By: Kerry Bazany

As consumers of produce, we love to see our apples, nectarines, bananas, and other fruits present with lots of color. The same goes for lettuce, tomatoes, beans, broccoli, and other vegetables. We expect our produce to appear fresh, crunchy, and well, yummy. We’re used to the enticing visual presentation and expect nothing less. However, let’s be realistic. How likely is it that produce after harvesting, processing, shipping, and unpacking will look as good as it does when we are the grocery store without the intervening process of produce preservation?

After the Harvest

There are a variety of methods utilized by farmers according to the type of produce that is harvested. Simply stated, when a living organism is cut from its supply, as with plants (soil, sunlight, and carbon dioxide) it begins to decay, some faster than others. In the absence of a detailed scientific explanation of the processes of decomposition, there are two key factors in play when produce is harvested: enzyme production and oxygenation. Enzymes break down the cells, and oxygen hastens decay. The bacteria, molds and yeasts that cause spoilage in plant foods need water and nutrients to grow and reproduce. With an average water content of 90 percent or more, fruits and veggies are natural magnets for microorganisms and spoil quickly.

To Wax or Not to Wax?

As with any topic, there are two sides to every story, or in this case, every process. Wax is the most commonly used coating used by grocers. Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are often waxed to prevent moisture loss, protect them from bruising during shipping, and increase their shelf life. When purchasing non-organic fruits and vegetables, you should ask your grocer about the kind of wax used on their surface even if you are going to peel it; carnauba wax (from the carnauba palm tree), beeswax, and shellac (from the lac beetle) are preferable to petroleum-based waxes, which contain solvent residues. Most wax coatings are perfectly safe to eat; it is simply a matter of consumer preference as to whether or not you wish that apple in your hand to look like it could be in an advertisement.

Baby Carrots are so Darn Cute

Baby carrots have recently been subject to controversy because, well, they don’t really look like the carrots that are pulled out of the soil, and much has been published about the process by which they are preserved. The lumpy “Bugs Bunny” types of natural carrots just aren’t as cute as those perky, bright and somewhat round baby carrots that look as if they were designed for little hands. Baby carrots do not grow to resemble the way they appear. A little history lesson as to the origin of these little guys: Mike Yurosek, a California carrot farmer, invented baby carrots in 1986 because most full-grown carrots were perceived to be too ugly to sell. In an attempt to find a second life for the ugly ones, Yurosek threw a few batches into an industrial green bean cutter that sliced them into uniform two-inch pieces. Next, he ran them through a potato peeler to smooth them out. The rest is, well, history.

Like virtually every type of fresh produce, baby carrots are subject to the same fate of deterioration in contrast to our obsession with beautifully-appearing produce. Baby carrots are dipped into a chlorine solution, and that is precisely where the controversy diverges. This solution is used to inhibit the growth of nasty microorganisms. There are consumers who avoid any chemically-enhanced product, but there are obviously consumers who place tremendous value on the safety of their food products. Baby carrots are dipped in chlorine and water solution, not soaked, as has been reported (Mercola, 2009). Consumers may also mistake a white residue on the carrots, but this is not chlorine residue. It is rather a sign that the carrots are drying out. Soaking these carrots in water will rehydrate them. However, chlorine is a known carcinogen, so in order to completely avoid the possibility of ingesting unwanted and unneeded chlorine, simply purchase regular carrots and rinse and peel them yourself. Sometimes safety comes before beauty.

Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP)

In an effort to keep produce from spoiling, a coating procedure such as Modified Atmospheric Packaging (MAP) is employed. According to the FDA,

“… [M]odified atmosphere packaging (MAP) … involves either actively or passively controlling or modifying the atmosphere surrounding the product within a package made of various types and/or combinations of films … Edible films may consist of four basic materials: lipids, resins, polysaccharides and proteins …  The most common plasticizer used to cast edible films is food-grade polyethylene glycol, which is used to reduce film brittleness … Gelatin is … extracted from the boiled crushed bones, connective tissues, organs and some intestines of animals such as domesticated cattle, chicken, and pigs.”

That sounds positively icky, yet the question inevitably arises, “But is it safe to eat”? According to the FDA, the use of these plasticizers may be a contributor in some food pathogen cases. This may help explain why fresh produce has managed to be the source of several outbreaks of food poisoning in the past several years.

“… [A]t extremely low O2 levels (that is, <1%), anaerobic respiration can occur, resulting in tissue destruction and the production of substances that contribute to off-flavors and off-odors, as well as the potential for growth of foodborne pathogens such as Clostridium botulinum.”

Beauty Without the Beast

As previously stated, collectively, we as American consumers really enjoy a vibrant presentation of our produce: colorful, well-shaped, and just darn pretty. Not only is the desire for attractive produce an overwhelming facet of our culture, the amount of discarded produce is staggering. The entrenched dependence on commercial farming has overwhelmingly crushed what was once the standard in farming: locally grown and distributed. It is logical to consider that the widespread use of preservatives in produce would be greatly diminished if the effort to decrease spoilage would be mitigated by purchasing locally grown products.