Don Curlee: Industry creates sweeter orange
Winter harvest of California's huge navel orange crop has just begun and already evidence is mounting that the fruit tastes better than ever.
The taste sensation is more realistic than imagined, with good reason. For several years, the state's citrus industry has concentrated efforts on creating a better taste sensation in the fruit that is the workhorse of its sales volume, the reliable seedless navel orange.
Sounds positive, right? The results apparently are very positive, but the impetus for the effort was a threat to the navel's traditional winter popularity by tiny Mandarin oranges, popularly called tangerines, and by the navels themselves.
Too many of the early-harvest navels disappointed consumers. They complained that the fruit was not as sweet as they remembered from earlier experiences. Many found the sweetness they wanted by shifting to Mandarins, some of them delightfully seedless, as the navel is.
Industry leaders designed a research path that led to the result that some of the fruit harvested earliest simply wasn't ripe enough to taste good. But how could that be? Strict regulations controlled harvesting and shipping only for fruit that met the long-established sugar-to-acid ratios.
Brix is another term for sugar content. It is used to test many of California's fresh fruits. Meeting a certain brix level triggers harvest time for several commodities. For navels, the prior minimum standard in place since 1915 was a ratio of eight to one.
The citrus industry research revealed that ratio, reliable as it is, is not the best measurement for determining actual taste sensation. Researchers determined that a new criteria was needed, a measure that was a better predictor of taste or flavor than the sugar-acid ratio. That criterion has become the "California Standard."
When early-picked fruit are measured by the more complex California Standard, some of it simply doesn't taste good enough to satisfy consumers and bring them back for a second helping the next week. Of course, growers don't want to waste time and money harvesting fruit that won't meet the expectation of maximum returns in the marketplace.
Ripeness indicators are now available to growers to guide them and their picking crews to select and harvest only oranges that are likely to meet the California Standard.
Brix measurements can still be used as a general guide, as well as previous years' harvest dates, as rough indicators that the fruit is approaching its peak of flavor.
But the new California Standard gives more direction to growers as they guide their citrus crops to a flavor profile that is sure to please the largest number of consumers.
It's a little like having GPS in your boat as opposed to using celestial navigation and lighthouses.
While the California Standard is making a marked improvement in fruit selection of the early season crop, it can be used by growers, packers and shippers for the entire season. Some varieties of navels ripen later than others, but the standard remains the same throughout the season. Some ripen later because of an orchard's location, but the standard still applies.
Much is said these days, most of it by consumers and their advocates, about flavor and condition shortfalls in various items they find at their favorite produce outlets. California's citrus industry has listened, taken concerted action and ensured a sweeter navel orange.
Consumers are the ultimate sounding board. Listening and responding to them can cost time and money as this project did. But it should be standard. That's the way to reach the California Standard.
CONTACT Don Curlee at email@example.com.