Citrus fruits are so ancient, and have been so widely cultivated and cross-bred, that their true origins are shrouded in mystery. Genetic research suggests there may be as few as 25 true-breeding species of citrus, and yet these fruits are the most important crop in the world, impacting every aspect of our diet.  

Ancient Origins of Citrus Fruits

Because of their widespread and ancient cultivation, it can be difficult to determine the true origins of citrus fruits. While sweet oranges and mandarins were grown and prized in ancient China, lemons and limes were first widely cultivated in India and the Middle East. While genetic research indicates that they may have originated in Oceania, the earliest written reference to mandarin oranges dates back to ancient China, circa 2205 BC, when they were so rare and prized that they were only available for the imperial court. 

Citrus fruits were also grown in the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where they were prized for their fragrance. In ancient Spain, oranges studded with cloves were worn around the neck to give a sweet fragrance that was thought to ward off diseases, as well as attract members of the opposite sex. 

For centuries, citrus fruits remained precious and valuable crops, only available seasonally, and only in the tropical and subtropical regions where they grow best. This all changed after WWII, when the technology was developed to create and distribute frozen concentrated orange juice around the world. 

Growth of the Citrus Fruit Market in the 20th Century

In the 1960s, there were approximately 30 million metric tons of citrus fruits being produced annually. By 2004, that figure had exploded to over 105 million metric tons. Oranges account for more than half of global citrus production, comprising a valuable export crop in the US, Mexico, Brazil, China, and Spain. 

The primary reason for this incredible growth in the late 20th century was due to growing consumer awareness about the health benefits of citrus fruits, and the important role they play in the human diet. 

Benefits of Citrus Fruit in Foods and Beverages

Ascorbic Acid

Early consumer awareness of the health benefits of citrus fruits was driven by public health campaigns around the importance of Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid. Human beings are one of the few animals on earth that cannot naturally synthesize Vitamin C, and we have to obtain it from our diets. Vitamin C is required for the body to synthesize new collagen, in a direct one-to-one ratio: we require a molecule of Vitamin C to create a molecule of collagen. Collagen is essential for the creation and repair of every cell in the body, and without it every cell in the body, from the bone marrow to the skin tissue, begins to break down, in a terrible disease called “scurvy”

Aside from the fact that we require ascorbic acid for our cells and tissues to survive, it also plays an important role in everything from our immune system to the health of our skin and teeth. 

Citric Acid

Of course citric acid gives citrus fruits their pleasant, sour flavor, but citric acid itself was first isolated from the fruits in Italy in 1890, and is now an important food and beverage ingredient on its own. Citric acid is produced in the millions of tons every year, as it is an important ingredient in a huge range of foods and products. Citric acid is used in foods and beverages to regulate acidity and balance pH, add flavor, emulsify foods (video), and create effervescence. It also has a wide and growing range of beauty, pharmaceutical, and industrial applications. 


Citrus fruits are rich in phytochemicals, including limonoids, flavonoids, and carotenoids. These bioactive compounds have a broad range of physiological benefits, many of which are still being researched. There is a strong correlation between the consumption of citrus fruits and the prevention of a wide range of chronic diseases. Specific important bioflavonoids derived from citrus include hesperidin, a metabolism booster; naringin, which adds a bitter flavor; diosmin, which improves cardiovascular health; and neohesperidin, a powerful natural sweetener. 

Lemon Ingredients Market

Lemons alone play an important role in the ingredients industry. Lemon products, including isolates, pulp, peels, and purees, play an important role in food, flavors, fragrances, cosmetics, health, personal care, and pharmaceutical industries. Companies in citrus regions around the world specialize in processing lemons for all these applications in the ingredients industry. Other citrus fruits, particularly oranges, also play an important role in the ingredients market, but lemons dominate a vast range of industrial applications.

Value of Citrus Fruits in Europe

In 2018, the value of citrus fruits in the EU was approximately $12B. Spain and the Netherlands dominate this market, in an interesting relationship. Spain produces over 3 million tons of citrus fruits annually, accounting for over 66% of the European market, and European consumers have a strong preference for citrus originating in Spain. 

However, some years there are weather conditions in Spain that impair the citrus crop, reducing the amount of fruits available. During those years, the majority of citrus fruits consumed in Europe are imported through the Netherlands, with fruits largely from Central and South America. Citrus fruits imported through the Netherlands also account for the vast majority of year-round, non-seasonal citrus fruit consumption in Europe. 

In part 2, we will cover the non-food applications of citrus fruits, and how high-tech research and innovation is taking these essential foods into the future. 

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