The Cold-Pressed Truth: Is Drinking Juice Good for You?

Photo: Breville USA

Before the FDA announced major changes to nutrition labels in February, food labels became the focus of a fresh new feud. And it all stemmed from one seemingly harmless three-letter word: raw.

Suja, a fast-growing brand with $18 million in sales last year, and BluePrint, whose revenue reached $1.4 billion in 2012, are now under fire for allegedly misleading customers about the contents of their cold-pressed juices. The current debate centers around whether juice treated with high pressure processing, or HPP, should in fact be considered “raw.” And as the $3.4 billion cold-pressed juice industry expands to more and more retailers, from Whole Foods to Starbucks to your local grocery store, that’s a whole lot of bottles being called into question. So what’s really inside that premium juice you’re splurging for?

Sip Scrutiny

In the food industry, litigation over labeling is nothing new. In August 2013, Naked Juice, a brand owned by Pepsi, settled a $9 million class action lawsuit for its alleged misuse of the phrase “all-natural.” And in February of this year, a trial began to determine whether Kashi and Bear Naked made false claims by labeling products with the phrases “Nothing Artificial,” “100% Pure & Natural” and “100% Natural.”

What’s the “raw” deal this time around? Plaintiffs in the two cases, filed within the last three months, claim juice companies need to change their labels because HPP “neutralizes the benefits of the live enzymes, probiotics, vitamins, proteins, and nutrients that would otherwise be retained in raw and unpasteurized juice.” Though this class action lawsuit likely won’t be resolved for several years, understanding the HPP debate might just change how you feel about your next pricey purchase — good, bad or indifferent. We talked to food science experts to help make sense of your juice label — and what it means to you.

Under Pressure

Similar to standard pasteurization methods that use heat, HPP neutralizes molecules that cause juice to spoil faster. This allows HPP-treated juice to last up to 45 days, roughly nine times longer than a freshly made cold-pressed juice, meaning  companies can expand their distribution and sell cold-pressed juice on a much larger scale.

So what’s the difference between an HPP-treated OJ and your standard supermarket carton that’s been pasteurized with heat? Unlike thermal pasteurization, “pressure doesn’t damage the product,” says Professor V.M. Balasubramaniam of the Food Science and Technology Department at Ohio State University, explaining that HPP is especially effective in retaining the nutrients, flavor or texture of a product. Dr. Dallas Hoover, Professor of Food Science at University of Delaware and a spokesperson at the Institute of Food Technologists, agrees. “It really doesn’t break bonds or compounds,” he says of HPP, noting that antioxidants and vitamin C will not be significantly reduced.

According to Balasubramaniam, HPP has been used in the United States since the mid-90s, when companies began using intense pressure (sometimes up to 120,000 pounds per square inch, or 10 times greater than the pressure at the bottom of the deepest ocean) to preserve guacamole, vegetable purees, meats and seafood. And in the past seven years, juice companies have learned how to harness HPP for their own products.

“A carrot’s nutritional content will be very similar before and after treatment,” says Balasubramaniam, “but if you look at it microscopically, there may be changes in the cell structures.” And it’s these minimal changes that have caught the attention of raw foodists who believe HPP-treated juices need more precise labeling.

Photo: Pond5
Photo: Pond5

Label Lowdown

The jury’s still out on whether the “raw” case will gain traction in the courts, but in the meantime, it’s important to learn how to read between the lines the next time you’re at the market or the juice bar. Not all juice boxes, bottles and cans are created equal!

“Contains 100% Juice”
Everything in the bottle came from fruit or vegetables, but not necessarily the ones front and center on the label. For example, a cranberry juice might have pure cranberry juice diluted with apple or pear juice. This is still considered “100% juice.”

At the present time, this term is either used to refer to unpasteurized cold-pressed juice that has a shelf life of two to three days or HPP-treated cold-pressed juice with a shelf life of up to 45 days. Check the label to see if and how the juice has been pasteurized.

A very small percentage of commercially sold cold-pressed juice in the United States is unpasteurized, though it is gaining popularity. Imagine the fresh-squeezed apple cider at a local orchard, or premium green juice blends made at popular juice bars like NYC-based Juice Press and Liquiteria. These juices have a shelf life of a mere two to three days and are usually created with organic ingredients, making them about three times more expensive than your average lunchtime juice box. 

Usually referring to thermal pasteurization, where a product is heated, pasteurization is used to prevent spoiling and to kill harmful pathogens, like E. coli. In addition to juice, milk, cheese, canned foods, wines and syrups are commonly pasteurized. Some companies use “flash pasteurization,” which supposedly maintains the color and flavor better. HPP is sometimes considered a form of pasteurization, though it does not use heat.

“From Concentrate”
Many companies create a shelf-stable pasteurized juice product by extracting water from juice and creating a “concentrated” juice product. To make “reconstituted juice,” either the consumer or the manufacturer will add in water to dilute the concentrated juice before serving.

“Not From Concentrate”
Used by numerous brands including Tropicana and Florida’s Natural, this phrase was coined in the 80s to distinguish pasteurized juice from juice made from concentrate. Though no water has been removed from this product, some larger producers strip the juice of oxygen, to keep juice stable while oranges are out of season, which reduces some natural flavoring. Some companies add in proprietary “flavor packs” so the product has the taste and aroma of just-squeezed juice. The FDA does not currently require that companies list flavor packs on a product’s packaging.

The bottom line: If you’re squeezing juice into your diet — whether for a cleanse or for a fortified snack — make sure you’re shelling out cash for a product you know is consistent with your quality standards.

Do you find juice labels confusing? Let us know in the comments below. 

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