Fresh fruit, hold the wax

fruit_vegetable_market_blogThe waxy coating often seen on apples and other types of fruit that aim to keep them fresher longer, could be a thing of the past. This is thanks to a start-up company in Southern California that is using fresh plant materials to extend the shelf life of fruits up to five times longer than current practices.

In fact, the company said in can even deliver a day-of-the-week bunch of bananas, each ripening on a different day. It has also already began using the new technology to stretch the shelf life of cassava in Africa.

“It takes 30 days to get blueberries grown in Chile to market in the United States, which means they have to be picked before they’re ripe and shipped under heavy refrigeration,” James Rogers, the founder and chief executive of the company said in an article. “We can change that.”

Using leaves, stems, banana peels and other fresh plant materials left behind after fruits and vegetables are picked or processed, the company then extracts all liquid from the plant material, producing tiny pellets. The company then uses molecules from those pellets to control the rate of water and gases that go in and out of produce, thus slowing down the rate of decay and creating an imperceptible, edible barrier.

According to the article, if the product performs as advertised, it could bring sweeping changes to the produce industry and grocery aisles. It could reduce food waste and the use of pesticides, and increase the varieties of fruits and vegetables available.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration has already approved the technology as “generally recognized as safe,” a status that means a product is safe to eat and good for sale.

However, the company’s product is still largely untested at a commercial level, and it faces several potential hurdles beyond effectiveness — including consumer’s wariness and growers deciding it costs too much.

“The socioeconomic factors are as important as these technologies themselves,” said Christopher B. Watkins, a professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.

The article explains that Americans have greater access than ever to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables year-round. That abundance can come at the expense of taste though, as plants are chosen for their ability to withstand time and transportation, not necessarily for their flavor. And yet an enormous amount of what’s produced still rots before it can be shipped.

“The answer to feeding the growing world population isn’t just to grow more food, it’s to preserve more of what we already grow and make optimal use of the resources we already have,” said Ira Ehrenpreis, a managing partner at the company.

In 2012, the concept won $10,000 in the UCSB New Venture Competition, and then received a $100,000 award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was interested in how the idea might help small farmers in Africa.

The foundation has used the product on the cassava root, an important source of calories in the African diet and thus is grown widely by small farmers there. Cassava root also can be processed into starch for use in commercial food preparation.

Once plucked from the ground, however, the roots deteriorate rapidly, making it virtually impossible for small farmers to exploit the crop commercially. The technology, however, more than doubled the shelf life of cassava, helping the root retain starch long enough to get it to a processing plant.

The article explains that the product is also being tested on finger limes, which produce a citrus “caviar” prized by chefs and bartenders. The limes, which look rather like gherkins, are good for two weeks at the most, making broad distribution almost impossible.

“Most people do not understand how much is applied to fruits and vegetables to keep them looking good — there’s a lot of wax out there,” Jay Ruskey, the proprietor of an organic food company said. “It’s gotten to the point that if you have iced tea with us, we no longer give you a lemon slice because of the wax on it.”

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