How About Them Apples?

For those who live in or near the states of New York, Michigan, or Washington, fall means one thing: apple picking. (Okay, it means a lot of things, but apple picking is definitely one of them.) Throughout these regions, people of all ages go to apple orchards armed with satchels and, really, not much else, taking fruit straight from the tree and paying by the bag load. For a few hours, it’s a fun activity. And for the rest of the week, you have some healthy, tasty snacks at the ready.

Not near an orchard? No worries: you don’t have to go apple picking to get apples. Wherever you are in the United States (and, for that matter, throughout most of the world), you only need to go to the local grocery store. The apples there are also healthy and tasty, and they appear to be higher quality than the ones you pick yourself — store-bought apples are often meticulously curated to be perfectly shaped, free of blemishes, and of a consistent color.

But they’re also almost certainly old — perhaps picked nearly a year ago. And they probably took a nice, long nap. Kind of.

The vast, vast majority of apples sold in the U.S. come from those three states listed above. But the growing season is only a few months long — come the winter, the orchards are closed and the trees are bare; in the spring and summer, the fruit is just blossoming or isn’t quite mature. Yet, year-round, there is consistent consumer demand for apples, and the apple industry doesn’t want to miss out on months of sales.

But you can’t just take an apple off a tree, toss it on a shelf somewhere, and expect it to be good nearly a year later. According to the USDA, “pick an apple off the tree and it’ll last a few weeks before it starts to turn soft and rot.” So food scientists have come up with a solution, one which takes Snow White and reversed the plot. Instead of a poison apple sending the princess into a slumber, science leaves the heroine alone and just puts the apple to sleep instead. NPR explains:

We have a technology called Controlled Atmosphere (CA) storage to thank for being to eat an apple whenever we please. In CA storage rooms, the temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and humidity levels are adjusted to form hospitable hibernation environments for apples being stored after harvest.

“The whole idea,” Chris Watkins, a professor of horticulture at Cornell University told NPR, “is to put the apple to sleep.” 

While in a CA storage room, per the Today show, apples can retain their from-the-orchard freshness as long as ten months. It’s perfectly safe to eat despite being in apple-stasis for an extended period of time, and most consumers can’t even taste the difference between fresh-picked and CA-stored apples. (That said, if you really prefer apples which weren’t put to bed, the Today show’s diet and nutrition editor says that “your best bet is to buy apples seasonally and locally.”)

Controlled-atmosphere storage, though, only delayed the inevitable — and it doesn’t give the apples any special powers once removed from this special environment. When the sleeping apples are woken up and put on the supermarket shelves, “the clock starts ticking again,” giving the stores — and you — less than a month to enjoy the fruit before it turns gross.

Bonus fact: If you’re famous, the grocery store probably isn’t a fun place to go — you can’t shop without people mobbing you. So many just avoid it. But for the late pop star Michael Jackson, going grocery shopping was a dream unfulfilled — until a local supermarket got wind of his interest. BoingBoing explains:

In 2003, after mentioning this desire in an interview, a friend of his who owns a mall with a supermarket closed it all down for a day to grant him his wish. To give it a feeling of authenticity, Michael’s staff, family, and friends populated the grocery store. Some dressed up like the store’s staff, others like shoppers. Even the muzak was customized for his experience. Then, the King of Pop put on a single yellow latex glove and pushed his cart up and down the aisles. He played around a lot in the store and likened the experience to being at Disneyland, because as he says, “I got to do something I don’t normally get to do.”

A video of Jackson shopping in his own controlled atmosphere can be seen at that link.

From the Archives: The Great Red Delicious Bailout of 2000: There’s some funky formatting going on in this post, but the story is still a fun one if you can deal with the bad HTML.