Reading the contents of my carton of orange juice, I was surprised to find out that oranges were only the fourth ingredient. What else could there be?! Well, it turns out water, soy and sugar. The water is there to ‘reconstitute’ the orange juice that was originally concentrated for ease of transport, but what about the other two?
It is no coincidence that I happened to buy this particular carton in Brazil. The country is (in)famous for its huge monocultures of soybean and sugarcane, which among other things help power global livestock production and Brazil’s flex-fuel transport system. These crops also act as industrial inputs for the food manufacturing industry, which has found ingenious ways of utilising their chemical properties to better advertise and distribute their processed products.
In the case of the soy in my orange juice, it seems this particular usage can be traced back to the appropriation and application of a technique devised by Brazilian women in the 1970s to supplement their families’ meagre diets with soybean milk. Although it had nutritional benefit, it was considered unappealing and so it remained until an entrepreneurial retiree in neighbouring Argentina began to explore ways to remove as much of the smell and taste of soy from the milk as possible. Though still unappetising on its own, it appeared to work well when mixed with fruit juice and a commercial venture was born. A few corporate takeovers later and Unilever was selling the fruit juice brand AdeS with “soy force” back to Brazilians.
As for the sugar, this comes in the form of liquid invert sugar. This is essentially sucrose – the kind of table sugar produced from cane and beet – broken down into its constituent parts of glucose and fructose. The benefit to the manufacturer of doing this is that it provides a sweeter taste and has more powerful preserving qualities, meaning consumers are treated to an instant taste sensation and retailers longer periods in which to sell the product (a compression and suspension of time itself!). Freshly squeezed orange juice will only last a few days before it starts to go off. The best before date on my ‘fresh looking’ orange juice was November 2014 – at least 8 months from when it was put on the shelf.
Typically, what we eat is understood to be a function of cultural tradition, retail price and stocking practice, and pervasive and persuasive junk food advertising. However, in an academic article Corinna Hawkes, Sharon Friel, Tim Lobstein and Tim Lang consider how changes in our collective diet toward the consumption of fungible industrial crops might instead be traced to the liberalisation of agricultural policy. They offer three hypotheses. The first is that it induces specialisation and export orientation, with the ‘leftovers’ from the export market turned into by-products and sold on cheaply elsewhere. The second is that it tends to lower prices for industrially-farmed products, thus creating an incentive for food manufacturers to substitute for cheaper inputs (despite the implications for the nutritional quality and content of final foods). The third is that the array of by-products encourages food manufacturers to ‘add value’ by combining these in novel ways that provide the opportunity to superficially differentiate foods and create the illusion of choice.
As Brazil’s production of soybean continues to expand (from 57 million tonnes in 2006/07 to 82 million tonnes in 2012/13) and sugar likewise (from 29 million tonnes to 38 million tonnes across the same six year period) it is likely that there will be much more than just orange juice that is supplemented and sweetened by unexpected sources.