If you’re anything like me, you’ve been eating all three of these fruits for a long time, but always according to some vague intuition, never with a scientific understanding of which is superior. I’m going to put an end to that hopefully with an objective analysis of each citrus according to several straightforward categories. I’ll give my own personal preference for each category, but because taste is subjective I won’t assign numerical ratings or declare one fruit the overall winner. Okay, no more ado, let’s get started:
Orange: juice is acidic, but also very sweet. Citric acid gives it a slight sting in the mouth, and the pulpy flesh adds a bitter undertone that prevents it from tasting sugary.
Tangerine: sweeter, with less acid than an orange. A very strong citrus flavor and no bitter notes makes this a sweet treat.
Grapefruit: bitter stab to both the flesh and the juice. Less citrus to the flavor and less concentrated flavor overall. Still high in sugar, but in a way that combines with the bitterness so as to be refreshing rather than sweet.
I prefer the grapefruit here, since I don’t mind the bitterness and appreciate having something to cut through the sugar. Tangerines come in second for me, even though they are on the other end of the sweetness spectrum — they go down like candy. Oranges have a perfectly serviceable, but ultimately uninteresting flavor, although I may only think that due to overexposure as they are the most common of the three. Oranges do pull ahead in being able to blend with other flavors, while the more unique palates of the other two fruits consign them to fewer dishes.
Orange: originally from the Sanskrit “nāraṅga,” referring to the bitter orange. Entered French from Arabic, and from there into Late Middle English as “orenge.” The color was named after the fruit.
Tangerine: originally a generic adjective meaning “from the port city of Tangier in Morocco.” Later came to be used almost exclusively to refer to the fruit which grew in the surrounding region.
Grapefruit: named so because its fruits grow in grape-like clusters on the branch. Before that it was called “shaddock” after an English captain who brought the first seeds to the West Indies.
Orange is the clear winner here, having Dravidian roots reaching back almost into pre-history. Grapefruit comes out on bottom. Not only is shaddock a better name, grapefruit is just a portmanteau of two boring, fruit-related words, neither of which is useful in identifying the fruit itself. Tangerine is an interesting term, but the fact that it was narrowed in meaning from referring to an entire city to just referring to a fruit is saddening. I would make an effort to use the older definition of tangerine in everyday speech more often, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve even thought about Tangier — which may have something to do with why that usage fell out of favor in the first place.
Oranges carry the most bang for your buck here, but consider that tangerines are smaller, and may end up being cheaper in the long run. Grapefruits are all style, no substance. If you don’t care about potassium content for whatever reason, feel free to skip this category.
Orange: ubiquitous, plain and utilitarian. The orange speaks to the straightforward, no-nonsense attitude of 20th century America. Think steel mills and Ford cars. Cheap and accessible to the masses, but still carrying luxury and the promise of upward mobility.
Tangerine: small and sweet, like candy. A child’s fruit, which is not to say that it’s childish. The tangerine is fun and relaxed, too cutesy to ever seriously decorate a $1,000 plate. Laid back and low-cut, tangerines resonate with a frat-boy zen approach to life.
Grapefruit: belongs in the same sentence as “ballet” and “penthouse” when describing cultural signifiers. Some people pretend to enjoy grapefruits solely to appear more cultured. Any food that requires its own utensil is going to attract a certain privileged clientele. You could just peel the grapefruit and eat it in sections, but do so in private or be judged.
The orange carries it again here, I’m afraid. The prim and stilted style of the grapefruit distances it from the human experience, and the tangerine is simply too much of a mess. With purchasing power and public focus moving away from the middle class, it’s important to find artistic influences that still value that demo. What makes the orange valuable here is it’s fundamentally extraneous nature. No one ever truly needs an exotic fruit out of India, and the fact that it is so commonplace signals the wealth of the people, not the cheapness of the fruit. Also, I challenge any artist to synthesize these three fruits into a complete artistic whole. No, tangelo doesn’t count.
Hopefully this analysis will help put to rest the constant debates raging in produce aisles across the country. You should see a citrus among the above that stands out to you as a clear winner — if not, maybe try a banana instead. I hear they’re wonderful sources of potassium.