJ and being handed back a "natural" product as if it had just been picked in a grove seems at sharp odds with what these lawsuits allege and others assert.

The suits started in January in California with Angelena Lewis suing Tropicana Products for deceptive advertising and packaging for its Pure Premium juice, including cartons featuring an orange with a straw stuck into it.

(To thousands of Tampa Bay Rays baseball fans, that fresh OJ image was reinforced at Tropicana Field, where for years a giant orange with a straw icon hung on the wall past the rightfield foul poll.)

Lewis' lawsuit claims Tropicana, a PepsiCo unit, puts the juice through extensive processing and storage, adding aromas and flavors that change its "essential nature" for a longer shelf life.

This process increases Tropicana's capacity of a bestselling "100% pure and natural" OJ but also lets the company charge more, says the lawsuit.

Since January, 19 more lawsuits, including some against Coca-Cola brand Simply Orange, have been filed.

At issue is the lack of clarity by the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, two agencies responsible for food labeling and advertising claims. In this case, they failed to define "natural" and left it to the industry to decide how it applies.

If the feds say the OJ industry can use "natural" as it sees fit, then all these lawsuits may not have much to argue.

Still, lawsuit allegations and a 2009 book called Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice shed some unwanted light on how OJ is processed, preserved at times for months, then remixed as "natural" OJ using "flavor packs" designed by flavor and fragrance companies.

Is that "natural"? It's not harmful, experts say. It's just not what it is portrayed to be.

A Tropicana statement says it is "committed to full compliance with labeling laws and to producing great-tasting 100 percent orange juice."

That's artfully stated.

Squeezed was written by Alissa Hamilton, who holds a doctorate in environmental studies from Yale and a law degree from the University of Toronto. She writes how, in the process of pasteurizing, orange juice is heated and stripped of oxygen (eliminating its flavor-providing chemicals), then kept in huge storage tanks for as long as a year.

When it's ready for packaging, flavor and fragrance companies hired by Tropicana developed flavor packs using orange oils and other ingredients to make it taste fresh. Again.

Each OJ brand has its own specific flavor pack, Hamilton writes. Orange juice processed between March and June, when Valencia oranges ripen, tends to be fresher than later in the summer when more juice is preserved in tanks for the off-season.

Fresh juice squeezed at home from oranges tends to last several days. That's a far cry from the less natural 60-day shelf life of some OJ products.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

In lawsuits, critics punch holes in 'natural' orange juice labeling 06/04/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 5, 2012 3:08pm]

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