There is an old saying in the fresh produce industry: “Produce is purchased based on appearance, not by taste.” This is unfortunately often true. People buy their fruit and vegetables based on how fresh and blemish-free they look. They don’t normally have the chance to do taste comparisons. The reality is that lots of fruits and vegetables look better than they taste.
Fortunately, there have been some produce improvements that break through this “appearance” paradigm. I’ll describe just four examples that are favorite of mine and about which I have some background information (don’t worry, no-one is paying me to promote these).
The Golden Pineapple
It used to be that buying a fresh pineapple was a high risk investment. They were fairly expensive and much of the time they were so acidic that you would burn the roof of your mouth. The Pineapple Research Institute in Hawaii developed a much sweeter, lower acid hybrid called 73-114, but for years it could never be commercialized because it couldn’t be successfully shipped to the US from either Central America or Hawaii. Finally, the fruit company, Del Monte and the post-harvest technology company FMC figured out a a way for it to make it to US markets. They found a particular food-safe wax that changed the gas exchange (CO2, water, oxygen…) such that the fruit could stay alive during shipping. Del Monte launched this as “Del Monte Gold” in 1997. Since then many companies have introduced “Golden Pineapples” and pineapple consumption has been rising ever since.
The “Personal Watermelon”
For a long time, watermelons were sold by size. Huge was considered good, but unless you are going to take it to a picnic with dozens of people, a typical family can’t eat a whole melon before it goes bad. In 2002, Syngenta Seeds introduced the first “personal watermelon.” I interviewed the breeder around that time. His goal was to have a melon that was almost all the really good part in the center of the melon, sweet and dark red. The product was called PureHeart® and is marketed under the Dulcinea brand. There are other versions now, but for my money this is still the best option. Actually it is amazing how many people you can feed from this little melon. The breeder’s ultimate goal goal was to have a melon the size of a softball that you could take to work for lunch. I don’t know if that is possible or economically feasible for the growers, but it sounds great. Dulcinea also has a “Tuscan Sweet” musk melon that looks like a cantaloupe which is fantastic.
“Conditioned” Peaches and Nectarines
Peaches and nectarines can be wonderful if you get to eat them picked fully ripe. I was spoiled getting to eat these when I lived in Davis, California and in Western Colorado. Ripe stone fruit can’t be shipped that way from California or Colorado or Georgia to the rest of the country. Growers have to pick the fruit when it is still very firm. It will soften, but its just not the same taste experience. To make things worse, many grocery chains put fruit into an intermediate temperature storage room during distribution and that is where that terrible mealy texture develops. Fortunately, in the last few years, it has been possible to buy peaches and nectarines that are pretty close to the tree ripe experience. This is because researchers in California found that if you took the firm fruit and exposed it to warm conditions for a couple of days (instead of the normal immediate chilling) the fruit would be “conditioned” and develop far better flavor and texture. Its not a trivial thing to manage. There are dozens of different varieties of these fruits (so that harvest doesn’t all happen at the same time) and each one responds differently. The difficulty has been for growers to be able to communicate to consumers which fruit has been conditioned (it does not look different in the store). Fairly successful brands for this have been “I M RIPE®” and “SUMMERIPE®.” Its still not a 100% thing, but you have much better odds of getting a good stone fruit experience.
Sweet Scarlet Table Grapes
USDA grape breeders David Ramming and Ronald Tarailo developed a new red seedless grape that was released in 2004. It is called “Sweet Scarlet and I think it is delicious. It has some genetic background from muscat grapes which have a flavor compound called linalool. That is also part of the distinctive taste in Riesling and Gewurztraminer wines (also Leechees). Not everyone likes it, but people who do think it is wonderful. Unfortunately, I’ve only found these labeled in the store a few times. The grape industry and/or retailers do not seem to have learned the lesson from the apple industry that consumers can learn the names of varieties and learn which they like the best. Start asking your local produce manager for this grape – lets see if we can get it into the mainstream!
There lots of other good examples of taste breakthroughs in produce: the big, Red Bell Peppers, Broccolini, Campari tomatoes, many new varieties of apples… I’m just glad that there are folks out there striving to deliver better produce. Hm, this has made me hungry!