One Question Quiz
Image: Getty Images / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images / Tina Tiller

SocietyFebruary 14, 2023

The orange juice question

Image: Getty Images / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images / Tina Tiller

Out of all the people who have drunk orange juice, are more of them now dead or still alive?

Pregnant women love orange juice. Granted, I have one wife and she has been pregnant one time, so my sample size is very limited, but as far as I can tell, pregnant women love orange juice. Cold, pulpy orange juice without the added sugar or preservatives just hits the spot in a way that eating an orange apparently cannot.

During one of these orange juice drinking sessions, a question materialised out of nowhere. Out of all the people who have drunk orange juice, are more of them now dead or still alive? It’s a very weird question to just drop into conversation, and as general advice I would not recommend doing so. 

It feels too much like one of those quantitative estimation interview questions designed to test a candidate’s thinking process, like “how many ping pong balls would fit into a helicopter?” It’s very reminiscent of the wheels vs doors debate of March 2022 (which as it turns out also originated in New Zealand). The correct answer should be “what a dumb question”, and then we could all get on with our days. But there’s something about these questions that pulls on the strings of curiosity innate to humankind.

And Twitter is exactly the sort of place where weird questions appear, so I posted a poll about orange juice to ruin the weekend for nerds across Aotearoa:

With 1,138 votes after 24 hours, the question was surprisingly polarising with 47.8% answering dead and 52.2% answering alive. To be fair, I also ran a control and 8% of people think that it’s possible for people to be both drinking orange juice and dead at the same time, so we probably shouldn’t take Twitter polls as being scientifically robust.

So, what’s the correct answer? The first thing to acknowledge is that it is impossible to actually know the answer, because we don’t have a global surveillance machine keeping track of which individuals have experienced the sweet taste of orange juice, going back to when a human first decided it was easier to drink an orange than to eat it. At least not to my knowledge, and I imagine the NSA has better things to track than orange juice.

Instead, we have to collect data points to make an educated guess. And by “collect data points”, I mean “go to Wikipedia”. Oranges have been around for a very long time, with the earliest description in Chinese literature in 314BC. But oranges were mostly only in Asia at that time, and it took centuries for oranges to spread through India, east Africa, and then up the Mediterranean into Europe around the 10th Century.

In the Middle Ages, oranges were a rare luxury and only available to the rich. The “bitter orange” arrived in Europe first, which were pretty gross and had to be candied or used in cooking to be edible. The “sweet orange”, which is much nicer and the parent of what we call oranges today, arrived later around 1500. But with other fruit more widely available, most people at that time wouldn’t have had the chance to eat an orange.

Paul Gauguin (now dead) ate oranges, but did he ever drink orange juice? (Image: Getty Images)

Oranges became more famous in the mid-1700s when a Royal Navy doctor discovered that oranges and lemons were an effective treatment for scurvy – a disease that often hit sailors due to a lack of Vitamin C over long journeys. The sailors given citrus fruits did far better than their colleagues who were given “half a pint of sea-water a day” or “two spoonfuls of vinegar, three times a day”, which are treatments that I assume destroyed their remaining will to live. This discovery created a reason for more orange trees to be planted, both at home and along trade routes.

But it wasn’t until the early 1900s when “too many oranges” became a problem that justified doing something other than eating them. The California Fruit Growers Exchange commissioned a marketing guy to help them find a way to sell more oranges, who came up with the slogan “drink an orange”. The advertisement leads with “orange juice – a delicious beverage – is healthfulness itself” and asks the question “why forego for even a single day this natural liquid food?” Fruit grocers sold “juice extractors” for 10c, which allowed any Robert or Mary to juice oranges in the comfort of their own home.

Some people were probably drinking orange juice before this, but they would have been very limited by proximity to orange trees. The juice didn’t travel very well, and wouldn’t last very long without further treatment or preservatives. During World War II, American soldiers started getting scurvy again because they thought the lemon-based Vitamin C supplements were yuck. A group of scientists were asked to develop frozen orange juice concentrate, which allowed the product to travel much further and stay fresh for longer. Unfortunately, they achieved this three years after the war ended.

Baseball star Robin Roberts (now dead) reaches for a post-match OJ in a 1951 ad (Photo: Getty Images)

Further innovations in food production were also applied to orange juice, like canning and pasteurisation, which lowered the cost of orange juice and made it more widely available. In the 1980s and 1990s, in another win for the marketing industry, the public was convinced that “not-from-concentrate” orange juice was even healthier and a good thing to have with breakfast every day. Partly because of the increasing demand for juice, oranges became the most cultivated fruit tree in the world in 1987.

Of course, the admen didn’t mention that “not-from-concentrate” didn’t mean “free-of-artificial-flavours” or “free-of-preservatives”, or that the orange juice might be in storage for up to a year before it gets processed into a drinkable beverage, or that a glass of orange juice contains almost as much sugar as a glass of Coke. If you want to read more about how multiple generations of consumers were duped into drinking orange juice, read Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice by Alissa Hamilton.

Data wonk David Hood (@thoughtfulnz) pointed out that Food and Agriculture Organization data shows the global trade of orange juice increasing from 43,000 tonnes in 1961 to 2,900,000 tonnes in 2014. Orange juice is still the most consumed juice in the world, with a more than 50% share of the juice market in some countries.

So given that most parts of the world only got reliable access to orange juice over the last 100 years or so, it seems likely to me that more people who have drunk orange juice are alive today than not. That’s just my opinion based on these data points and this story, and there are definitely other arguments to make that might lead to a different conclusion!

Anyway, the moral of the story is that if you have a mildly viral tweet, The Spinoff might ask you to write a short article about it to provide some light entertainment for readers. And if you want to drink orange juice now, consider eating an orange instead – it tastes the same and is probably better for you (unless you’re pregnant, in which case just do what you want).

Keep going!