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Citrus growers hope to debunk no-juice diets

Tired of losing orange juice drinkers to low-carb diets that prohibit the drink, Florida's citrus growers are fighting back.

The state Department of Citrus on Wednesday redirected its marketing strategy to convince consumers that orange juice can be compatible with the Atkins diet as well as the weight loss plan pushed by television talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw.

The department's lawyer also is reviewing some books, such as The South Beach Diet, which discourages drinking orange juice while dieting, and other publications for possible violation of state disparagement statutes.

About $1.8-million will be spent on a marketing campaign to combat the bad image caused by the low-carb diets. The department is abandoning a marketing campaign that targeted moms and young professional woman who watch television shows like Sex in the City.

"There are powerful, negative messages against us," said Bob Crawford, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. "We're not going to stand and take it."

Florida's $9-billion citrus industry has reason to be concerned.

Orange juice consumption has gone from a high of 888-million gallons during the 2000-01 growing season to an expected 844-million gallons for the current season. Citrus officials blame part of that drop to unsuccessful marketing, but they said a noticeable drop occurred last March when low-carb diets began to reach a critical mass.

Under Florida law, growers may sue anyone who publicly says fruits, vegetables and other perishable food products are unsafe for consumption but can't back up their claims with scientific evidence.

"I think if people write things that aren't true about our product, we'll first talk about it with them and hopefully avoid litigation," Crawford said. "We're not going to stand back and be slandered."

In The South Beach Diet, Dr. Arthur Agatston urges readers to eat fruits rather than drink fruit juice.

"Again, fruit juices are a big source of trouble, in part because we've come to associate them with healthy habits," Agatston writes in the best-selling book. "But they also bring with them high levels of fructose, which can be the undoing of any effort to lose weight."

The publisher of The South Beach Diet, Rodale Inc., said it stands by the book's "sound nutritional advice."

Most of Florida's oranges are processed into juice. Florida is the nation's largest producer of oranges and second in the world to Brazil. Florida growers are expected to have their largest crop ever _ 250-million 80-pound boxes.

Some members of Florida's citrus industry have adopted to the low-carb phenomenon. PepsiCo Inc.'s Tropicana this month introduced Light 'n Healthy, a line that has a third less sugar and calories than regular orange juice.

An 8-ounce serving of Light 'n Healthy has about 70 calories and 14 grams of sugar, about a third less than regular Tropicana orange juice, which has 110 calories and 22 grams of sugar.