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A Spray Made from Plant Extract Could Eliminate the Concept of ‘In Season’ Fruit

Scientists have developed new coatings to be sprayed on fruit and vegetables directly after harvest. Made from natural plant extracts, some say it will allow certain fruits to be stored all year round.
June 8, 2015, 12:01pm
Photo via Flickr user Derek Bruff

According to UK government waste adviser, WRAP, fruit and veg are some of the biggest culprits in the food industry to be wasted. It accounts for 13 percent of the country's binned food, behind meat and poultry at 25 percent.

We may be guilty of throwing away around 3 million tons of fresh produce each year, but up to a quarter of all grown produce is spoiled before it even reaches our shopping baskets. This is for a multitude of reasons but to put it simply: it is often down to piss poor supply chain management.

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Recognising that factors such as weather, refrigeration, and transportation are all contributing to this clusterfuck of fruit and veg, both entrepreneurs and scientists are attempting to tackle the problem with new edible coatings and sprays. These can be applied to produce post-harvest and before packaging, helping to improve farmers' yields and cut food waste.

READ MORE: How I Turn Wasted Food into Michelin-Starred Meals

Eden Fresh Fruit Solution, a Hong Kong-based company, has invented a "100 percent natural and halal" spray made from citrus, chitosan, and a cellulose gum found in coconut skin for cuts of fresh fruit such as mangoes and melons. Meanwhile, California-based Apeel Sciences has produced an organic spray from natural plant extracts for whole fruits like apples and pears that would usually be treated with wax to prevent moisture loss and bruising. Both companies were contacted for comment but neither responded before publication.

The edible fruit coating or spray isn't a groundbreaking concept. Previous academic studies have looked into how coatings can be produced from almond gum and aloe vera, but Eden and Apeel Sciences' creations do have the advantage of not sounding like they were invented in Willy Wonka's factory.

The issue of freshness is a complex one, involving farmers, exporters, retailers, businesses, and customers. So who and what is most likely to benefit from such technology? Small businesses like The Natural Veg Men, a Cheshire-based company that grows and sells produce to farm shops, restaurants, and veg box customers are unlikely to. The shorter the food chain, the less need for interventions that prolong the life of fruit.

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"We pick to order," co-founder Tom Whitley says. "We've moved away from wholesale supply as we couldn't compete with the larger wholesalers due to our small scale. We currently have one restaurant whom we supply and almost act as a kitchen garden for. They are at the higher end of the dining scale, and as such, can pass on the premium of using a high quality, small scale producer such as ourselves."

Despite this farm-to-plate operating method, Whitley concedes that not every part of the business is free from spoilage.

"The veg boxes have a whole set of their own issues regarding the supply chain," he explains. "One of them being that items we don't grow and source in can sometimes arrive in varying degrees of freshness, especially if they come from abroad."

Farms are constantly under pressure to deliver quality and quantity, clients will slam the door on them if they're not delivering the goods at a certain standard. An edible coating [or spray] sounds good if it can ensure quality is maintained for longer, and as long as it makes economic sense.

For instance, bananas grown in Jamaica can spend two weeks out of the ground in shipping containers. Anyone who's ever left a bunch festering in the fruit bowl will know what happens when the fruit is exposed to such elements.

An edible coating that prolongs this process and means higher quality produce would profit both the fruit bowl and smallholder farmers growing them across Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. After all, a few extra pence for a premium can make a big difference to farmers' livelihoods—or at least that's the pipe dream Eden Fresh Fruit Solution projects in its promotional video.

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But what about the farmers in the UK? They've had a shit time lately. As supermarkets continually cut prices, farmers feel the squeeze, with some even turning their backs on retail giants altogether.

"Farms are constantly under pressure to deliver quality and quantity, and clients will slam the door on them if they're not delivering the goods at a certain standard," says Sam Roberts, who has spent previous summers toiling away as a fruit picker. "An edible coating [or spray] sounds good if it can ensure quality is maintained for longer, and as long as it makes economic sense."

Apeel Sciences say its sprays will be low-cost due to its organic composition containing no expensive chemicals or preservatives. It also claims that the spray reduces the need for the concept of "in season," allowing certain fruits to be stored all year round. Would that appeal to any farms around the country?

Several that harvest soft fruit, which supplied to most of the major supermarkets, were approached for reaction. Emails went unanswered and calls fell on deaf ears aside from one blanket response received which stated: "We have a producer organisation that deals with the business side of things. They help streamline the process of our fruit getting to the shop shelf and ensure that spoilage is kept to a minimum during transportation. An edible spray would not be of benefit to us at the moment. Plus, consumers wouldn't want strawberries [just coming into season at the moment] all year round. There's a reason it's a summer fruit."

READ MORE: This Brewery Makes Rotten Mangoes Taste Like Exotic Champagne

Unsurprisingly, the farm in question requested anonymity as it seems that farms don't really like talking about these things. They don't want to say anything that might upset the apple cart and jeopardise working relationships. Our food system is bound up in such petty politics, argues Roberts.

There is also the sticky issue of consumer reaction to navigate. Sceptics out there are concerned that some edible sprays and coatings could turn out to not to be what they claim, even being toxic and leading to inferior-quality produce. This hasn't been scientifically proven, but there will always be some who think any agricultural developments are too good to be true; probably the same type of person who will convince you that synthetic foods are genetically engineered and shouldn't be consumed.

"If you want to avoid all this nonsense, just buy direct from a farm or shop that sources locally," says Roberts. "That guarantees you freshness. You'll probably sleep well knowing that the farmer you're supporting is getting a fair price for his product."