Who doesn’t enjoy a big, sweet, juicy orange or ruby red grapefruit? There’s not much that can compare with a tall glass of cold liquid sunshine, squeezed fresh from super sweet oranges that have ripened on the tree.


It's no secret that citrus, especially fresh oranges hand-picked from the tree, are rich in nutrients and are one of the best 'health' foods you can consume. Juicy and sweet and renowned for its concentration of vitamin C, oranges make the perfect snack and add a special tang to many recipes; it is no wonder that they are one of the most popular fruits in the world.


In recent research studies, the healing properties of oranges have been associated with a wide variety of phytonutrient compounds. These phytonutrients include citrus flavanones (types of flavonoids that include the molecules hesperetin and naringenin), anthocyanins, hydroxycinnamic acids, and a variety of polyphenols. When these phytonutrients are studied in combination with oranges—vitamin C, the significant antioxidant properties of this fruit are understandable.


But it is yet another flavanone in oranges, the herperidin molecule, which has been singled out in phytonutrient research on oranges. Arguably, the most important flavanone in oranges, herperidin has been shown to lower high blood pressure as well as cholesterol in animal studies, and to have strong anti-inflammatory properties. Importantly, most of this phytonutrient is found in the peel and inner white pulp of the orange, rather than in its liquid orange center, so this beneficial compound is too often removed by the processing of oranges into juice.


According to whfoods.org, consuming vitamin C supplements does not provide the same protective benefits as drinking a glass of orange juice, shows research by Italian researchers in the Division of Human Nutrition at the University of Milan, Italy (Guarnieri S, Riso P, et al., British Journal of Nutrition).


Seven healthy test subjects were given each of three drinks, two weeks apart: blood-orange juice containing 150 milligrams of vitamin C, fortified water containing 150 milligrams of vitamin C, and a sugar and water solution containing no vitamin C. Blood samples were collected immediately before the drink was consumed, then every hour for 8 hours, and finally 24 hours after consumption of each drink.


Blood samples were exposed to hydrogen peroxide, and free radical damage to DNA was evaluated at 3 and 24 hours. Only when orange juice was consumed was any protective effect seen. After drinking orange juice, DNA damage was 18% less after 3 hours, and 16% less after 24 hours. No protection against DNA damage was seen after consumption of the vitamin C fortified drink or the sugar drink.


Protection against Cardiovascular Disease

A 248-page report, "The Health Benefits of Citrus Fruits," released December 2003 by Australian research group, CSIRO (The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research), reviews 48 studies that show a diet high in citrus fruit provides a statistically significant protective effect against some types of cancer, plus another 21 studies showing a non-significant trend towards protection.


Citrus appears to offer the most significant protection against esophageal, oro-phayngeal/laryngeal (mouth, larynx and pharynx), and stomach cancers. For these cancers, studies showed risk reductions of 40-50%.


The World Health Organization's recent draft report, "Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Disease," concludes that a diet that features citrus fruits also offers protection against cardiovascular disease due to citrus fruits—folate, which is necessary for lowering levels of the cardiovascular risk factor, homocysteine; their, potassium, which helps lower blood pressure, protecting against stroke and cardiac arrhythmias; and the vitamin C, carotenoids and flavonoids found in citrus fruits, all of which have been identified as having protective cardiovascular effects.


So now that you know the benefits of fresh oranges and fresh orange juice, where are you going to fresh citrus fresh off the trees?


Good news for juice lovers! While harvest is just getting underway in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, early reports have it that this year’s Valley citrus crop is going to be a good one! Ray Prewett, president of the Texas Citrus Mutual in Mission, reports early harvest results indicate fruit this year is bigger and sweeter, though he warns they may be less of it to go around.


“We have about 27,000 acres planted in citrus fruit in the Valley, most of it grapefruit,” he says. “But that’s less than we had at one time.”


Prewett says urban growth in the Valley is partly to blame for the decline in fruit acreage.


“There’s greater demand on the land now. New subdivisions are eating up land that once was filled with citrus orchards. I don’t see that trend changing,” he warns.


But in spite of less acreage, substantial rains earlier this year will help overall citrus production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture crop estimate for this season's grapefruit is 13.6 million bushels, while early oranges is 2.9 million bushels, according to Texas Citrus Mutual, but this year's 6.8 million boxes is a reduction from 7.1 million boxes a year ago.


“I still think we’ll have a good year as far as meeting local demand,” adds Prewett.


But don’t be a ‘Johnny-come-lately”. Growers encourage consumers to buy early and visit local orchards for the sweetest fruit. Many orchards across the Valley encourage ‘pick-your-own-fruit’ and offer great prices for bulk purchase.


So get out the squeezer and plan your visit now - it’s citrus season in the Rio Grande Valley. Sweet!