Orange juice and breakfast. They go together like Earth and sky. Like vim and vigor. Like the best and the brightest. Or maybe like chewing and tinfoil. Never mind Anita Bryant, who used to tell us that a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine. The reality is more acidic: Orange juice is actually a terrible thing to serve at breakfast. You can start with the time of day: morning, right after you’ve brushed your teeth. (You do brush your teeth in the morning, right?) Scientists still don’t know exactly why orange juice and toothpaste combine to create a taste somewhere between sauerkraut and battery acid, but the suspicion is it has something to do with sodium lauryl sulfate, the primary ingredient in toothpaste’s cleansing agents.
SLS messes with our taste buds, with orange juice the loser. One study showed it took at least an hour before the tongue could properly taste orange juice, while other foods, such as bacon, needed just a few minutes. (Yes, score another one for bacon.)
Then there’s the juice itself, a product a trainer friend of mine called “glorified sugar water.” He’s not far off. Orange juice, like other juices, is essentially a way of mainlining fructose, a simple sugar. It’s not as concentrated as apple or cranberry juice, and it has some nutritional value, but it’s not exactly Soylent, either.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like orange juice, particularly fresh squeezed. But it’s probably better in moderation, as a refreshing midday break or a part of a cocktail instead of as a breakfast staple.
It’s hard to believe now, but orange juice used to be a luxury. Diamond Jim Brady, the wealthy Gilded Age financier, was known to wash down his robust repasts with several pitchers a day (though “gallons” may have been a stretch), a sign that he could AFFORD several pitchers a day of what was then made from a seasonal fruit. It wasn’t until the 1920s and the rise of industrialized citrus groves in Florida that orange juice—processed, concentrated and canned—became an everyday item, soon encouraged by the military, business and marketing gurus, who praised its vitamin C content.
I certainly remember my mother buying tubes of frozen orange juice concentrate in the ‘70s, encouraged by Florida Citrus Commission spokesperson Bryant and the Minute Maid-peddling Bing Crosby. Invariably the result was either too pulpy or too watery, and woe to the person who had to drink the dregs of the Tupperware pitcher we used to mix it in.
It hadn’t improved by much a few years later. My lasting memory of orange juice in college was as a morning pick-me-up at weekend quiz bowl tournaments. Imagine a group of trivia-obsessed students, exhausted from a long drive, a mediocre hotel, and late-night hours memorizing world capitals and historical facts (don’t judge; did you know that Richard Nixon made at least $5,000 playing poker during World War II? You do now), gathering for “breakfast” at an empty classroom building. In front of us are anonymous tables with weak coffee, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a watery miasma masquerading as orange juice. If you think OJ and toothpaste make an atrocious combination, you haven’t lived until you’ve combined it with Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Mmmm, there’s that aluminum foil taste again.
In recent years, there have been attempts to bring orange juice back to its roots. The major beverage companies offer “not-from-concentrate” products—though, like sausage, it’s best not to know how they’re made—and it’s much easier to find fresh-squeezed OJ at restaurants and farmers’ markets. Fair-trade orange juice is now more commonplace, which is important, given how much of it now comes from countries such as Brazil—the world’s leading orange grower—China, India and Mexico.
And it certainly makes fine cocktails, whether your taste runs to screwdrivers, mimosas or Alabama Slammers.
But given that an eight-ounce glass of the stuff is 120 calories and that much of the nutrition is in the pulp, we might want to try a breakfast habit of many other cultures: forget the juice and eat a raw orange.
Perhaps that wouldn’t go as well with those glossy magazine pictures, where the bright orange of the beverage looms like a sunrise among tan pancakes, yellow scrambled eggs, dark-brown coffee and white china. But, in the long run, it’s probably better for us.
Besides, have you considered chocolate milk?