Have you ever eaten apples straight from the tree and wondered why they tasted so much better than the apples we buy at the supermarket? We all know that the produce we buy in the grocery store is not fresh. But just how old are our fruits and vegetables?
With many items, like spinach, the leaves may have been plucked no more than a few weeks ago. However, with many others, like apples, the fruit probably sat in cold storage for six months to a year before making its way to the supermarket.
In the U.S. apples generally ripen between August and September. They pick the apples when they're slightly unripe, treat them with a chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene, wax them, box them, stack them on pallets, and keep them in cold storage warehouses for an average of 9-12 months.
According to the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, "Apples not intended for fresh market are stored at low temperatures, with low levels of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide. While this slows the apples' natural production of ethylene and its effects, fungicides must often be applied to prevent fungal rots from taking hold. But since its commercial debut in 2002 under the name "SmartFresh," 1-MCP has in some cases diminished the need for such treatment."
Loaded on pallets, the fruit goes into cold storage – a sealed room where its respiration rate is slowed. Fruit for imminent consumption (November to January) is chilled to zero degrees Celsius. In longer-term controlled atmosphere storage, the oxygen level is lowered from 21-percent to 1.2-percent, putting the apples to sleep for 6-12 months.
After learning about this, one Australian investigative news organization decided to do a test to see just how old the apples on their grocery store shelves really were. They collected samples from major Australian supermarkets and sent them to the Sydney Postharvest Laboratory for testing.
The results? "Analysis showed the Woolworths samples were about 10 months old while the Norton Street and Coles products had spent 9 months in storage since being harvested."
But what about in the U.S.? According to Martin Lindstrom, author of "Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy", the average supermarket apple is 14 months old.
In truth, much of this happens because so much of our food is produced far from where we live. On average, according to many estimates, our dinner travels about 1,500 miles from its source. By the time it finally shows up on the grocery shelves, our produce is already months old.
Are Nutrients Affected?
Apples are a rich source of antioxidants called polyphenols. According to many studies, antioxidant activity in apples gradually drops off after three months of storage in the cold. This means that an apple stored for a year will have almost no antioxidants remaining in it whatsoever.
Finding the Freshest Produce
So, in order to gain the most nutrients from our produce, what do we do?
The Center for Health and the Global Environment recommends choosing produce that is as fresh as possible. If you can't grow your own, look for local farms and smaller, local businesses like butcher shops and produce stores where the emphasis is on fresh, locally produced food.
The center also notes that buying locally increases the chances of nutritional diversity and decreases the amount of handling, since local produce is commonly picked by hand rather than machine. Minimal handling means less chance of contamination, which can increase the rate of decay.
Foodrenegade.com. (April 8, 2013). Your Apples Are A Year Old. (Kristen, Writer). Retrieved September 16, 2013 from foodrenegade.com: http://www.foodrenegade.com/your-apples-year-old/
The Sydney Morning Herald. (January 20, 2008). Our Tests Show Supermarket Apples Are Up To 10 Months Old. (Maxine Frith, Writer). Retrieved September 16, 2013 from smh.com.au: http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/supermarket-apples-10-months-old/2008/01/19/1200620272669.html
United States Department of Agriculture: Agriculture Research Service. (October, 2007). Keeping Apples Crunchy and Flavorful After Storage. Retrieved September 16, 2013 from USDA: http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/oct07/apples1007.htm
Livestrong.com. (May 21, 2011). How do fruits and vegetables loose their nutrients after picking? (Beth Greenwood, Writer). Retrieved September 16, 2013 from livestrong.com: http://www.livestrong.com/article/447449-how-do-fruits-and-vegetables-lose-their-nutrients-after-picking/#ixzz2f50Q2lqT
ACS Publications. (March 12, 2007). Extraction, Separation, Detection, and Antioxidant Activity of Apple Polyphenols. (Rong Tsao, Writer). Retrieved September 16, 2013 from ACS Symposium Series: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/bk-2007-0956.ch020