Banner Week!

Considering how many visitors I get on a given day, I must have one of the least commented-on blogs on the web. Yet all of a sudden I’m on a roll, having received half a dozen comments and three emails in a single week. Oh yes, I can feel it, Joe Pastry is about to go through the roof! Anyway, I thought this email was interesting and thought I’d post it:

Since you are writing about fall fruits this week (and since your
readers are asking you to declare yourself for or against agro-business), thought you might want to reference the article on apples on the 1st page of the NYT food section. What I want to know (and what the article doesn’t mention at all) is: Does the fruit lose nutritional value over time? I thought that all fruits and vegetables did.

Is this bait? Ah well, I’ve got half an hour to kill, so what the hey? The article my correspondent is referring to is in today’s (10/25) New York Times, discussing the relative merits of a new fruit preservative, a gas that goes by the chemical name of 1-methylcyclopropene and by the trade name of SmartFresh.

Folks who’ve read this blog for a while may remember a few months ago when I did a series of posts (two?) on the role of ethylene gas in fruit ripening. Though it sounds like a petrochemical by-product, it is in fact a naturally occurring agent that acts as a hormone in plants (which is to say, a chemical signal that triggers enzyme activity). In fact it is the single chemical trigger for the ripening process, and as such has been manipulated by humans for millennia to either speed up or slow down the fruit development process.

Modern-day tomato merchants spray green tomatoes with ethylene when they arrive at their sales destinations, since green tomatoes ship better. Conversely, apple growers seek to limit their produce’s exposure to ethylene because apples are picked at peak ripeness and can degrade before they get where they’re going. To that end they employ ethylene “scrubbers” to remove the gas from storage areas, and low-temperature, low-oxygen storage facilities to restrict the amount of gas the fruit produces in the first place.

1-methylcyclopropene is a newer, less expensive way to halt the effects of ethylene on various types of produce, especially apples. It’s what’s known as an “ethylene inhibitor” which is to say it bonds itself to ethylene receptors in the fruit’s skin so the hormonal “signal” can’t be sent. The effect is to keep the apple in virtual stasis, near perfectly ripe, for up to a year (actually about the same amount of time apples can be kept fresh using conventional means).

The amazing thing about 1-methylcyclopropene is that while it is synthetic it is utterly harmless. Study after study has been done on the stuff all over the world and the worst thing anyone can say about it is that if you pour a jug of liquid 1-methylcyclopropene directly on your face it will irritate your eyes. In fact the makers of SmartFresh, AgroFresh, are applying to the National Organic Standards Board this year to request that SmartFresh-treated foods be allowed to be labeled “organic” (I dunno, that part seems a little cockeyed to me…).

As far as quality, blind side-by-side taste tests have found that pretty much everybody who tries shipped apples treated with 1-methylcyclopropene prefer it over apples treated conventionally. Studies also show that 1-methylcyclopropene-treated apples show no nutrient degradation, either in Vitamin C or antioxidants. Is it the world’s safest, most effective fruit preserver? It may very well be, though those sound a bit like famous last words.

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