The fall of juice against the rise of fresh fruit

According to data released by the USDA, Americans consumed 5.2 gallons of fruit juice per capita in 2017. This is the lowest fruit juice number since the USDA began tracking its consumption in 1970.

The rise and fall of orange juice is at the heart of this story. Consumption took off in the US in the late 1940s, after USDA scientists figured out how to make frozen orange-juice concentrate that could be reconstituted into a palatable beverage. After that, advances in flash pasteurization brought not-from-concentrate juice that tasted even fresher, even though it usually wasn’t. For decades, OJ was successfully marketed as the healthy, vitamin-rich way to start the day. Then, around the beginning of the new millennium, it got caught up in a turn against sugar that swept through medicine and popular discourse. Blame for rising obesity and heart disease rates shifted from fats and meats to sugars and carbs.

This anti-sugar turn stripped orange juice of its reputation as a health food. It and other fruit juices are now regularly derided as concentrated sugar-delivery mechanisms — and the once-mighty Florida orange-juice industry has been too wounded by hurricanes and citrus greening disease to fight back effectively. Whole oranges and other fruits are still considered healthy, though, and consumption of fresh fruit has been rising.

Once-rare treats such as avocados (yes, a fruit) and pineapples have become widely available, while California growers have figured out how to supply berries year-round. Avocados, grapes, pineapples and strawberries all now rival oranges in per-capita availability. Consumption of fresh oranges, which mostly come from California, is down, but not by as much as orange juice, and other citrus fruits are charging ahead: lemons, limes, tangerines and tangelos. Not grapefruits, though!

The spectacular decline in grapefruit consumption, from a peak of 9 pounds per capita in 1976 to just 1.9 in 2017, appears to have been caused mainly by a collision between older Americans’ breakfast preferences and their prescriptions. Grapefruit and grapefruit juice (per-capita consumption of which has fallen 89% since its 1978 peak) can interact in dangerous ways with medications for high cholesterol, high blood pressure and a variety of other ailments likely to afflict the elderly. So while I’ve been doing what I can in recent years to boost grapefruit demand (I’d guess I single-handedly consumed about 25 pounds last winter), it’s all over when I have to start taking Lipitor.

In 2013, for the first time since at least 1970, Americans consumed more fresh fruit than caloric sweeteners. In 2017, they consumed 8.3 pounds per person more fresh fruit. We are talking concentrated, mostly refined sweeteners versus fruits with peels, pits and the like, so the two aren’t exactly equivalent.


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