Why old apples can taste great

    You may not realize it, but some produce sold at your supermarket can be a year old.

    Published: May 28, 2015 12:00 PM

    It's tough to beat the yummy taste of field-fresh produce. However, science and storage techniques now allow some fruits and vegetables to be picked long in advance without any noticeable loss of taste and texture.

    While fresh picked is definitely a plus for highly perishable corn or peas, which lose their sweetness quickly, every crop is different. By cooling the temperature of the fruit swiftly after harvesting and using proper storage soon afterwards, growers can keep some varieties of potatoes and apples, for instance, looking and tasting good for as long as a year.

    How do they do it? While doing research for our recent supermarkets report, I contacted Brianna Shales of Stemilt Growers, a family-owned and operated company that grows, packs, and ships pears, cherries, peaches, and other fruits from Washington State and California. Shales knows apples inside and out, and explained the fascinating journey of the Fuji, a new favorite, from tree to table.

    Fuji's are a popular, sweet apple available all year round. Because of their high sugar content, they store well and taste as good from the tree as they do after being kept in cold storage for months.

    It starts with the tree

    Harvesting is done exclusively by hand, and apples are picked only during September and October. Conventional Fuji apples are placed directly in wood or plastic bins. Organic apples are placed in plastic (though there's no U.S. Department of Agriculture rule to do so).

    Choosing sweet, ripe fruit shouldn't be a mystery. Read "How to pick perfect produce."  

    From there, the quality-control team pulls apples selected at random from each bin, slices them in half and sprays an iodine solution on them, as the color of the iodine helps reveal the apple's starch-to-sugar ratio. Apples are selected from five different trees, but also from different bins after harvest. Other tests that are conducted before and right after harvest too. 

    There's a scientific reason for all the sampling. The analyses reveal whether the fruit needs to be packed and sent to market right away or if it has the staying power to withstand cold storage. Based on the sugar-to-starch ratio, apples are designated for short-, mid-, or long-term storage. To assure an adequate supply that will be ready for market throughout the year, the apples are picked at different maturity levels.

    Proper storage is critical

    The apples that are going to be stored go into a "cold room," a temperature-controlled, sealed room where temperature, humidity, and carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen levels are constantly monitored. The fruit must be cooled to a temperature that keeps it alive, but in a resting or hibernation stage. It's critical that the apples breathe (take in oxygen), but proper storage allows the growers to slow respiration and the process where starches in the fruit convert to sugars, which extends their life. The optimal storage temperature is just above freezing, at 33 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit. This step occurs within a day of harvest.

    Apples remain in the storage room and are packed on demand. Though Fuji apples can be stored for up to one year, other varieties won't keep that long.

    Once the room is open, it's a race against time. The job needs to be done as quickly as possible because reopening the room awakens the apples and resumes the "aging" process.

    Cleaning, waxing and packing

    The packing process begins with the fruit being gently transferred from the bins onto a packing line, which consists of mechanical equipment that washes the fruit with a food-grade soap to remove field debris. Conventional apples are subsequently sprayed with a food-grade wax to reduce dehydration, enhance firmness retention, and to slow the respiration rate. Organic apples, which go on their own packing line, are not waxed since consumers prefer them not to be. Manual sorting also takes place at this stage to remove obvious culls, which are sent to processors (for juice, sauce, and other uses) or for composting, depending on quality.

    Next comes the sorting. On the line, a series of high-speed cameras rapidly photographs the apples as each one moves along. The images are analyzed by computer, the fruit is stickered to identify their variety at retail, and the fruit is then routed for automatic or hand-packaging based on size, color, quality, shape, internal characteristics (sugar content), and any marks or bruising. 

    The apples are then packed in bags, clamshells, or onto trays. From there, the fruit goes into a finished carton stamped with the variety, grade, size, grower number and lot, pack date, and item numbers. The cartons sit on refrigerated racks until they are loaded onto a refrigerated truck, and sent to their destination—either a retailer or distribution center.

    The entire "line" process takes about 10 minutes from bin dump to packed box. A single packing can accommodate an average of 52,000 pounds of apples per hour.

    Apples deemed unsuitable for storage are packed and shipped immediately after harvest.

    If the destination is a retailer on the West Coast, the trip from the orchard to the retailer or distribution center takes one to three days.

    If the apples are earmarked for a grocery store, say, in nearby Seattle, the trip could just a couple of hours.

    The truck trip to the East Coast typically takes five days.

    From the store to your refrigerator

    Apples are stored at retail in backroom refrigerators until they're ready for display on shelves. If the shipment is sent to a distribution center, the apples will remain there under refrigeration for a day or two. Once they're put on the shelf, and occasionally kept off of refrigeration, they'll keep for a day or two before quality begins to decline.

    At home, apples are best kept refrigerated in the crisper draw with cool temperatures and high humidity.

    If you want access to fresh-picked local produce as well as meat, poultry, eggs, honey, maple syrup, and more, your first choice should be a farmers market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began publishing a National Directory of Farmers Markets back in 1994, and every year since 2008, the department has conducted a comprehensive update. In two decades, the number of markets has more than quadrupled, from 1,755 to 8,268, and every year has shown an increase over the preceding one.

    —Tod Marks






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