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Turn Brown for What? The USDA Has Approved Genetically-Modified Evergreen Apples

And why it's not a totally trivial invention.
​Regular apples (top) compared to the non-browning Arctic Apple. Image: ​Okanagan Speciality Fruits

The Department of Agriculture has approved genetically modified apples that never turn brown, finally offering reprieve for one of the biggest problems that has plagued humanity for generations.

Okay it's not a very big problem. Actually, it's not even really a problem at all, unless you're in the business of selling apples, which is why Canadian biotech orchardists, Okanagan Speciality Fruits created the Arctic Apple: a way of growing apples of any variety that won't turn brown.​

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See, since the 1960s, Americans have been decre​asing the amount of food they prepare at home, swapping it for pre-made meals and eating out. Simultaneously, the per capita consumption of fresh apples in the United States has dropped steadily since 1990, according to the department of a​griculture. While innovations like baby-cut carrots have allowed other fresh produce to edge its way into the prepared foods market, quickly-browning apple slices haven't gotten a very big piece of the pie.

They're out there—like at McDonald's, where apple slices are coated ​in Calcium ascorbate to prevent them from browning—but that process only works so well and, some argue, can alter the flavor. If you've ever tried preserving apple slices at ​home using lemon juice, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Instead of coating apple slices with a chemical, OSF wanted to create an apple that naturally resisted browning. Browning is caused by a reaction between phenolics (a chemical compound) and polyphenol oxidase or PPO (an enzyme). When an apple is whole, the phenolics and PPO don't mix because the apple's cell walls separate them. But as soon as you slice or bite the apple, and rupture the cell walls, they mix and turn the apple flesh an unappetizing light brown.

To create the non-browning apple, OSF licensed a process to "turn off" genes from Australian researchers who had developed it to stop potatoes from browning. The process silences the PPO genes in the apple so that when the cell walls are damaged, there's no PPO to mix with the phenolics and voila! No browning.

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The process can be applied to any variety of apple, so you could have "Arctic Grannysmiths" or "Arctic Galas" and anything in between. On Friday, the department of agriculture approved Arctic Apples, so OSF will begin planting the first batch in the fall, though Neal Carter, president of OSF, said it takes apple trees several years to get established, so they won't be widespread right away.

But as cool as it is to have perpetually-fresh apple slices, not everyone is psyched about the development. For one, the idea of non-browning apples is kind of unnatural. Apples are supposed to turn brown when you slice them. The US Apple Association originally opposed the Arctic Apples but have since softened their stance. They were worried these unnaturally non-brown apples might "negatively affect the wholesome, healthy reputation of apples," Wendy Brannen, the director of consumer health and public relations for US Apple, told me.

With the USDA's approval, US Apple is taking more of a neutral stance on the Arctic Apples. They have always been aware that there is no health or safety risk, Brannen said, but they were worried unsuspecting consumers could be squigged out if their apples didn't do what apples naturally do.

"Clear identification of the Arctic brand will help consumers make informed choices if OSF's apples do become available in stores in a few years," Brannen wrote in an email. "We do want to encourage apple consumption as part of a healthy lifestyle."

But even so, spending time and scientific resources to create apples that don't turn brown can seem kind of trivial. But Carter said it's not such a silly idea if it leads to more people eating apples.

"The reason we're doing this is to provide the opportunity to put more apples in more places. A lot of people just don't quite understand that," Carter told me.

And when you consider that most Americans aren't ​eating enough fruits and vegetables, maybe making them a little bit more appealing isn't such a frivolous endeavor after all.