Wait, Is My Supermarket Apple Really a Year Old?

If you’re like most people, you probably grab an apple from the supermarket without giving it much thought. After all, apples are a classic fruit that is known for being healthy and delicious. But have you ever wondered just how fresh those apples really are? In this article, we’ll uncover the surprising truth about supermarket apples and how they can be up to a year old before they even reach your shopping cart.

The Journey of an Apple

When you pick up an apple at the grocery store, you might assume that it was recently plucked from the tree and delivered straight to the produce section. However, the reality is a bit more complex. In the United States, apples are harvested only once a year, typically from August to November. This means that if you’re enjoying an apple in the winter, spring, or summer, it was likely picked the previous fall, sometimes up to 10 months ago.

Extending the Shelf Life

So how do these apples stay fresh for such a long time? The key lies in refrigeration. Apples that are meant to be sold by December are stored in refrigeration warehouses with temperatures ranging between 34 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit. This ensures that they remain fresh until they are ready to be shipped to grocery stores.

But what about the apples with sell dates after December but before the next harvest season? These apples are placed in Controlled Atmosphere (CA) storage. In this type of storage, the apples are kept at a low temperature and exposed to a controlled atmosphere with reduced oxygen levels, as low as 2 percent compared to the 21 percent in the air we breathe. This slows down the ripening process and keeps the apples in a state of dormancy until they are ready to be sold.

The Impact on Taste and Nutrition

You might be wondering if this extended storage affects the taste and nutritional content of the apples. While it’s true that storing apples in a low-oxygen environment can reduce their acidity, the overall taste and nutritional value remain largely unaffected. According to James Mattheis of the United States Department of Agriculture, this storage process “doesn’t do very much to vitamin or mineral content.” So, rest assured that these apples are still a healthy and tasty snack option.

Buying Locally Grown or Picking Your Own

If the idea of eating year-old apples doesn’t sit well with you, there are alternatives. One option is to buy locally grown apples. By purchasing apples from local farmers, you can ensure that they are fresh and recently harvested. Another option is to go apple picking yourself. This allows you to select apples directly from the tree, ensuring maximum freshness and flavor.

The Science Behind Apple Storage

The ability to store apples for such long periods is a result of advancements in post-harvest storage technology. Controlled Atmosphere storage, with its precise combination of gases and temperature, allows certain apple varieties to be stored for up to a year. This impressive feat of technology was primarily developed in the early 20th century.

Types of Apples and Their Storeability

Not all apple varieties are equally suited for long-term storage. Some apples, like Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, and Red Delicious, are more resilient and can handle the Controlled Atmosphere storage process. These are the apples you are most likely to find in mass-market grocery stores. On the other hand, fragile-skinned varieties such as Cortland, Jonagold, and Crispin should be consumed soon after they are picked, as they may become too soft and mealy over time.

To meet consumer demands, apple producers are continuously working on developing new varieties that can maintain their fresh characteristics for as long as possible. One example is the RubyFrost apple, a hybrid created by Cornell University specifically for wintertime consumption. These apples, a cross between Braeburn and Autumn Crisp, are bred to reach peak sweetness in mid to late January, months after they are harvested.

The Role of Ethylene in Apple Ripening

To understand how apples ripen and why they need controlled storage, it’s essential to know about ethylene. Ethylene is a chemical compound that plays a crucial role in the ripening process of fruits. Apples, along with bananas and avocados, are climacteric fruits, meaning they continue to ripen after being harvested.

As apples ripen, they release more ethylene, which accelerates the ripening process in nearby fruits. This is why one bad apple can indeed spoil the whole bunch. On the other hand, non-climacteric fruits like strawberries and cherries do not rely on ethylene for ripening.

Harnessing the Power of Ethylene

Ethylene’s ripening-inducing properties can be harnessed to expedite the ripening of certain fruits. For example, placing a hard avocado in the same bowl as an apple can speed up the avocado’s ripening process. The apple releases ethylene, which triggers the conversion of starches in the avocado into sugars, resulting in a softer and ripe fruit.

The Future of Apples: Genetic Engineering

In addition to selective breeding, scientists have also explored genetic engineering to create new types of apples. One notable example is the Arctic Apple, which was genetically modified to resist browning. In 2015, it became one of the first genetically modified fruits to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Genetic engineering offers the potential to enhance the shelf life and quality of apples further. By manipulating the genes responsible for browning or disease resistance, scientists can create apples that stay fresh for longer periods, reducing food waste and improving consumer satisfaction.

Conclusion

The next time you pick up an apple from the supermarket, remember that it may have been harvested months ago. Thanks to advancements in storage technology, apples can remain fresh and nutritious for extended periods. Whether you choose supermarket apples or opt for locally grown varieties, apples are a versatile and healthy snack that can be enjoyed year-round. So, take a bite and savor the taste of this timeless fruit, knowing that it has traveled a long journey to reach your plate.

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