Grapefruits Vs. Oranges: What's The Difference?

Grapefruits and oranges are both very popular and tasty fruits that are typically displayed in decorative bowls on our countertops at home and are commonly offered at business meetings and restaurants. We enjoy them alone or in combination with other fruits and vegetables, and they can be important ingredients in a wide variety of recipes. Not only are they very appetizing and aromatic, but they are also two of the healthiest fruits you can find. 

As they are both round, thick-peeled citrus fruits with similar physical characteristics — especially from the outside — they can often be confused for each other at the grocery store. Who hasn't at one time mistakenly picked out what they believed to be a nice, large, juicy orange and gotten home to find out it was its tangy cousin, the grapefruit? Yet once you open them up and taste their flesh and juice, the differences become more noticeable, and you can quickly tell them apart. So, what are the differences and what do we know about each of them?

Two different fruits with two different histories

It is no surprise that oranges are the most cultivated fruit tree in the world, their greatest concentration being, by a significant margin, in Brazil (according to Story Maps). The orange actually encompasses a number of varieties, but it is the sweet orange that is the most popular and the one we find most frequently at grocery stores. The sweet orange is actually a hybrid between the pomelo and the mandarin orange (via Plants). Its first recorded existence in Europe was in the 15th century, and it was brought over shortly after to the Americas by Spanish settlers who planted the seeds in Florida. Today, we have many varieties of this sweet fruit, with different harvest seasons.

The grapefruit is a much newer citrus fruit that was first discovered in the 18th century by a Welsch reverend detailing the history of Barbados (via The Spruce Eats). Similar to oranges, it is also a hybrid fruit, but a cross between the pomelo and the Jamaican sweet orange (according to Wikipedia). There are several different types of grapefruits that vary in taste and appearance, but most of us are familiar with the white grapefruit, pink grapefruit, and the more recent ruby red grapefruit. There are a few theories as to how the grapefruit received its name, but the most supported one is that, like grapes, grapefruits are grown in clusters and thus it was named accordingly (per Tasting Table).

Different in appearance and taste

Size is a significant difference between the two, with grapefruits tending to be noticeably larger than oranges. With appearance, oranges are, well, pretty orange. An interesting piece of trivia is that the color orange was actually named after the fruit, not vice-versa, and until the orange became widely available in Europe, its color was described as yellow-red (per Story Maps). Grapefruits come in a wider range of colors — white, yellow, pink and red — depending on the variety.

Beyond the superficial qualities, there are significant differences in their taste and flavor profile. Oranges tend to be sweet, with a slight tartness that is light and refreshing, whereas grapefruits have a distinctive acidic flavor that some might even call sour, making it more of an acquired taste (via The Grove). As a general rule, the lighter the color of the grapefruit, the more tart. Comparing the popular ruby red grapefruit with the white grapefruit you will find the former to be definitely sweeter (per The Spruce Eats).

In terms of nutritional makeup, oranges have more calories and sugar than grapefruits, but also have more protein, carbs, and fiber (per Healthier Steps). Both are enriched with the important vitamins, with grapefruits leading with more vitamin A, phosphorus, and lipids. According to Healthier Steps, they both potentially protect against diseases such as diabetes and cancer, but grapefruits need to be used with caution as they can occasionally interact with certain prescription drugs.

How can they be used and substituted for each other?

Beyond people enjoying them in raw form, oranges and grapefruits are widely used as culinary and beverage ingredients. They can both be sliced up and used in salads or mashed into a marinade to give it a zesty boost. According to The Manual, oranges are highly versatile when it comes to being paired with many types of liquor, as we see with mimosas and screwdrivers, while grapefruits are an excellent pairing with gin and tequila, like in the paloma.

With cooking, either is a great option if you're looking to add a burst of tangy citrus. The sweet-yet-tart combination gives oranges a floral note that never really dominates as a flavor, which makes it a versatile ingredient to cook with (per Foods Guy). According to Substitute Cooking, while the orange is certainly less tart than the grapefruit, because their appearance and texture are so similar, they can often be substituted for each other in vegetable and fruit salad recipes. Likewise, if a recipe calls for the zest of an orange, it can easily be replaced with that of a sweeter grapefruit, because the difference is very slight (via Kitchen Substitute). Because even the peel of both oranges and grapefruits can be eaten, they're often used on top of cakes or desserts.