It’s winter in the U.S. Walk into a grocery store of any size, and your eyes are dazzled by color, as oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes and other citrus varieties vie for your attention. Citrus deserves an honored place on any list of healthy foods. And I don’t know about you, but just a few minutes of squeezing fresh citrus to make my own juice is all the aromatherapy I need to get me through even the coldest, snowiest winter day. You’ll probably find some organic citrus in that grocery store, and these days it’s an easy matter to order it online. But is it worth the extra cost?
There are some compelling reasons to choose organic produce, such as the overuse of agrochemicals in conventional produce production, improved soil health in organic agriculture and concerns over pesticide residues. Those also apply to citrus production. So do some of the difficulties attendant upon organic cultivation, such as the “who do you trust?” game (are those organic navel oranges marketed by that corporate citrus giant really produced in accordance with organic regulations?), the fact that organic citrus may look less pretty than conventional counterparts and the issue of food miles—although the majority of all citrus consumed in the U.S. (except for limes) is at least grown domestically. The states that produce the most citrus within the U.S. are California, Florida, Texas, Arizona and Louisiana, so if you live in the Northeast, Midwest, or Northwest, a “locavore” diet (that is, eating only foods grown or produced locally) would necessitate that you skip this source of wintertime sunshine.
For this article, our goal was to taste organic citrus versus conventional citrus to see if a taste superiority could be detected that would make us want to choose the generally-more-expensive organic produce. Beyond choosing organic produce for its positive impact on the environment, some people might say that citrus is a category where organic doesn’t matter; that because the rind is peeled away, no pesticide is ingested. That isn’t true: citrus is zested for recipes, wedges are tossed into beverages.
First, a quick overview of the types of citrus used in this article.
Oranges are the most popular citrus fruit in the U.S., grown chiefly in California, Arizona and Florida. Some 90% of Florida’s orange crop goes into juice production—most Americans consume far more oranges as juice than as fresh fruit. While most people are familiar with Navel oranges and Valencias (the former are most commonly eaten out of hand, while the latter are famed for their juice), there are a number of other varieties available, including the Marrs, which is seen most often in Texas.Mandarins are an entire family of loose-skinned oranges (sometimes called “zipper skinned” for their effortless peeling quality) with segments that separate easily. This orange family includes Clementines, Dancys, Minneolas, tangerines and Satsumas.
Organic Satsuma tangerines from Melissas.com.
A hybridized mandarin, the Satsuma is sweet,
aromatic and less acidic than other mandarins.
It is delicious in salads, stir-frys, stuffings, tarts, custards, and other desserts. But act quickly:
The season is November through February.
Named for its fruit clusters, which are somewhat similar to that of grapes, grapefruit is the largest variety of domestic citrus (the pomelo, which it is believed was crossbred with the mandarin to create the grapefruit, is larger). Florida grows 70% of the world’s supply of grapefruit.
Grapefruit is delicious in a green salad with a
vinaigrette. Photo by Andrey Volodov | SXC.
Consumers have been familiar with the “white” Marsh variety of grapefruit as the standard for years. However, pink and red grapefruit have become increasingly popular of late and are available under a host of different names, including Pink Marsh, Ruby Red, Ray Ruby, Rio Star, Star Ruby, Rio Red and Red Flame.
Although there’s a common belief that pink and red grapefruit are sweeter than white grapefruit, that’s not necessarily true. The microclimate where the grapefruit is grown has the greatest effect on a grapefruit’s sweetness or lack thereof, according to Tracy Kahn, a botanist with the University of California at Riverside. White grapefruits can be just as sweet as those with flesh of other colors.
Finally, there are lemons. Most lemons in the U.S. are grown in California or Arizona, although some newer varieties can tolerate Florida’s humidity and periodic cold spells.
Everyone knows the Eureka variety—the one you can find in any grocery store. But Meyer lemons have gained great favor, particularly with chefs and foodies, in recent years. Meyer lemons tend to be somewhat smaller, rounder and less hardy than Eurekas. They have smooth, thinner skins, and the juice contains far less acidity, which makes it much sweeter. Both aroma and juice have a slight floral note. Meyer lemons are probably the result of a natural cross between a lemon and an orange, probably a mandarin. Because they are more perishable than Eurekas, Meyer lemons may prove difficult to find at a typical supermarket; but try a specialty market. You can also order them online.
The pulp of the Meyer lemon is darker than a Eureka and contains less acid, which makes a sweeter juice. The flavor is very special, evoking a sweet lemon and a mandarin orange. The lemons also yield a lot more juice. Use it for desserts and lemonade. Meyer lemons from Melissas.com.
Now that we’ve reviewed the fruits, let’s look at what can happen to conventional and organic citrus fruits.