From the moment a fruit or vegetable is harvested, a clock starts ticking.
Once a piece of produce has been cut from its plant, it’s also cut off from its source of nutrients. The ensuing supplychain—including postharvest handling, packaging, transportation, and storage—can only maintain the level of quality that fruit or vegetable had when it was picked. To delay thatquality actually dropping along theway (from the field to a consumer), it’s a race against time, atmospheric conditions, and more.
How long a “freshness” window lasts can dependon the type of produce. Potatoes, carrots, or oranges, for example, canpotentially last up to a month. Meanwhile, products like avocados,berries, or bananas could last shorter than a week.
But even within groups of the same produce,each batch can have a different harvest, transit, or storage experience thatcan cause shelf life to vary considerably.
● Temperature and humidity
● Harvesting methodology
● How mature the product is atharvest
● Gas concentrations in thesurrounding atmosphere
● Postharvest handling (like how theproducts are cooled or sanitized)
● Handling (cutting, washing,removing surface moisture) of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables
The process to get a fruit or vegetable fromthe field to a consumer’s home is one that requires a perfect storm of thingsgoing your way — harvest after harvest, and day after day of transportation andstorage. Even just one slip-up throughout a complex supply chain can meanthrowing out a whole batch of ruined produce.
Fruits and vegetables are living tissue—soit’s no wonder they have the highest wastage rates of all food. And consideringthe UN has estimated that almost half of all fruits and vegetablesproduced in the world are wasted annually, the stakes are high.
Luckily, technology can offset some of thosepotential pitfalls. The market has developed several tech products and servicesthat can help monitor freshness, maintain appropriate temperatures andatmospheric gasses, and improve overall shelf-life stability.
Two primary technologies in the space includecontrolled atmosphere (CA) storage and modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). CAtechnology helps control oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations in storage.MAP is a postharvest technology that can flush gas concentrations directlyinside the package.
Solutions have also evolved for the transitportion of the supply chain. One company, Hazel Technologies, has developed apackaging insert that uses controlled release of active ingredients to maintainfreshness. Depending on the active ingredients, the inserts can prevent moldand decay, neutralize fruits’ ripening hormone, and more. Hazel also offerstechnology designed to monitor temperature, humidity, ethylene, and otherconditions during transportation or storage.
Some researchers have also used spectroscopy (spectral imaging) to examinepotential ripening and rotting of fruits and vegetables from the inside. Havingaccess to this kind of information can help accurately estimate shelf life, aswell as pinpoint opportunities for where the supply chain could improve tomaintain freshness.
Technology has even expanded to the skin ofthe produce itself. Apeel, for example, has formed an edible“peel” for the surfaces of fruit that can help protect it from dryness oroxidation that can lead to spoilage. The technology actually mimics the“cuticle” layer of protection that all plants use to maintain their moisture
In India, a team of researchers has also developed an edible, protective coating thatcould potentially extend shelf life to almost two months. The coating is madefrom micro-algae extract and polysaccharides, and has been tested on severalproducts, including potatoes, tomatoes, green chiles, and strawberries.
Whether it’s a package of raspberries wiltingaway within a couple days, or an avocado being full of brown spots as soon it’sopened, we can all relate to the frustration of produce spoilage. But on themacro level, this problem is extensive, and leads to billions of dollars of waste each year.
Fruits and vegetables are inherently difficultto maintain, simply because of what they are: living tissue. Ensuring theydon’t rot on the way from the harvest field to the dinner table is a long,complex supply chain full of potential issues, like lack of temperaturecontrol, not enough carbon dioxide, or inadequate packaging.
Technology may not completely stop thatticking clock. But it can help slow it down. Maximizing the window of time inwhich produce is fresh enough for consumers to buy and eat certainly meanshappier customers. But it could also be an important step in reducing theoutsized waste of fruits and vegetables worldwide.
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