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    Soon Factories Will Peel Our Fruit So We Don't Have To

    Photo: Flickr/quinn.anya

    Peeling bananas is the worst, right? Researchers at the US Department of Agriculture agree with you, which is why they're working on new technological advances to let a factory do it for you.

    After winning the American Chemical Society's Kenneth A. Spencer Award for Outstanding Achievement in Food and Agriculture Chemistry Tuesday, the man who made it possible for McDonald's to sell apples in Happy Meals, announced he's got bigger challenges in mind: bananas and avocados.

    Attila Pavlath—presumably named for his ruthlessness in the war on natural fruit skins—made apples able to last for weeks without browning by treating them with vitamin C, allowing them to be sold in bags by Motts, Sunkist, and other fruit companies. 

    But, according to the ACS, Pavlath is done with apples and is moving on to two of the "great 21st century challenges in edible coating research and development."  

    Bananas (maybe you've heard of them?) are America's most popular fruit, outselling oranges and apples combined, and the number of avocados sold in the U.S. increased 42 percent between 2005 and 2011. But both are notorious for browning like, two seconds after they've been peeled. And everyone has had an avocado that was borderline impossible to peel or a banana that mysteriously wouldn't split until the top had been mashed. One day, those problems may be concerns of humankind's past.

    Though the idea seems ridiculous on its face (just buy an apple corer or watch the above YouTube video), pre-sliced fruits and vegetables are big business. The "ready to eat" fruit and vegetable industry—which includes pre made salads—has sales of more than $10 billion annually and account for 10 percent of all produce sales. More than 1,000 companies work in the "edible film" industry. Sales of the films alone, which can be made with carnauba wax (made from palm leaves), starch, beeswax, gluten, and whey, exceed $100 million a year. The National Institutes of Health have sponsored "browning evaluations" of ready-to-eat apples versus their less ready-to-eat counterparts.

    While we've mastered keeping apples and other fruits from browning, a coating that works on the fast-acting browning mechanisms of avocados and bananas has remained elusive. That's why you don't often see bananas and avocados in pre-packaged salads. 

    "Nature is a very good chemist," Pavlath said. "Cutting and peeling remove [a fruit's] natural protection, allowing deterioration and spoilage to begin. It's visible within minutes for foods like apples and bananas, but occurs without any outward sign for other fruits and vegetables."

    Such a good chemist, in fact, that humanity has yet to be able to improve on the banana peel or avocado skin, and not for lack of trying: Last year, Chinese researchers announced that a spray-on coating made from the shells of shrimp and crabs could keep bananas from turning overripe for up to 12 days. But you'd still have to peel them yourself. And several wax coatings for avocados have been developed, but they're only able to make the pre-peeled version last longer in the produce aisle. But even those have been disappointing: According to a 2000 study out of South Africa, of the 11 commercial coatings available at the time, most "did not perform as expected."

    The search continues.

    Topics: food, fruit, avocados, Bananas, chemistry

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