Does America really need more than 10 kinds of orange juice? Standing in the supermarket aisle with a basket full of rapidly melting groceries, one can't help but wonder.
Do you want juice from frozen concentrate or ready to drink?
Juice from a can or a carton?
Do you want juice with pulp or without pulp?
Juice that's low acid, or fortified with calcium?
Orange juice used to be so simple. You took a tube of the frozen concentrate and mixed it with a certain amount of water. (Before that, you cut and squeezed fresh oranges.)
So why has it become so complicated today?
Arun Jain, chairman of the department of marketing at the University at Buffalo, says it's mainly a question of marketing. All the different types of juice sold in supermarkets today, he says, help to improve the company's bottom line.
"With just plain frozen orange juice concentrate," Jain said, "it was difficult to distinguish between brands. Orange juice was a generic substance like flour.
"Something had to be done to appeal to the consumer, so they developed the concept of 'fresh' to make it something to value."
Hence the introduction of ready-to-drink juices. But with some other twists as well.
"To add some excitement to the rather boring concept of orange juice and to keep people from thinking of it as a sort of medicine, the packers are making exotic blends, combining orange juice with things like mango juice or tangerine juice," notes Jain.
"Americans have much more adventuresome palates today, and that's good for the industry since often there is a higher profit margin with the more exotic forms of juice."
With so many orange juice categories, supermarkets have to devote more shelf space to the products, and that forces the shopper to notice.
"And the more they notice it, the more they buy," Jain said.
There's more to it than that, though. A spokesman for the Florida Citrus Commission maintains that the wide number of OJ varieties is good
"It helps meet individual needs," said Eric Bommhower.
"Obviously, if there weren't enough demand for the product as a whole it wouldn't sustain such wide differentiation."
Orange juice is the most popular juice in a very thirsty country. Americans consume 1.4 billion gallons of it every year. No other juice comes close, and sales keep increasing. (So do sales of grapefruit juice, which are growing by leaps and bounds because of a tie-in with the American Heart Association.)
The number of ways to buy orange juice started to increase as soon as frozen juice concentrate was developed in the 1940s by the Florida Citrus Commission. (Florida, by the way, is the second-largest producer of orange juice in the world, second only to Brazil.)
Frozen concentrate revolutionized both the orange juice business and the frozen food industry as a whole.
People were enamored with the convenience and taste of the juice made from concentrate. Before then, the only convenience form of orange juice was canned, which tasted so terrible that many people squeezed juice at home.
Next, pasteurization techniques were developed so chilled ready-to-serve juice (found in the refrigerated section of the supermarket) could be made available. At first the juices were made from concentrate.
Not-from-concentrate refrigerated juice came later, and it was aimed at consumers who "perceived it better in quality because it had never been frozen," Bommhower says.
He didn't say, but he could have, that the not-from-concentrate juice was aimed at people who were willing to pay more for what they perceived as better quality.
Experts say you should buy the juice you like to drink and not worry about nutritive value. Unless you include the calcium-fortified juice, the nutritional content of all orange juice is just about the same.
You might want to worry about calories, though. Orange juice contains almost as many calories as soda pop. (But at least those orange juice calories do not go to waste.)
And what about the cost? Here's a run-down of the most popular varieties:
Frozen concentrate. Even though you have to prepare this juice at home in a separate container, it doesn't sell as much as it used to. But it's still a good choice for people who hate to shop, because the concentrate can be stored in the freezer for several months.
Typical cost of a 6-ounce glass of juice made from concentrate: 20 cents.
Refrigerated reconstituted orange juice, ready to drink. This type comes in a carton and is kept in the refrigerator section of the supermarket.
There's lots of choice in this category. You can buy this juice with calcium fortification, though some people detect -- and dislike -- that taste. One glass of juice provides the same amount of calcium as an equal amount of milk.
You can also buy it with varying amounts of pulp. Minute Maid has done a great deal of research with consumers, says spokeswoman Chris Bozman, and one fact always stands out: Most children hate orange pulp more than they used to hate cod liver oil.
Typical cost of a glass of ready-to-drink, reconstituted juice: 24 cents.
Refrigerated ready-to-drink orange juice, not made from concentrate. This is the big growth category when it comes to sales. Most people say they prefer the flavor. It's considered an upscale product.
Typical cost of a glass: 33 cents.
Fresh-squeezed juice: The big advantage of juice squeezed right in the store is its terrific flavor. It is expensive, however, and -- important to some people -- it is not pasteurized.
Starting next month, all non-pasteurized orange juice must carry a label to that effect.
(Only fresh, untreated juices have to carry the label, and that's only 2 percent of the juices sold in this country. Restaurants and juice bars are exempt from the label rule.)
Do you need your orange juice pasteurized? Maybe. But remember that most of the illness associated with unpasteurized juice has come from cider and apple juice, not orange juice.
Average cost of a 6-ounce glass of freshly squeezed juice: 36 cents.