Natural spray promises to extend life of fruits and vegetables

Avocados treated with spray before shipping to grocery stores

Today's expression: To go bad
Explore more: Lesson #197
October 10, 2019:

A new product from the startup Apeel Sciences aims to extend the shelf-life of avocados and other fruits and vegetables. The product is a natural spray that strengthens the existing skin on produce, helping to keep moisture in and oxygen out. Other food tech is designed to help reduce food waste, much of which comes before grown food even makes it to the marketplace. Plus, learn the English phrase "to go bad."

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One company thinks it has found a way to extend the shelf-life of an avocado

Hi there, welcome to Plain English, episode number 197. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and all the episode resources for today’s program can be found at PlainEnglish.com/197.

Coming up today: The shelf-life is how long a piece of fruit or a vegetable can stay fresh on supermarket shelves—or in your cabinets at home. For some fruits, like avocados, it’s too short! At least that’s what an innovative company called Apeel Sciences thinks. They’ve developed an all-natural product that will increase how long fruits and vegetables can stay fresh before going bad. And that, incidentally, is our expression today—to go bad. JR also has a song of the week.

If you’re not on our e-mail list, you’ll want to get on there. We’ll be sending out links to English articles about this topic, along with a bonus word or phrase from this episode. You already learned shelf life and we’re only a couple minutes in! You’re going to learn “go bad” later, and if you’re on the email list, you’ll learn one more English phrase. So if you’re not on the list, there is no time like the present. Go to PlainEnglish.com/mail and enter your details.


Extending an avocado’s life

How many times have you bought an avocado, only to find that you can’t use it until it’s too late?

I love avocados. So why are they never in my shopping cart? Well, they’re hard to buy; you have to eat them exactly when they’re ripe; and they don’t stay fresh once you’ve cut into them. If you buy them too soon, they’re hard and unripe; you can’t eat them. Once they start to soften a bit, that’s when I start to feel the pressure. Is it exactly ready? Can I use it in a meal today? I don’t have the magic touch for deciding when an avocado is exactly ripe, like a lot of our Mexican listeners probably have. There is a vanishingly short window in which avocados are just perfect. But you’d better time it right, because if you miss the window, the avocado goes bad.

That’s not a problem if you cook every day. But with my schedule, I can’t wait around for the perfect window to eat an avocado. I don’t like to waste food, but I do admit to having missed my window on avocados—and honestly, that’s why I don’t buy a lot of them.

This is the problem that Apeel Sciences is trying to solve. What they have done is they have come up with is a technology that extends the life of avocados and other fruits and vegetables, by adding an extra layer of nanometer-thin skin to the peel of the fruit. Hence the name Apeel. (You can see the appeal of the name!)

This extra-thin skin is derived from plants—it’s not an artificial chemical. And it does what the fruit’s natural peel does naturally: it slows water loss and oxidation, which are the factors that cause spoilage. You want the oxygen to stay outside the fruit, and the moisture to stay in. Apeel’s extra layer just reinforces what the fruit or vegetable already has on its outside, using the same type of materials that are already in the skins of fruits and vegetables.

While Apeel avocados have gotten the most publicity, their product can be used on almost any fruit or vegetable. The product is a powder, which farmers and food companies mix with water and then spray on their products.

Does it work? Apeel says its avocados can last two to four days longer than avocados without the special skin. That’s great news for us, as individuals, but it’s even better news when you consider that over a third of all the food produced goes to waste, including 40 percent of all food that’s grown. All told, over a billion tons of food gets wasted each year, worldwide.

The image people have of food waste is often people in developed countries just dumping a lot of unused food in the trash—that definitely happens, don’t get me wrong. But a lot of waste (call it, involuntary waste) is because fresh food simply can’t make it to the market without spoiling. That happens all of the world, but it’s especially true in developing countries. That’s in large part because the infrastructure is less developed: they have fewer cold storage warehouses and the roads are slow, so it takes longer to get from the farm to the user, among other factors.

Food is being wasted, but the demand for food is not slowing down. Not only is the population growing, but in large parts of the world, people are (thankfully) able to afford more protein and fresh fruit and vegetables. There are three ways to satisfy this growing demand: plant more acreage; make each planted acre more efficient; or waste less food. There is little appetite in the world to plant more acreage, so I think that’s out. There has been significant investment worldwide into seed research and making each planted acre more productive. The advances in efficiency and productivity are nothing short of miraculous. But the impact of more efficient farming is blunted if so much grown food goes to waste.

Apeel is just one of several new technologies that aim to reduce the involuntary waste of fresh produce. One way to reduce spoilage is better packaging solutions, such as putting the products in vacuum containers. They’re also developing innovative ways of protecting delicate fruits from being bruised during transportation.

Another approach is to use UV lighting and electrodes to kill bacteria—or even exposing food to slight radiation. There are also various bioactive additions to fruits and vegetables to keep them fresh longer, such as plasma blasting. Sounds dangerous—but it’s a way of using gases to kill or deactivate the contaminating microbes in fruit, vegetables, and meats.

All of these new strategies and technologies aim to reduce spoilage without altering the flavor, texture, or nutritional value of food—and, critically, without the negative human health effects that chemical pesticides have.

How close is this to reality? Apeel Sciences is still a startup, but it has already raised more than $100 million. So far, two big retailers, Kroger and Costco, have decided to stock Apeel avocados. Apeel is also partnering with growers, suppliers, and smaller retailers.


Now for a really important message. Marco from Costa Rica is here in Chicago and he’s going to run the Chicago Marathon this Sunday. The marathon is a huge date on our calendar. They close all the streets; thousands of people go out to watch and cheer on the runners; and it’s a big tourist attraction, too, since people fly in from all over the world. The race starts downtown in Grant Park; goes up along the lakefront up to about Wrigley Field area; then it cuts down to the southwest side, through the heart of Pilsen, one of our Mexican neighborhoods; and then finally it makes its way through the South Loop and back into downtown to finish up at Grant Park again. 26.2 miles, and that’s the route that Marco will be running on Sunday morning. My friend Kenny will also be running. I’ve watched the race before, and I would love to cheer on Marco and Kenny, but that’s the only weekend I could get away for a quick weekend away that I’ve been postponing for more than a year. I’m really bummed that I won’t be there, but I’ll be thinking about you, Marco, good luck!

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Expression: To go bad