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That Apple is So 2009!


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.
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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

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This post has 8 comments

  • Mike says:

    About a month ago I bought some on-sale peaches at a local farmers market. They looked fine, but when I tried to eat them at home, quickly found that they were rotten in the middle. Yuck!! No wonder they were on sale! I guess I should have had the vendor cut one open for me. Buyer-beware, indeed!

    Does “SmartFresh” work only on apples? Or is it also used on other fruits/vegetables as well?

    — Mike in San Jose

    • Hi Mike:
      According to SmartFresh’s website, the gas is used on the following fruits (all text below courtesy of SmartFresh, by the way):
      • Apples – Apples stay crispy, crunchy, and juicy and maintain their just-picked firmness for longer.
      • Melons – Growers can harvest fully mature melons with great color and fewer sunken and discolored areas (SDAs).
      • Bananas – Bananas maintain their beautiful yellow color and delectable sweet flavor longer, so retailers can consistently offer the kind of bananas that are always in demand — and consumers can enjoy them longer at home without browning.
      • Tomatoes – Tomatoes keep their distinct vine-ripened flavor, color and desirable firmness for longer periods of time than non-SmartFresh quality tomatoes, so consumers can enjoy tastier, plump, red tomatoes.
      • Kiwifruit – Kiwifruit maintain their desired firmness and characteristic flavor and appearance so consumers can enjoy them longer without softening or flavor loss.
      • Plums – Plums maintain their firmness and freshness during and after storage.
      • Persimmons – Usually sensitive and easily softening, SmartFresh quality persimmons maintain their quality during transport and their shelf life.

  • Kent Watson says:

    If you are interested in apples, check out the Story of the Apple from Timber Press. Below is the the link to the book. I worked on it when I was with the press. It’s a fascinating story of the making of the modern apple. Great post by the way. With this news, I will be buying more apples at the farmers market next year and freezing them.

    http://www.timberpress.com/books/story_apple/juniper/9781604691726

  • Whoa. That was eye-opening and maddening. Of all foods, apples are one I always buy organic, thinking that they are by far superior to conventional, poisoned apples. But this is another thing to look for. Why does buying real food have to be so complicated?

    • Sarah Woodberry says:

      Carole,
      Our “Hamlet” question…to eat organic or local/seasonal? It’s a toughie. With apples I’ve been leaning toward local b/c I live in serious apple country with so many great local apples around..many for free off people’s backyard trees. But I wrestle with this question all the time when choosing produce. It’s worrisome that “USDA Organic” is being watered down so much. There is a significant $$ attached to that label now…so factory farms are doing all that they can to get their produce labeled “organic” with serious shortcuts and non-organic methods.
      Sarah

  • Sarah Woodberry says:

    Kent,
    No need to freeze apples…they will keep for 2-4 months (depending on the variety) in a cold, dry place–like a cellar, garage, or bottom fridge drawer. People have been doing that for centuries. Growing up in CT we always had a bushel of apples in the basement. If you live in an apple growing region it’s not too late to stock up for this winter. The late-season varieties (available now at Farmer’s Markets and many supermarkets) are the best for storing. In the Northeast, that includes the Rome, Stayman, Winesap, and esp the Northern Spy. In fact, some people say these varieties improve with storage. Oldtime Vermonters would joke that they wouldn’t even try a Northern Spy before Jan! If you ask at your Farmers Market (ours runs until xmas) they will tell you what regional apple is best for storing. It’s VERY simple to do. Here’s a short, specific how-to guide which I found very helpful.
    http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles/fallick41.html

    Happy Apple-ing!
    Sarah

  • […] see the light of your supermarket produce aisle. Is 1-methylcyclopropene safe? Yes. Is your apple fresh? If you’re buying American-grown, hard winter apples such as Granny Smith in – say – July, […]

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