I feel like a real blogger today because I get to introduce my first “guest blogger!” Sarah Woodberry is a writer who lives in Connecticut. Despite her qualifier at the end, Sarah actually does have credentials, both as a seasoned journalist and a world-traveling food lover. I never knew this about apples, by the way, and find it pretty shocking. Sarah, thanks for enlightening us with this terrific post!
Apple Alert: Gassed apples come to market up to a year after harvest.
Apple season has them stacked high in stores. But before you reach for that ruby Red Delicious or gleaming Granny Smith — buyer beware. There’s a reason that picture-perfect orb so closely resembles the poisoned fruit that felled Snow White.
We all know that most conventional supermarket apples are grown on large factory farms and generously dosed a with a variety of chemicals: pesticides, preservatives (yes these are added to the trees), and industrial fertilizers to increase fruit size and extend the growing season. But did you know that the apples are put into storage for up to a year with 1-Methylcyclopropene gas — a synthetic plant-growth regulator?
Marketed under the name SmartFresh since 2002, 1-Methylcyclopropene blocks the effects of ethylene, the hormone that causes fruits to ripen, thus greatly extending shelf life. Apples have been held for months in airtight, cold storage since WWII, but — as fresh foods tend to do — they softened and deteriorated. SmartFresh has stretched storage times to more than a year for varieties such as Fuji, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and Golden Delicious and to 6-10 months for Gala, Jonagold, Braeburn, and Mcintosh. The apples stay so pristine, consumers cannot tell that they are eating year-old fruit. More than half of the apples sold in the US today are treated with SmartFresh — most of these come out between January and September. So far there are no specific health risks tied to SmartFresh, although studies have shown that the levels of vitamin C and antioxidants in the fruit decline with extended storage. Also, the apples tend to lose their fragrance. But, do you really want to eat last year’s apple?
Organic apples do not necessarily make for a fresher alternative. Like all apple-growing states, Washington, which accounts for nearly 60% of the apples sold in the US, currently keeps their organic apples for 4-10 months in cold storage with lower levels of oxygen. Think about that next time you are paying top dollar for that organic Gala at Whole Foods, which by the way also sells conventional apples gassed with SmartFresh.
Even more disturbing, AgroFresh, the makers of SmartFresh, have applied to the USDA for organic certification arguing that the chemical compound is “natural” and that storage is not part of the actual growing process. My source at the Washington Apple Commission said the industry expects SmartFresh to be certified organic within the next year, and if so, the US organic apple producers will begin using it but still label their apples as “organic” (just as many organic apples are now coated with “organic” wax).
Farmers Markets, which is where I buy most of my apples, offer the obvious choice for fresh, ungassed apples, but you should still ask. A few smaller orchards have adopted SmartFresh, and those apples have turned up at farm stands.
Surprisingly, some of the freshest apples I could find, though not organic, were on special at the local Stop & Shop supermarket. Three-pound bags of unwaxed Mcintosh, Empire, Cortland, and Macoun apples grown in New York and Massachusetts sold for only $2.50. The produce manager assured me that these apples came straight from the orchards and had not been put into SmartFresh storage. When I asked about the other apples on display, marked simply USA, she thought some were from this season and some had been in storage but could not specify.
In fairness, the US apple industry couldn’t really bring all of its 230 million–carton harvest to market in the fall. By modulating the release, the industry stabilizes the business for its growers and related employees and also makes it possible for US consumers to enjoy apples year-round. Come July, when I am stuck at the airport, I will be grateful for that 10-month-old Braeburn — still better than most of the offerings at the food court.
For now, consumers should avoid apples from New Zealand or Chili or anywhere outside the US and Canada. The Washington Apple Commission told me that as of November all of their apples in stores are from the current harvest. However, if you picked up a Red Delicious or Granny Smith in August or September, that was most likely the end of last year’s crop. So while we are still in the midst of the season, eat up! And try to avoid last year’s Fuji.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have absolutely no culinary credentials other than I am an apple addict and a Food Evangelist enthusiast. — Sarah Woodberry