Finally, we have entered into the ‘Holiday Season.’ Those exciting few weeks when the world glistens with a twinkling sprinkling of icy magic, or – depending on your perspective (and number of children, we suppose) – when we step nervously into the Most Expensive Time of the Year. In culinary terms, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus are a curious transition between a final renunciation of the end of Fall pumpkin spice and the beginning of winter chocolate and peppermint. One flavor profile no longer on the menu is that a national treasure – the apple.
Reserved more for July 4th for use in that most American of dishes, the home-baked apple pie, apples have traditionally been a very popular fruit in the US, with sales coming in second only to those of the banana.(1) And, glancing through the records of human history, their popularity goes back a long way. According to US Apple, a non-profit resource for the apple growing industry, the fruit is believed to have originated in the Caucusus (now between the modern Black and Caspian Seas), with European interest in them peaking around the time of the Roman Empire before a precipitous decline.(2) In the West, the Italian Renaissance brought the humble fruit back en vogue and, of course, it was a staple fruit brought with the European settlers of the Americas. However, it wasn’t until 1625 that America’s first orchard was planted by William Blackstone in Massachusetts, a state that would later be home to the legendary Johnny Appleseed – real name, John Chapman – a missionary and itinerant nurseryman who is credited with having planted thousands of apple trees across the nation during his travels.(3) Appleseed would doubtless turn in his grave if he were to know of the contamination of orchards by lead-arsenate pesticides during the early years of the 20th century which we outlined in our earlier article, ‘Arsenic as the Protector of Apples.’ For the moment, that is a whole different story, but contamination of apples is a subject to which we will return shortly…
But before we do, we have time for a couple of interesting apple facts:
- Did you know that several common European languages take their words of apple from one of three distinct, and historically differentiated, ancient words? The English term and its German counterpart (‘Apfel’) stem from early Celtic languages. In Italian,‘mela’ stems from the Greek – ‘malum’ – which means melon but was also used for similarly shaped fruit. Following the adoption of Christianity in the time of the Roman Empire, the Latin ‘pomum’ became the basis for the French ‘pomme’, although the Spanish ‘manzana’ took a different Latin term – ‘matianum’ – as the basis of its own choice of noun. Fascinating!
- And did you also know that apple lovers are about to receive an early surprise this holiday season – and, for once, we’re not talking tech. More than twenty years in the making, a brand new variety of red apple is about to hit grocery store produce departments: the Cosmic Crisp.
Let’s find out more!
Sounds exotic but why ‘cosmic’ and why ‘crisp’?
The name was coined by researchers at the University of Washington State who cultivated the new fruit and, in a National Public Radio (NPR) interview on All Things Considered, project co-leader Kate Evans described the genesis of the name: ‘It’s an attractive apple – sort of a darkish red with yellow background – [that] got its name because of the white lenticels on the surface that looked a little bit like stars in the cosmos.’(4) Certainly that’s an alluring description but what exactly is this new item in the produce aisle? Twenty years in the cultivation, the apple is a hybrid of the popular (and, in our view, utterly delicious) Honeycrisp and the Enterprise, a less sweet variety which is the more robust of the two. With these ‘genetic ‘parents,’ the Cosmic Crisp is an ‘extremely crisp and juicy apple, and that’s really what hits you when you first bite into it – a good combination of sweetness and tartness. [Moreover] when you slice it or bite into it, it’s very slow to brown [and so] keeps its color.’(5)
And that’s not the only thing it keeps. According to an article by the BBC, the apple ‘maintains excellent eating quality in refrigerated storage – easily for 10 to 12 months.’(6) And this is the major advantage it has over its counterparts. According to research cited online by Food Renegade, regular apples may have been in cold storage for many months before being shipped to the grocery store. Once there, they have a shelf life of a few days to a few weeks and while they may look appealing, their nutrient profile is less than optimal. In fact, ‘antioxidant activity in apples gradually drops off after three months of storage in the cold’ meaning that fruits stored longer will contain almost no polyphenols (antioxidants) which are helpful in fighting cancer.(7)
But is the inferior nutrition the only problem with cold stored apples? According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the answer is yes. Fruit held in storage is treated with 1-methylcyclopropene, a competitive inhibitor that binds to ethylene receptors thereby blocking the effects of the gas. Why is this important? Ethylene is a fruit ripener and, when released into a storage environment, can cause premature ripening, yellowing, wilting, and rot. However, the treatment, branded as SmartFresh, is not considered to be detrimental to human health.
Pesticides, at the point of cultivation, however, are. As apple lovers of the late 1980s may recall, a national scare was provoked by a “60 Minutes” segment in which the pesticide alar was claimed to be linked to pediatric cancer. In a panicked move, apples and apple products were removed from produce aisles, school cafeterias, and home pantries, and actor Meryl Steep went to both Capitol Hill and the daytime TV circuit to lobby, ultimately successfully, for the ban of alar. Pesticides on fruit, it seems, have long been regarded with overt ‘moral offensiveness,’ as noted by the Consumers Union in a contemporary interview published in the Chicago Tribune.(8)
And the Cosmic Crisp may be an effective vehicle in the reduction of such chemicals both in the growing of apples and in their storage. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit dedicated to consumer education around food safety and pesticide use, it is a little known fact that ‘most conventionally grown apples are drenched in diphenylamine, an antioxidant chemical treatment used to prevent the skin of apples in cold storage from developing brown or black patches known as “storage scald.”’(9) Although growers here at home argue that the chemical is not unsafe, the importation of fruit treated by diphenylamine has been restricted in Europe since 2014. Why? European researchers contend that residues of the chemical may lead to the formation of nitrosamines, which have been demonstrated to cause cancer in rats, and higher incidences of stomach and esophageal cancers have been found in consumers exposed to some types of food-borne nitrosamines.(10) In a National Institutes of Health report, ‘Report on Carcinogens, Fourteenth Edition,’ one specific nitrosamine compound, N-Nitrosodimethylamine, was categorized as ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen’ leading to ‘dose-related associations, some statistically significant, between estimated N‑nitrosodimethylamine intake and oropharyngeal cancer, stomach cancer, esophageal cancer, or colorectal cancer.’(11) Suddenly an apple that requires fewer applications of pesticides, insecticides, or other toxic products starts to look like a far superior option.
However, this is not to say that there are no problems associated with the production of this new variety of fruit – just ask Glen Donald, CEO of now insolvent agricultural start-up, Phytelligence. Having won more than $23 million in investor funding, the company ‘grew and sold plants using a system based on technology developed by Washington State University professor Dr. Amit Dhingra that used a nutritious gel to help fruit trees like apples, cherries and pears mature faster with higher survival rates.’(12) However, Phytelligence allegedly found itself blocked by the university from fully commercializing the apple, and a counter lawsuit saw the university claiming that the start-up ‘improperly sold thousands of Cosmic Crisp trees to a grower.’(13) The suits went against Phytelligence and the company ultimately filed a petition to liquidate assets and enter into receivership.
Moreover, there are a host of practical ‘challenges’ associated with the new apple, so let’s go back to the researchers at the University of Washington State who are still examining ways in which to combat issues such as ‘blind wood’ – a condition where the tree grows too rapidly and branches appear without buds or spores.
In essence these branches are unable to bear fruit and represent a financial loss to growers. Also true is that fact that orchards planted with Cosmic Crisp require very specific management and it is incumbent upon growers to get up to speed with SOPs regarding both the trees and the fruit.(14) Assessing ripeness, for instance, is different with the Cosmic Crisp as it matures slowly and the best way to gauge sweetness is the use of an iodine solution to measure the starch to sugar ratio.
And that’s before the cost of planting is even taken into the equation. The investment by growers runs to approximately $35,000 per acre which is a significant out of pocket expense, given that widespread consumer acceptance has not yet been proven. But according to an article published online by Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), it’s a risk that some businesses feel is worth taking: ‘“It’s a lot of money! [But the] excitement for the apple is proven by how many people are willing to invest that kind of money in something that the public hasn’t gotten to eat yet.”’(15) With that said, the price tag of cultivating the Cosmic Crisp is not altogether surprising given that the cost of development was roughly $10 million, payable by the University of Washington State, which has a patent on the tree and will also recoup its investment via each box of fruit sold. For the sake of the investors, we can only hope that popularity surges.
Elsewhere in pomology news (yes, that is a word), the picture is not looking so rosy. In October this year, a Michigan produce company, North Bay Produce, was forced to recall around 2,300 cases of apples that may have been contaminated by listeria. The recall affected a broad range of apple varieties including Red Delicious, Jonamac, Fuji, McIntosh, and our perennial favorite the Honeycrisp and, although there are no reports to date of consumers having succumbed to the illness, listeria remains a very serious condition that affects already vulnerable sectors of the population. As we’ve detailed in previous articles, pregnant women, children, seniors, and those who are immunocompromised are at significant risk of illness or even death when encountering this pathogen.
Sadly, this Michigan case is just one more incident of fruit contamination to endanger the public.
Last year in Australia, Nanna’s Pies which, the package claims, are ‘made with real fruit and care’ were subject to an urgent recall due to the possible risk of broken glass in the product. Evincing a distinct lack of care in manufacture, the pies were potentially contaminated due to an equipment failure, and we have to wonder about the state of the company’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points protocol (HACCP) that allowed the ‘extra ingredients’ to slip by without detection.(16) And closer to home, the childhood favorite, the caramel apple, was found to be the cause of a listeria outbreak that sent 34 consumers to the hospital. Interestingly in this case, the caramel – quickly targeted as the villain of the piece – turned out to be completely innocent, the problem having stemmed from the fruit itself. Per an article in Food Safety News, ‘State and federal investigators found Listeria monocytogenes on polishing brushes, drying brushes, a packing line drain, inside a wood bin and on an automatic packing line. In addition the inspectors “observed direct food contact areas of packaging equipment […] constructed and/or maintained in a manner that they cannot be properly cleaned.” Subsequent research revealed the Listeria monocytogenes on the apples’ skins got pushed into their flesh when the sticks were inserted into them as part of the caramel apple production process. The caramel coating, in turn, sealed apple juice in between the skin and coating, providing a microenvironment where the Listeria could grow undisturbed.’(17)
But perhaps contamination is limited to whole fruit and processed apple beverages are more safe to consume? Not so fast!
According to a warning issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2015, E. coli O157 was found to be present in some unpasteurized cider and fresh pressed juices. The problem with such products is that the heat used for pasteurization will normally kill off pathogens such as E. coli but without that treatment, bacteria can thrive. Odwalla, a manufacturer which claims it ‘would never serve our customers anything we wouldn’t gulp down ourselves,’ was once identified as the source of an E. coli outbreak that left 1 consumer dead and a further 65 sickened by the unpasteurized apple beverage.(18) Significantly, FDA inspectors ‘did find numerous violations of health and safety codes at the Odwalla manufacturing plant, including lack of proper sanitizing procedures and poor employee hygiene. The FDA also found that the plant accepted decayed fruit from suppliers,’ according to another report in Food Safety News.(19) We have to assume that the company is now living up to its own marketing claims…
So where does this leave us as consumers? Hopefully in a more informed position when it comes to our apple selection at least. Cosmic Crisps are set to appear in grocery stores this month and it will be interesting to follow their rate of uptake and consumer acceptance. A lot rides on this, after all, not only for growers and the University of Washington State but also for apple lovers. However it’s worth remembering that, although these fruits may be one of the most popular, they are certainly not the most innocent. Listed as one of the EWG’s ‘Dirty Dozen, alongside strawberries, kale, grapes, and cherries, among others, apples are subject to contamination from myriad sources. So does that mean that shoppers should avoid them? We hope not as many of the routes of pathogen transmission, for instance, are clearly avoidable both at the point of harvest, during storage, and at the consumer level. Excellent producer practices and commonsensical good food hygiene will go a long way to mitigating most health concerns in the consumption of this age-old food staple.
However, when it comes to the use of chemicals such as insecticides and pesticides, the path forward is not so clear. Organic produce is clearly considered to be a superior choice in terms of personal nutrition and the health of the environment, but is not yet realistic to hope that everyone will be able to afford – or even have access to – this increasingly rarified consumable. However, the cultivation of the Cosmic Crisp does hold out a hope that future varieties of fruits will naturally require a decreased chemical use to protect and preserve crops. After all, the impact of toxic products utilized in our current agricultural practices has been shown to be detrimental on both a human health and environmental level. So for the sake of future generations of growers – and indeed of all those who would like to live in a less contaminated world – it might be wise to reflect on the words of Joni Mitchell in her 1970 hit, Big Yellow Taxi:
‘Hey farmer farmer
Put away the DDT
I don’t care about spots on my apples
Leave me the birds and the bees
Maybe, Joni, the Cosmic Crisp is enabling farmers to move in a more organic direction, just one step closer to respecting your plea…
Cosmic Crisp: are you excited to try it? Could it challenge your allegiance to another apple variety? Or do you prefer another fruit altogether? We’d love to know your thoughts.