Sumo Oranges: Do They Make Life Sweeter or More Challenging?

David Hinckley
4 min readJan 18, 2024

We all have our happy place in grocery stores. Mine is the fruit area of the produce section, and while I don’t expect that factoid matters to anyone except me, it does reinforce a universal truth about shopping for food in any aisle:

Every year it gets more complicated.

A few weeks ago, my friend Jeff told me I had to try a Sumo orange. You’ll know it, he said, because it’s the ugliest thing this side of the turkey giblets. It is also, he said, easy to peel, seedless and amazingly sweet.

Sumo the orange.

And so, just as I was successfully ignoring some semi-new miniature citrus called Kishu Kisses, I felt I should sample Sumos, another fruit that didn’t exist for most of my life.

When I was a lad, even before all fruit had barcode stickers, stores carried two kinds of oranges: juice oranges and “eating oranges,” that is, navels. The navels, which were only seasonally available, had thicker skins, denser fruit, no seeds and a sweet taste. Juice oranges had thinner skins and were harder to peel, but they also tasted sweet and they made pretty good eating if you didn’t mind spitting out a hundred seeds with every slice.

Today there are blood oranges, Cara-Cara oranges, tangelos, Seville oranges, Honeybell oranges, Hamlin oranges, Jaffa oranges, Valencia oranges, Dream Navel oranges, and a half dozen variations on the tangerine.

It’s like you need academic certification just to buy an orange for breakfast. I imagine the pop quiz: “Delineate the difference between a Clementine and a Mandarin.” I imagine my answer: One’s a song and one’s a language.

A striking footnote with all these oranges, by the way, is the one that’s not there: the Florida navel, sweetest eating orange of all. Where California navels are born to travel and come in a uniformly rich orange color, Florida navels have a shorter season, don’t ship as obediently and can be more yellowish or even splotchy. At least in the Northeast, they are found mostly in expensive gift packages.

Anyhow, back to Sumo oranges, which got their name because their Japanese developer — who spent 30 years coaxing citrus trees to cooperate — saw them as large and round with a topknot, like Sumo wrestlers.

He’s right. They are large and round. They do have a topknot, a bit like Honeybells. They have enough wrinkles that he could have named them Shar-Peis, and at the risk of body-shaming, it is fair to call them ugly.

What they do have is chic glamour. They have a whole marketing arm, sumocitrus.com, their own origin comic book and promoters like Eva Chen, an influencer with 2.5 million followers on Instagram. Would Eva steer you wrong?

At some point demand began to outpace supply, which is Nirvana in the food game, because it turned Sumos into a coveted delicacy with a price to match. They start at about $3 (apiece) in my local supermarket, which unapologetically positions them beside a vat of California navels at 5 for $4.

So I bought a couple, though I declined to purchase insurance protection, and brought them home. I appreciated how easily the first one peeled. I sectioned it off. I started eating.

It was, well, good. It was not, well, transcendent.

This doesn’t mean Jeff was wrong, because when you buy fruit, you roll the dice. Two oranges can look exactly the same and if they came from different trees, one might be juicier or sweeter. You also don’t know how long they spent in transit, how long they sat in cold storage, how long they’ve been out on display. Monday’s shipment could be great and Friday’s shipment mediocre. Visual and manual examination can only give you so much information, and store managers have this thing about customers trying to pinch off samples from closed-skin fruits like oranges, bananas and watermelon.

My $3 Sumo didn’t taste bad. It just didn’t taste $2.20 better than the 80-cent navel next door.

What we’re really seeing here, of course, is the fruit industry’s long game. Like companies that make cell phones, automobiles or sneakers, the food biz strikes gold when it can market something as new, cool, flashy, hip and trendy. And maybe a little elusive.

Some of these new products are good. Some are upgrades. Some are not. Either way, that’s why you have to sift through six or eight varieties to buy a potato — a potato! — and why even Siri can’t tell you which of those 15 or 20 apple varieties is the one you might really want.

I do realize that when billions of persons around the globe would be ecstatic to have access to a single fresh orange, weighing the merits of a Sumo versus a dozen competitors is a First World Problem.

It is still a matter over which to wrestle.

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”