USDA research lab testing Georgia company’s pea protein additive that mitigates bitter flavors in juice made with oranges harvested from citrus greening-infected trees.
LAKELAND — An orange juice additive developed by a Georgia company could become a significant advancement in the Florida citrus industry’s war against the fatal bacterial disease citrus greening.
The additive made from pea protein mitigates bitter flavors in juice made with oranges harvested from greening-infected trees. About 95% of Florida oranges, the state’s dominant citrus crop, goes to juice.
“By utilizing a unique polymer restructuring technology, we have created a functional pea protein so that, when added to the more acidic and bitter juice obtained from greening oranges, it restores that sweet, clean and refreshing orange flavor,” said Joe Laffin, president and lead scientist at the Jones Laffin Co. of Albany, Georgia, a food technology company.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research lab in Fort Pierce is currently conducting sensory and chemical testing on OJ made with the Jones Laffin pea protein. Sensory testing involves professional tasters that can detect minute levels of flavor.
Liz Baldwin, the research leader of the USDA lab’s Citrus and Other Subtropical Products Unit, said testing on the pea protein so far shows “a significant difference in sourness and bitterness” between OJ with and without the additive.
“From a preliminary perspective, it looks like it has promise,” she said.
The lab hopes to finish its sensory and chemical analysis within weeks, Baldwin said. The research would show not only how the protein changes OJ flavor but how it alters the acid, sugar and other compounds in orange juice.
Researchers hope to publish their results in an academic journal early next year, she said.
“A publication would help them a lot,” Baldwin added.
Laffin agreed. If the USDA research supports the technology, Jones Laffin would begin marketing it to Florida citrus processors by the middle of next year, he said.
The company has already discussed the technology with one Florida processor, whom Laffin declined to identify because of a confidentiality agreement.
If the USDA research supports the additive, Jones Laffin would market the technology for producing the protein powder, Laffin said. The company would not actually manufacture or sell the additive.
Research shows oranges from greening-infected trees face two problems, Baldwin said.
The first is that the oranges have lower sugar levels than fruit from uninfected trees, she said.
“When sugar levels go down, you notice the bitterness more,” Baldwin said.
The second problem is that the oranges have higher levels of two natural chemicals, limonin and nomilin, that are part of the tree’s defense mechanism against disease, she said.
Unfortunately, both chemicals also increase bitterness in orange juice, Baldwin added.
“It’s sort of like a double whammy,” she said. “The effect of lower sugar and higher bitterness compounds is much more noticeable in the affected fruit.”
There are potential obstacles that could delay or even prevent the use of the pea protein technology in orange juice.
One is the cost.
There are existing technologies to decrease bitterness in orange and grapefruit juices, said Baldwin and Kristen Carlson, executive director of the Florida Citrus Processors Association, the industry’s trade group.
“Technologies to take bitterness out of juice have been around for a long time,” Carlson said.
The current technology uses a resin filtering system to screen out bitterness and off flavors, Baldwin said.
Laffin and company CEO Alvin Jones told The Ledger they have not done any economic studies comparing the costs of the pea protein technology with existing technology.
“It’s a competing technology. We don’t know what it is from a cost perspective,” Laffin said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also could pose potential hurdles to introduction of the pea protein to orange juice, Carlson said.
The FDA must approve additives to orange juice, she said. That was true years ago when some OJ brands introduced orange juice fortified with calcium, hardly a controversial additive.
Laffin dismissed that as a potential obstacle because FDA regulations already allow for protein fortification of orange juice, he said.
“We would still have to tell the FDA what we’re doing, but it would not require a new regulation,” Laffin said.
If the FDA does approve the additive, however, the resulting product could not be marketed as 100% orange juice, Carlson said. As with calcium fortification, the processor would have to put prominently on the label that OJ with pea protein is a different product.
What that label would look like also would have to be worked out with the FDA, she said.
Selling calcium-fortified OJ did not deter processors from offering that product. It could make a difference in consumer acceptance if the FDA required a label stating “fortified with pea protein” as opposed to just “protein fortified.”
Again Laffin played down the issue.
“It’s a compelling technology,” he said. “We have a high degree of confidence in success.”
Kevin Bouffard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 863-802-7591.
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