My childhood breakfast menu might have varied from cold cereal to eggs to oatmeal, but one item was a daily fixture: orange juice. My mom made a jug of juice every morning from concentrate. In the mid-20th century, real juice was the norm. No added sweeteners or random nutrients like calcium.
I fell out of the orange juice habit long ago, but when visiting France a few years back, I had an OJ re-awakening. The standard cafe breakfast in France includes a glass of orange juice, along with a croissant or baguette and a coffee. It was the perfect breakfast. The OJ was delicious. Why wasn’t I drinking this more often?
Why Orange Juice at Breakfast?
The tradition of orange juice at breakfast has an interesting origin story. It starts with widespread planting of orange trees in Southern California during the 19th century. So many oranges, so little demand! What to do? Hire a marketing company. Enter Albert Lasker.
Mr. Lasker had the brilliant idea of promoting orange consumption in juice form, rather than as the whole fruit. Citrus fruit already had a health halo image, thanks to the link between citrus consumption and prevention of scurvy. Oranges were marketed alongside handy orange juice presses. I actually remember family members, perhaps my Mom, using one of these to squeeze out the requisite morning OJ.
Eventually orange juice evolved from a home-squeezed beverage (messy, time consuming) to more convenient frozen concentrate, thanks to widespread availability of refrigerators. More recently, fresh/pasteurized ready-to-drink OJ is available in bottles. And of course, many people have gone full circle, back to making fresh squeezed orange juice at home, thanks to modern juicers.
OJ in decline
Despite all this progress, OJ consumption has been steadily declining. According to a graph by Statista, per capita orange juice consumption in the US has declined from 5.2 gallons per person per year in 2000 to 1.8 gallons 20 years later. That’s pretty dramatic. Let’s do some nutrition math: 5.2 gallons of OJ equals 7460 mg of vitamin C, which comes out to 20 mg of vitamin C per day. Twenty years later, average daily vitamin C consumption from OJ has dropped to 7 mg per day. NOTE: an 8-oz glass of orange juice made from concentrate has 90 mg of vitamin C, more than the recommended daily intake.
Why aren’t we drinking as much OJ? One contributing factor: people don’t sit at a table at home eating breakfast before leaving for work or school or wherever. Breakfast that’s grabbed at a coffee shop usually focuses on coffee (or tea). OJ just doesn’t fit into this scenario.
The obesity epidemic and the campaign against sugar and sugary beverages is another reason. Orange juice is lumped into the dreaded “juice” category. But what’s worse? A liter-sized plastic bottle of artificially sweetened orange-flavored, orange-dyed soft drink, or a simple 6-8 oz glass of real orange juice, with potassium, vitamin C and folate?
Which brings up another issue: portion control. Our current crop of processed beverages are sold in Big Portions. Even the garden-variety 12 oz can of soda pop is 50% bigger than an 8 oz glass of orange juice (in some households, a 4 oz glass was the norm). Who drinks just 8 oz of a fruit-flavored drink, when they’re sold in liter-sized bottles. I can’t imagine anyone drinking a liter of real orange juice, because real orange juice is filling. Ironically, back when a small glass of orange juice was a morning tradition, there was no obesity epidemic.
Stick to whole foods
According to a webinar I watched recently, oranges contain a unique flavonoid that can impact energy metabolism, resulting in increased calorie burning. Even more interesting, activity of this flavonoid is enhanced by beta carotene, which is concentrated in orange and dark green vegetables.
While the amount of this flavonoid in oranges is not likely to have any real life impact on calorie balance, the information gives new meaning to the phrase “eat your fruits and vegetables”. There are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of substances in whole unprocessed foods that we haven’t identified. Many of these could have important roles to play in our health. When you replace real food with ultra-processed stuff, you eliminate all those substances from your diet.
Take Away Message
What’s my point here? Start drinking orange juice at breakfast again? Well, that wouldn’t hurt (unless you have a medical issue that precludes OJ). But the breakfast tradition isn’t set in stone. Why not add a modest glass to a meal or snack. Here’s a thought: if you’re on the road, stopping at a fast food/quick serve restaurant, order orange juice instead of a soft drink or sugary coffee/tea drink. My go-to on-the-road choice is OJ and chicken tenders; the juice is a refreshing contrast to the chicken. This isn’t a frequent situation. Meanwhile I’m going to add orange juice to my daily repertoire. It just tastes healthy.