by Delphine Van Roosebeke
The days of throwing your half-eaten apple away because it turned brown are over. Shiny non-browning apples are about to hit the consumer market in a few months. And this time, it’s not a fairy tale. Read on.
In 1812, the German Grimm Brothers created the shiny red apple in Snow White, featuring it as the symbol of evil given to Snow White by the witch on behalf of the jealous queen. The story was told to children to teach them not to trust strangers. Two hundred years later, it is the shiny green Arctic® Apple that brings people together to tell stories. This time, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., a Canadian agriculture biotech company that creates new varieties of apples, has replaced the jealous queen. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t get poisoned as Snow White did, but you may be surprised by sliced apples that won’t brown for two weeks.
What are non-browning apples?
No matter how you slice, bruise or bite your apple, every apple turns brown eventually. When the apple’s flesh is cut, the oxygen in the air interacts with chemicals in the flesh of the apple. An enzyme called polyphenol oxidase, or PPO, makes melanin, an iron-containing compound that gives apple cells a brown tinge. The same type of ‘oxidative’ browning happens in the browning of tea, coffee and mushrooms. Within five minutes of slicing, browning can alter an apple’s taste and make it less aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn’t mean the apple is old or rotten.
To prevent this oxidative browning, Okanagan developed proprietary technologies to engineer genetically modified (GM) apples. The apples, called Arctic® Apples, produce reduced amounts of PPO. To achieve this, small gene fragments, called silencing RNAs, were injected into the apple seeds using bacteria. Such an insertion with gene fragments is a red flag for the apple cell, as it resembles the first step of viral attack. As a response, it chops up every sequence of DNA that looks like the suspicious fragment, and thus the PPO gene gets decimated. Because the PPO production is reduced to less than 10% compared to regular apples, the Arctic® Apple, even when sliced, will stay clear of browning for about two weeks. That’s roughly the same extended life span as apple slices from McDonald’s and Burger King, which use lemon juice and calcium ascorbate to prevent browning. Indeed, lemon juice and calcium ascorbate have a similar cosmetic effect to the silencing fragments inserted into the Arctic® Apples.
Why do we need non-browning apples?
Is the world waiting for a non-browning apple or is this just another ‘we-can, so-we-do-it’ product that eventually may threaten the ecosystem or our bodies? Well, according to Okanagan, very few fresh-cut apples are available on fruit plates, in salads, in cafeterias, or on airplanes, primarily due to the browning issue. Anti-browning treatments are costly and often add an off-taste, the company says. But these treatments are not needed for Arctic® Apples, which is why Okanagan hopes to get their apples available in more places. Consumer research has suggested that apple products, such as bagged apple slices, are the number one produce item that customers would like to see more packaged versions of. Since apple slices are arguably easier to eat than whole fruits, this innovation could propel apple sales. Indeed, the simple convenience of baby carrots doubled carrot consumption, and Okanagan is endeavoring to achieve the same results with apples.
Another argument for bringing engineered non-browning apples to the consumer market is the reduction of food waste. According to the company, apples are among the most wasted foods on the planet, with around 30 to 40 percent of the apples produced never being consumed because of superficial bruising and browning. Given that 52 percent of fresh produce goes to waste in the U.S. alone, consumption of non-browning apples, such as the Artic® Apple, may be one small step in the right direction to shrink this enormous mountain of food waste.
When will you be able to eat them?
Non-browning apples have gotten the green light to get on the market, as both the USDA and FDA approved Arctic® Apples for consumption. According to Okanagan, the first commercial Arctic® Apple orchards were planted in 2015, but it takes a few years for newly-planted apple trees to produce much fruit. They expect small test market quantities from the 2016 harvest, followed by a gradual commercial launch starting in 2017 with increasing availability each year thereafter. The first two varieties that will be available to consumers will be the Arctic® Granny and the Arctic® Golden. Currently, Arctic® Fuji is next in line with others planned to follow!
Although Neil Carter, the president and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, has expressed in the New York Times that the apples will be labeled as Arctic®, they will not explicitly label their apples as GMO. Unlike other genetically engineered crops, Arctic® Apples do not contain foreign DNA but silencing RNAs to reduce the expression of the PPO gene. Therefore, Arctic® Apples are not effectively captured by the current regulatory structure on GMO labeling. According to the company, the label Arctic® is sufficient to create transparency and let the consumers decide whether they want GM apples that don’t brown.
Food for thought on non-browning apples
Despite the millions of dollars and more than 20 years of research that went into the development of non-browning apples, not everyone welcomes the new shiny green Arctic® Apples from Canada. Since we already have hybrid ‘low browning’ varieties, such as the Cortland apple, and successful preservative treatments, some people wonder whether we really need a genetically engineered apple that doesn’t brown. In fact, with the advent of the non-browning apple, the food industry has departed from the premise that GM foods are meant to increase productivity. Indeed, the Arctic® Apple is one of the few GM products that is developed to improve the product cosmetically, to match the media-driven image of a perfect apple rather than improving the crop’s yield or nutritional performance. However, despite the maintenance of a fresher look, the preservability of non-browning apples is similar to conventional apples as Arctic® Apples will eventually still brown due to the rotting process by bacteria and fungi.
Given that PPO is involved in the plant’s defense mechanism, it has been speculated that the mutation in non-browning apples could make the plant more susceptible to insect and microbial pest damage, thus increasing farmers’ reliance on pesticides. Although more pesticides might be needed to maintain productivity of the crops, if non-browning apples actually do reduce food waste, growing fewer acres of non-browning apples may be adequate to meet the market demand. Also, the primary market of the Arctic® Apple is sliced apples, which is a subset of all apples consumed. However, as sliced non-browning apples find their way into more products, demand could increase from, say, parents wanting to use these apples as a convenient and healthy snack in their picky eater’s lunch box. This may eventually drive the need for increased production. Given these market dynamics, the cost-benefit of non-browning apples for the society is elusive and it remains to be seen to what extent the Arctic® Apple puts a burden on the natural environment.
Delphine Van Roosebeke is a rising Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition graduate with a background in biochemical engineering. When she is not thinking about dark Belgian chocolate, she’s eating it! Delphine has a crush on nutrients and the magic they perform in our body, and loves to share her knowledge with anyone who wants to hear it in a fun and approachable way!