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What Is Wrong With Our Fruit?

Posted on 21st August 2016

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With every passing year, I become more disappointed with the fruit that I find in the shops. I cannot be the only one.

Doctors, nutritionists and government departments are constantly encouraging us to eat more fruit, because of the health benefits, but the world's fruit breeders, growers, buyers and distributors seem to be actively discouraging me from eating fruit. Many people who know me wrongly believe that I don't like fruit, because I would rather eat no fruit than eat bad fruit.

My complaints and criticisms apply most strongly to apples, which nowadays mostly taste like turnip, rather than apple. There was a time when getting a good and tasty apple was simply a question of buying the right variety (I liked Cox's Orange Pippin, and Russets), but now the choice of species in the shops doesn't seem to include apples with flavour.

I got an insight into why fruit (especially apples) have so little taste, many years ago. I used to live in Marden, in the middle of the Kentish fruit-growing area, and there was a yearly fruit show (the biggest and main fruit show in Kent), with prizes for the best fruit. One year I went to the show, and discovered that the fruit (mostly apples) are judged on size, colour, conformity, and even on the ability to withstand transport; everything except taste. No wonder our fruit tastes of nothing!

Another reason for tasteless fruit is that fruit has become an international business. Fruit is transported all around the world, spending months in refrigerated ships, with the result that some fruit is available all year round (and some people no longer even know when the season is for the fruit they are eating). Fruit which is to be carried in refrigerated ships is picked earlier (is more under-ripe), and it is this earlier harvesting, and to a lesser extent the direct effect of the refrigeration, that destroys the flavour of fruit. There are species of apple which are bred for keeping, where the full flavour doesn't develop until they have been stored for a few months, but instead growers, shippers and shops offer non-keeping varieties such as Red Delicious and Golden Delicious.

The harvesting of fruit too early has some very annoying side-effects. In the case of mangoes, avocados, and sometimes even nectarines and peaches, you can buy fruit which never actually gets ripe: it goes straight from rock-hard and tasteless, to rotten. With avocados, we generally buy two, just to be sure of getting one which is ripe and not rotten.

Recently there has been some discussion on social media about wax being added to apples and other fruit and vegetables. Wax is produced naturally by a number of fruit species (apples, plums, pears, etc.). Some growers and packers apply additional wax to some fruit and veg. to improve keeping, and to make the produce look more attractive to shoppers. Significant amounts of testing have been performed to assure consumers that the wax added is harmless, but this does not mean that the practice of adding the wax has been demonstrated to be safe: adding wax binds dirt and chemical pollutants like pesticides to the skin of the fruit, and makes it much harder to clean the fruit by washing. Additionally, what does not seem to have been tested is whether adding wax has any effect, positive or negative, on flavour, but I find it hard to believe that an extra coating of wax would not make fruit taste worse.

There is also irradiated fruit on the market, and some people are concerned about the effect this may have on flavour. The short answer is that there are not enough studies to determine whether flavour is effected by irradiation, but given that the scientific community now (after a long rear-guard action) admits that irradiation causes chemical changes to food, and that fruit is normally still alive when we buy it and eat it, which sterilisation by radiation changes to some degree, there is almost certainly a negative impact on flavour. Having said that, I think that most of us would choose irradiated fruit over mouldy fruit.

So what are we to do? Well, what I try to do is the following:

  1. Only eat fruit (especially apples) of varieties that you know, and know that you like,
  2. Eat fruit which hasn't been the victim of selective breeding by the factory-producers: pears, plums, apricots and tropical fruit;
  3. Eat fruit that is grown relatively locally (i.e. not shipped halfway around the world), which also means eating fruit only when it is in season where you live - this makes mangoes, my favourite fruit, problematic, as they are never grown locally;
  4. Buy from a seller who knows their fruit: knows how to choose it and care for it - this might be as simple as buying fruit at a different supermarket than where you get your other groceries;
  5. Learn how to keep/store fruit so that it gets ripe, not rotten: some fruit should not be kept with some other fruit, and most fruit should not be kept in the refrigerator;
  6. Eat the fruit when it is ready, rather than when it fits your schedule and meal plan.