Pumpkins may be one of the more recognizable totems of fall, but apples capture the essence of the autumn season just as well—maybe even better (and even though they’re available in produce bins all year long). Press an in-season apple and you have a glass of pure fall flavor. But you don’t, in fact, have apple juice; you have apple cider. So, what is the difference between apple juice and apple cider?
Primarily, it’s the amount of processing that’s done to the liquid.
Freshly pressed apples yield apple cider, a hazy, amber elixir that tastes fully of the fruit itself (not simply sweet and a little tangy). Single-variety apple ciders each taste different from each other, and all taste a lot more robust than apple juice—the texture is more robust too, since fine particles of pulp usually remain suspended in it.
Since apple cider isn’t filtered and often isn’t pasteurized either, it has a much shorter shelf life—about 10 days maximum—and should be refrigerated at all times, lest it ferment. (Coincidentally, “cider” anywhere outside of the U.S. and Canada automatically refers to the alcoholic stuff, which we, in order to distinguish it, call hard cider.)
While apple cider can generally be considered the healthier option, in that it has more naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and lower sugar content, when it’s not pasteurized, it can potentially be dangerous if it’s improperly handled or stored at any stage. For that reason, even many smaller farms and orchards now pasteurize their fresh-pressed cider just long enough to render it safe.
Take that beautifully unrefined apple cider and filter out all the sediment (along with all the pectin and starch and most of the fiber), then pasteurize it so it’ll last a long, long time without risk of spoiling or fermenting, and you have apple juice, the clear, golden-yellow liquid served out of countless sippy cups through the ages.
The taste is generally sweeter and less complex than cider, more of a generic apple flavor. It often (but not always) has added sugar, so look for “100 percent juice” and “no sugar added” on the label to make sure you’re getting the healthiest product. Even then, it usually contains necessary preservatives—and added vitamin C, to replace what’s lost during the filtration process.
Caution: Labels Can Be Confusing
For legal and labeling purposes, however, the definitions of apple juice and apple cider, and the boundaries between the two, can be almost as murky as the most rustic, fresh-pressed cider you’d find at your nearest orchard. Take, for example, this tidbit from the FAQ section of nonalcoholic sparkling cider giant (and purveyor of other apple-based liquids) Martinelli’s web site: “Martinelli’s apple juice and cider are the same; the only difference is the label. Both are 100% pure juice from U.S. grown fresh apples. We continue to offer the cider label since some consumers simply prefer the traditional name for apple juice.”
That is, at once, both transparent and tricky! (Martinell’s also sells “unfiltered apple juice,” as do other brands, which is more like what people traditionally expect when they think of cider, as it’s more opaque and less refined.)
Other major brands of apple cider you’re likely to find in the grocery store, like Litehouse, are more akin to what you’d find at a farm stand—darker, cloudier, and somewhat less processed than what’s labeled apple juice—but they’ll generally still be ultra-pasteurized so they can sit at room temperature until you open them, without any ill effects or fermentation.
Some brands specify which type of apple they’re made from—Litehouse offers Gala apple cider and Honeycrisp apple cider, for instance—but if they don’t, they’re probably made from a blend of apples (which is not a bad thing; mixing sweet and tart apples can give you the best balance of flavor, and is often called for in homemade apple juice, which, since you can’t really refine it to commercial standards, is pretty much the same as homemade apple cider).
Then there’s spiced apple cider, which has things like cinnamon and nutmeg already added to it; some commercial brands of cider do include such ingredients, so check the label to be sure you get exactly what you’re after. (And if you want to add spices to your own at home, mulled cider is easy to make!) It may not need saying, but apple cider vinegar is a totally different thing, which some people do drink, in smaller doses, for the purported health benefits.
Related Reading: Sweet & Savory Apple Cider Recipes for Fall
Hard cider is basically fermented apple juice, although that’s simplifying it quite a bit—often, the process involves fermenting an apple concentrate, cutting it with water, and adding juice or sugar after the fact, which is called back-sweetening.
Speaking of concentrate, look at apple juice labels and you’ll see that plenty of them, even those designated 100 percent juice, have been reconstituted from concentrate. That basically just means that water was removed from the juice at some point before being added back in, sometimes along with extra sugar; Livestrong has more info on the issue.
Bottom Line: Trust Your Eyes (& Ned Flanders)
Outside of the beer aisle, if you’re still unsure about whether you’re looking at apple juice or apple cider, you can usually trust your eyes—as per the sage advice of Ned Flanders: “If it’s clear and yella, you’ve got juice there, fella. If it’s tangy and brown, you’re in cider town.” As he goes on to say, there are some caveats, but for the most part, this holds true (at least in America).
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Shutterstock.