Natural Edible Coating Prolongs Lifespan of Fruits and Vegetables

CC BY 2.0. Gautsch

Disruptive technology at its best, Apeel has been hailed as "the biggest revolution in food since refrigeration."

How many times have you reached for an avocado or a banana in your fruit bowl, only to discover that it has turned mushy and brown? Into the compost bin it goes, unappetizing and inedible. Now multiply this experience by all the households across the United States, and you have an extreme food waste problem. A recent study estimated that each American tosses nearly a half-pound of fruits and vegetables daily (out of a total 1 pound of daily waste).

One new company thinks it can help this situation. Apeel was founded in 2012 with the goal of prolonging the shelf life of fresh produce by applying an all-natural edible coating after harvest. A number of trials have had impressive success. Civil Eats describes one Kenyan farmer's experience using Apeel. A few years ago, John Muito lost one-third of his mango crop before he could secure a buyer for the fruit:

"In 2016, though, he lost only a handful of fruit, thanks to Apeel, which he applied to his mangoes in hopes of slowing their deterioration. Now Mutio hopes to sell his mangoes in Europe and Asia, where exotic produce commands high prices. 'After coating the mangoes, we stored them at room temperature for 25 days,' Mutio said. 'It really prolonged the lifespan of the fruit' — an untreated mango will spoil within two weeks — 'and maintained its flavor — no mangoes got spoiled.'"

Apeel's coating is made from lipids and glycerolipids found in the peels, seeds, and pulp of every kind of fruit and vegetable. It is transparent, odorless, and allergen-free, and is slightly different for every fruit and vegetable. Business Insider reports that, so far, Apeel has developed coatings for three dozen crops, including avocados, asparagus, peaches, lemons, pears, and nectarines. The coating is applied by dipping, rinsing, or spraying fruit. Once dry, it acts as a shield that slows water loss and deters natural gases like ethylene and oxygen from initiating decay. While the coating itself is not organic, it is allowed for use on USDA-certified organic produce.

The interesting thing about Apeel is how its effect goes beyond combating food waste. If fresh produce can be preserved for longer, it reduces the need for refrigeration. It means certain exotic ingredients can be transported around the world using less fuel-intensive methods because there's no longer such a rush, e.g. ships instead of planes or refrigerated trucks. The coating could replace waxes (synthetic-, animal-, and vegetable-based), which are sometimes used to preserve foods such as berries, apples, peppers, grapes, citrus, and peaches.

Apeel avocado

Apeel/Screen capture

As with any new innovation, there are potential drawbacks. Apeel cites market expansion as a benefit, but to this avowed locavore, the notion of accessing previously untapped markets in distant tropical countries and being able to source exotic foods from even further afield is the opposite of what I think we should all be trying to do. Also, I wonder if we'll continue wasting large amounts of fruits and vegetables once the novelty of having longer-lasting produce wears off; will we simply let our avocados and bananas go for 2-3 weeks before checking them because we know we can? There's potential for people to overbuy, thinking it will keep.

These are all intriguing questions, but the technology is fascinating, without a doubt. Civil Eats reports that, within the year, shoppers in the U.S. can expect to see Apeel labels on some avocados.