Healthy Eating Tips

The Cara Cara Orange Is the Vitamin C-Rich Citrus Fruit That’s in Season *Right* Now

Photo: Stocksy/Jeff Wasserman
Oranges might evoke thoughts of sunny summer days, but like most citrus fruits, they are actually in season during the winter months—just when their brightness is most welcome and our immune systems can use a bit of a boost.

It is well-established that oranges are a potent source of vitamin C, an antioxidant associated with immune health. In fact, you can meet your daily vitamin C needs by eating a single orange. Oranges are also rich in fiber (great for the gut), potassium (helps muscles contract and regulates blood pressure), vitamin A (good for eye health), and folate (important for the formation of red blood cells). Yet even though they are nutrient-packed and refreshing, oranges may taste too tart for some palates.

Enter the Cara Cara orange, a relatively new variety of navel orange that is distinguished by its naturally sweet flavor. On the outside, Cara Cara oranges look like any other navel. And like all navels, they come with the added perk of being seedless. Cutting into a Cara Cara orange, however, reveals surprisingly pink flesh (though lighter in color than a blood orange), which makes it easy to mistake this variety for a grapefruit. But what truly sets Cara Cara oranges apart from others is their taste—they are sometimes described as having sweet cherry or blackberry notes—and their delectable floral scent.

“Cara cara oranges are less acidic, so they are a lot sweeter-tasting than your typical navel orange,” says registered dietitian Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, adding that Cara Cara oranges may appeal even to those who assume they don't love oranges or other tart types of citrus fruit.

Shopping tips for Cara Cara oranges

Named after Hacienda Cara Cara in Venezuela where they were discovered in 1976, Cara Cara oranges are believed to have resulted from spontaneous bud mutation on a Washington navel tree. They were introduced in the U.S. in the 1980s and are now grown in California, Texas, and Florida.

Available in the U.S. from late November through early May, Cara Cara oranges have grown in popularity in recent years, but they can still be elusive. They also tend to be slightly more pricey, usually retailing for a dollar or more per pound. Moore says you can save by buying them by the bag at big-box retailers. She has also spotted them as specialty stores or local produce markets.

According to the California Citrus Growers Association, when it shopping for citrus fruits including Cara Cara oranges, you want to feel the weight of it in your hand. A heavy fruit means it contains plenty of juice, which is key for both optimal flavor and texture. Once you bring them home, Moore recommends storing Cara Cara oranges in the refrigerator; not only because they taste better cold, but because they will last up to two weeks there.

Cara Cara orange benefits

Vitamin C isn’t the only antioxidant Cara Cara oranges have to offer. These oranges get their pretty pink hue from lycopene, which is the same naturally-occurring pigment that gives tomatoes and watermelons their signature red colors. (For comparison, a different pigment called anthocyanin gives blood oranges their rich color.) Lycopene, which belongs to a group of pigments known as carotenoids, is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to have cardiovascular benefits, likely due to anti-inflammatory properties. “Lycopene is a super smart nutrient to eat more of, because it has been shown to possibly provide some benefits for blood pressure control and heart health,” adds Moore.

Not only do Cara Cara oranges contain higher levels of carotenoids than other types of navel oranges, but according to one study, the carotenoids in Cara Cara oranges are also more bioaccessible—meaning they are more readily available for absorption by the body—than those in other navels. The pulp of the Cara Cara oranges, the study showed, contains higher levels of carotenoids than their juice.

How to use Cara Cara Oranges in your meals

When it comes to eating Cara Cara oranges, Moore says that cold preparations are the way to go. “Cooking them can dampen the flavor,” she says. Moore suggests using the orange segments in a salad or incorporating the juice of Cara Cara oranges into citrus vinaigrettes for a sweeter dressing. You can also use Cara Cara oranges in salsas, sauces, marinades for fish or poultry, or slice them over a yogurt parfait or bowl of overnight nights. The easiest application? Try squeezing their juice into sparkling water or mocktails—so refreshing.

There is one other compelling reason to enjoy Cara Cara oranges raw: According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, cooking them can break down vitamin C. The researchers note that oranges contain the most vitamin C when they are eaten raw at peak ripeness. “I absolutely recommend eating Cara Cara oranges fresh,” says Moore. “I like to have them on the side for breakfast or as a snack.”

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