This story appears in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Every fruit and vegetable breathes. Once a piece of produce is picked from a tree or plant, it continues to respire, aging slowly, until it begins to break down. Microorganisms then move in, causing it to spoil. Refrigeration can delay the process, but only so much.
Some scientists now think they can make your bananas, avocados, and other fresh produce last up to twice as long by delaying spoilage. Apeel, a start-up in Santa Barbara, California, has created a way to extract lipids from several popular crops and transform each type into a powder. Dissolved in water and applied to fruit or vegetables, it forms an edible barrier to lock moisture in and microorganisms out.
Farmers can apply a version of the solution in the field, or distributors can use the rinse on the packing line, extending a fruit’s shelf life by days or even weeks. The FDA recognizes the process as safe, and earlier this year it was approved for use on organic produce.
Giving shoppers more time with their fresh food is one purpose. But Apeel’s higher goal is to fight food waste and reduce the number of refrigerated trucks and ships that race between fields and stores to deliver food at its peak. The technology can also allow more crops to be delivered to more places farther and farther from where they’re grown. “You can imagine a world without seasonality of fresh produce,” says James Rogers, Apeel’s CEO and a materials scientist.
In the meantime, who couldn’t use a few extra days before that fruit in the fridge starts to mold?