You’ve all eaten an apple within the last week. How much time has passed since that apple was picked, to when you ate that apple? 3 weeks? 3 months? It was actually about eleven months; this is the average age of an apple in most grocery stores in the United States. And depending where in Europe, it probably not much different or anywhere else in the world. Have you ever asked why a piece of fruit can be stored for a year and then consumed?
Eating crisp, juicy Washington apples year-round is possible due to controlled atmosphere storage. Known simply as “CA” in the industry, controlled atmosphere storage involves careful control of temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide and humidity.
Commercially, apples can be stored for many months in controlled chambers to delaying ripening. Apples are commonly stored in chambers with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide and high air filtration. This prevents ethylene concentrations from rising to higher amounts and preventing ripening from occurring too quickly. Ripening continues when the fruit is removed from cold storage. For home storage, most varieties of apple can be held for approximately two weeks when kept at the coolest part of the refrigerator (i.e. below 5 °C). Some types, including the Granny Smith and Fuji, can be stored up to a year without significant degradation. Cold storage is a chemical process. It’s about changing the levels of oxygen and nitrogen to affect cellular respiration. Oxygen levels in the sealed rooms are reduced, usually by the infusion of nitrogen gas, from the approximate 21 percent in the air we breathe to 1 percent or 2 percent. Temperatures are kept at a constant 32 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity is maintained at 95 percent and carbon dioxide levels are also controlled. People will argue that this is a non-chemical process, but if we put ourselves in this environment, we would die pretty quickly; there’s nothing natural about that.
Here is how the process works. People and machines pick the apples, they immediately put them in a cold storage, which is controlled by gas. This gas cooled environment actually slows down the dying process of the apple. Because it is true for just about any fruit, the moment you pick the fruit it starts to ripen and dies.
Another negative point about the cold storage process is that these places are dangerous! There’s actually documented proof of workers trying to go into these environments to retrieve an apple, and dying in the process because they freeze to death. And as over 50% of the world’s apples are grown and stored in China, it’s quite possible that we do not hear about these injuries.
What does this cold storage actually do to the apple? Ninety percent of the quality of that apple — all of the antioxidants — are gone by the time we get it. It’s basically a little ball of sugar. And remember, an apple does not come with a lot of nutrients to begin with.
Why is it that no one knows this stuff? Why didn’t I know this? How did we get so information poor and how can we do better?
A recent TED Talk asks many of these questions: What if each country had its own productive climate? What would that change about how we live? What would that change about quality of life and nutrition?
The last generation’s problem was that we needed more food and cheaper. This is one factor that has led us to where we are today. Nowadays, we just expect the fruit or vegetable to be in the supermarket without ever questioning how or why it got there.
Another big problem of today is that farming is a declining business. The big agriculture companies have pushed out the small local farmers in many places of the world. And in countries like Japan, farming is becoming non-existent as Japan already imports 70 percent of their own food. But it’s not unique to Japan. Two percent of the American population is involved in farming. Farming is hard and the rewards a little. The life of a small-shareholder farmer is miserable. In India, many farmers’ families do not have basic access to utilities, and there are many farmer suicides
The older farmers who could tell you when a plant dying is due to a nitrogen deficiency, a calcium deficiency or it needs more humidity. Those special intuitions are not being passed down due to a lack of interest in farming.
When we ask for more, cheaper food, we’re now asking for better, environmentally friendly food. And when you have McDonald’s advertising what’s in the Chicken McNugget, the most mysterious food item of all time — they are now basing their marketing plan on that — everything is changing, hopefully for the better. So the next time you pick an apple, eat it like it is meant to be and question how it got there.