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Dear Matthew Alice:

I am puzzled by the labels on jars of fruit juice. Some boast that they contain 100% juice, while others state they are 25 to 35% juice. Yet upon examining the ingredients, the content seems to be similar, for the first ingredient of each of them is water. (See enclosed labels.) Is it a matter of different interpretation of the rules?

-- Evelyn Kooperman, San Diego

No, no, Evelyn, rules is rules. You can try skating around them, but sooner or later the feds'll getcha. And when it comes to juice rules, the FDA's got a truckload. It takes the combined brain power of a chemist and an attorney to market a legal bottle of OJ these days. But actually, unless you're buying a container of fresh-squeezed-right-off-the-tree fruit juice, the first ingredient on any juice label will probably be water. That doesn't tell you much about what's really in the bottle.

Most of our confusion begins with the FDA's definition of "juice." Given the realities of food manufacturing these days, the orange or grapefruit or cranberry juice used in the drink you buy is made from juice concentrate returned to its more or less natural state with water. So right from the start, before anything else has been used to enhance the beverage, we have water added to the concentrate just to bring it back to "juice" status. If no more water is added, the label will read "100% juice from concentrate," but in the ingredient list, the first entry will be water. In reality, your "100% juice" is maybe 90% water, but so's the juice of an orange on the tree. If you put an ingredient label on a chicken, the first entry would be water too. That's just a fact of nature.

You'd assume Evelyn's bottle of Ocean Spray 100% Juice Pink Grapefruit would be made from 100% grapefruit juice. But the ingredient list includes both grapefruit and white grape juice (from concentrates). To the FDA, "100% juice" means any kind or combination of juices, not just the one in the name of the product. Grape and apple concentrates are commonly added to things like cranberry or grapefruit for sweetness; their flavors are relatively bland, so they blend well. Grapefruit is still the dominant flavor.

Any drink can call itself juice as long as it has some amount of fruit juice (by FDA definition) greater than 0%. But the maker must fess up to exactly what percent of the finished beverage is juice. Take Evelyn's label from Langers Raspberry Cranberry Juice Cocktail in a Blend of Two Other Juices from Concentrate. The label states that it's 25% juice. The ingredients are water, high-fructose corn syrup, raspberry juice concentrate, cranberry juice concentrate, grape juice concentrate, apple juice concentrate, and a few minor players. In this case, Langers lumped all the added water together at the head of the list -- the water used to reconstitute the concentrates plus the water added to dilute the juices down to a 25%-juice beverage. In comparison, the Ocean Spray grapefruit's first entry explains that they've added only enough water "sufficient to reconstitute juice concentrates."

And grinding through that answer qualifies me for 100% beer status, I think. The elves should be back soon with provisions. But it's the least I can do for a person who actually makes her living answering other people's questions. But unlike yours truly, Evelyn's answers are useful enough to publish in books. I trust that will never happen to me and the elves.

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