Behind the Label: Odwalla Juices


With a parent company like Coca-Cola, are Odwalla juices as healthy and natural as they claim?

The story of Odwalla is that of your classic lemonade-stand-turned-multi-million-dollar-juice-company. In 1980, partners Greg Steltenpohl, Gerry Percy, and Bonnie Bassett started selling fresh, unpasteurized orange juice squeezed by a secondhand juicer in a backyard shed. By 1996, Odwalla was one of the largest fresh juice companies in America, and in 2001 it was bought out by The Coca-Cola Company, as part of the global conglomerate’s efforts to enter the health beverage industry.

Odwalla’s motto from the start was “soil to soul” – but when a parent company like Coca-Cola is in the picture, how natural and healthy can Odwalla’s products still be?

In its early days, Odwalla’s distribution was local, with headquarters and production in California, and its offerings were limited to fruits that were in season. Named after a song character that guided “people of the sun” out of the “grey haze,” the company’s initial mission was to help people break away from the cycle of over-processed foods, an aim that earned Odwalla a cult following among health junkies and food activists. In fact, Steve Jobs, known for his strict vegan eating habits, was said to have stocked Odwalla juices in Apple’s early offices.

In 1996, Odwalla made more than $59 million in sales and was considered a success story – that is, until October of that year, when it was found that a batch of apple juice made with blemished fruit was contaminated with E. coli. The outbreak led to the death of a 16-month-old and made at least 66 people sick, some with lasting health damage.

Though Odwalla went immediately into action mode – a recall of the products cost $6.5 million and took around 48 hours to complete – stock in the company fell by 40 percent and product sales plummeted by 90 percent.

The outbreak was blamed on the fact that Odwalla’s juices were unpasteurized, because the company claimed that the process of pasteurization altered flavors and killed essential nutrients and enzymes. In addition, Odwalla was blamed for other flawed safety practices, like unsanitized equipment. The company pled guilty, paid a $1.5 million fine, and added flash pasteurization to their juice making practices.

Odwalla gradually recovered, and in 2001 it was acquired by Coca-Cola for a reported $181 million and folded into the corporation’s Minute Maid department. Today, Odwalla continues to sell its original fresh juices along with lines of Proteins, Quenchers, Fruit Smoothies, Superfood blends, and energy bars.

The Good

In an industry where most “natural” food and beauty products have ingredient lists that are paragraphs long, Odwalla, for the most part, is the real deal. A handful of the company’s natural juice products continue to list just one ingredient: “pure pressed carrots,” for instance, or simply “apple juice.” And most of the other ingredient lists don’t top ten items, with the majority of ingredients derived from nature. Odwalla’s popular Original Superfood, for instance, contains a unique blend of apple juice; peach, mango, strawberry, and banana purees; spirulina; soy lecithin; vitamin C; wheat grass; barley grass; wheat sprouts; Jerusalem artichoke; lemon bioflavonoids; and Novia Scotia Dulse – and somehow it still manages to taste good.

Most of Odwalla’s fruit is sourced from producers in California, where the company’s juice processing plant is also located. The fruit is washed, rinsed, and sorted, and then put through a second cleansing process before it is pressed and flash pasteurized to eliminate bacteria. According to Odwalla’s website, a group of employees gathers for a daily taste test – “we’d never serve our customers anything we wouldn’t gulp down ourselves,” they say.

In addition to keeping their juices relatively simple, Odwalla has also made a commitment to standard environmental practices, like recycling, reducing their carbon footprint, reusing water, and finding ways to eliminate waste. And recently, Odwalla was the first national beverage company to introduce packaging made from 100-percent plant-based materials. The new bottle, called PlantBottle™, is made from HDPA plastic derived from sugarcane, which is 100 percent recyclable. The innovation was also incorporated into water bottle packaging for Dasani, another Coca-Cola-owned company.

The Bad

After the disastrous E. coli outbreak in 1996, Odwalla was no longer able to produce juices that were as untainted and unpasteurized as before. The company introduced flash pasteurization, also called “High Temperature Short Time” processing, which is a process of heat pasteurization that is said to better maintain the color and flavor of ingredients.

But that’s not the only change that has taken place in Odwalla products over the years. With the introduction of new product lines, like Quenchers, Smoothies, and Superfoods, Odwalla also introduced something else into the mix: sugar.

To be fair, the sugar in question is not of the white powder variety. Instead, Odwalla uses Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, a less processed sweetener. And not all of Odwalla’s products contain added sugars. But the ones that do pack quite a punch, like the following popular 12-ounce items:

  • Lemonade: 41g sugar, 44g carbohydrates, 180 calories
  • Strawberry C Monster: 43g sugar, 56g carbohydrates, 240 calories
  • Serious Tropical Energy: 44g sugar, 59g carbohydrates, 240 calories

For the Lemonade, that’s about the equivalent of adding 10 teaspoons of sugar to a single glass.

Bloggers weighing in tended to agree that many Odwalla drinks can barely qualify as health beverages. In a review of the Strawberry Protein Monster drink, Kristin from Fit Bottomed Girls says:

With 25 grams of protein per bottle, it certainly qualifies as a protein drink … It’s the other ingredients that have me a little more concerned. Yes, 25 grams of protein is great, and it provides plenty of calcium, vitamins B6 and B12, but all that goodness comes with some less savory friends; namely, 300 calories, 33 grams of sugar, and 170 milligrams of sodium. Now, the drink itself isn’t bad—maybe a bit on the chalky side, but sweet like strawberries and easy enough to drink—but with those kinds of stats on a beverage billed as a healthful choice, I really expected to be blown away with the tastiness.

Hungry Runner adds in:

Odwalla smoothies and juices aren’t necessarily “unhealthy,” but you also wouldn’t really want to consume an entire bottle of this product in one sitting, because even though the sugars are coming naturally from fruit, doing so would be somewhat of a sugar overload for your body. 

The Questionable

While Odwalla juice products are a comparatively good natural beverage choice, fans should adhere to the old lesson that not everything that’s natural is good for you. Though their major ingredients may be natural, many Odwalla items are still packed with sugar, or “organic evaporated cane juice” as they call it. Glamour magazine’s in-house health expert, Dr. Melina Jampolis, confirms that “evaporated cane juice is pretty much just sugar,” less processed but with the same amount of calories.

Snack Girl, who noted that her Mango Tango contained more sugar per serving than Coke, made a healthy suggestion.

What to do? I say treat these as a treat! Use them to replace soda or ice cream because they are better for you than those choices. Do not treat them like water or a snack that will fill you up.

Real juice fans are better off heading to their neighborhood juice bar. Not only can you keep an eye on how much sugar goes into your beet-apple-carrot-ginger-lemon concoction, but chances are, your local juicer needs the business more than Coca-Cola.

SEE ALSO:

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Behind the Label: McDonald’s See What We’re Made Of Campaign

Behind the Label: Chipotle, Food With Integrity

Check out all Behind the Label columns here.

Image: Hannah Rosen

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