Raw Tangerines (close-up shot)

Those little round, orange orbs of citrus all look alike as they sit in the produce section of your supermarket or farmers' stand. Some are called mandarins. Others go by the name of tangerine, and then there are the clementines, both domestic and imported, and satsumas.

Grab a few mandarins, taste one and you'll discover the difference between what is called a mandarin and a tangerine. While all come from the same family of mandarins, like all families, there are as many differences as there are mandarin orange varieties. All tangerines are mandarins, but not all mandarins are tangerines.

Explaining the Mandarin's Ancestry

Asian art, especially from China and India, often features the mandarin crowned with thin, green leaves and clinging delicately from a willowy tree. The citrus is native to Asia, the Philippines and India, and it found its way from the easel and the orchards across the Eur-Asian continent to Europe and then to the United States.

Noted for its loose skin, often referred to as "kid glove" because it's soft and easy to peel, the mandarin that we know is juicy and somewhat tart with seeds. The height of the winter season finds an abundance of mandarins in the markets, often sitting next to tangerines.

Understanding the Mandarin Orange Varieties

Tangerines, clementines and satsumas are three varieties of the mandarin orange and the most popular. Because the mandarin orange can easily be crossed with other citrus, varieties pop up in differing climates around the world. Growing seasons also differ, with some tangerine harvests coming in through June.

Difference Between Mandarins and Tangerines

Tangerines are smaller and sweeter than an orange yet larger than a mandarin and with a skin that's darker in color. The tangerine emigrated to America from Morocco's port of Tangiers, from which it got its name. Tangerine qualities include a reddish-orange skin that distinguishes it from the lighter-skinned mandarin.

Tangerines are the most popular type of mandarin, but they're more tart. Like the mandarin, tangerines have seeds. The longer growing season puts tangerines in the market from November through May.

Tangerine and Clementine Differences

Clementines are a popular stocking stuffer during the Christmas holiday and are the smallest member of the group. The honey-sweet, seedless clementine is the most eater-friendly of the mandarin orange varieties and is actually a subgroup of the tangerine. Tangerine vs. clementine qualities include a thin skin on the clementine that is tighter than a tangerine but so easy to peel that a child can do it.

Recognizing Another Mandarin Fruit Subgroup

Occasionally, you'll find a mandarin-looking orange ball called a satsuma in the produce department. The citrus originated in Japan, where they flourish. Nearly 12 varieties of satsumas are available in the United States.

The satsuma's skin is loose, often disguising inner bruising. They are seedless, and most satsumas sold in American stores are cultivated in America, giving them fewer food miles and fresher flavors.

Storing Your Winter Citrus

The height of the mandarin/tangerine season starts in November and tapers off until June. The thin skins make them fragile, and storage becomes an issue if you don't eat them immediately. The refrigerator is the best storage place and will extend their life, but keeping them in a bowl on your counter gives them about one week for prime time.

Some citrus has wax coating, which is applied as a barrier between air and the fruit. This also extends the life to about two weeks. Keeping them in a bag that's perforated plastic adds a week or so to their longevity.

Healthy Notes on Citrus

The American Diabetes Association recommends eating fruits that have a low glycemic index, meaning they won't raise your blood sugar levels to a dangerous height. Mandarins and tangerines both have high vitamin C and A levels, potassium and low carbohydrates and are recommended for diabetics.

High in nutrients and low in fat and sodium, most fresh fruit satisfies the sweet tooth. Just don't overdo it, and balance your citrus intake with protein or nuts.