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An edible solution to extend produce’s shelf life – from the New York Times

Longer lasting bananans.

Longer lasting bananas

By Stephanie Strom

What if a Florida tomato could be left on the vine long enough to turn red and fully develop its flavor — and still be ripe and juicy when it arrived at a grocery store in New York days later?

That is precisely the promise of a start-up here in Southern California, Apeel Sciences, that aims to make obsolete the gas, wax and other tricks growers use to keep fruits and vegetables fresh over time.

Using leaves, stems, banana peels and other fresh plant materials left behind after fruits and vegetables are picked or processed, Apeel has developed a method for creating imperceptible, edible barriers that the company says can extend the life of produce like green beans and berries by as much as five times. Apeel can even deliver a day-of-the-week bunch of bananas, each ripening on a different day.

An Apeel product already has been used to stretch the shelf life of cassava in Africa.

“It takes 30 days to get blueberries grown in Chile to market in the United States, which means they have to be picked before they’re ripe and shipped under heavy refrigeration,” said James Rogers, the founder and chief executive of Apeel. “We can change that.”

If the product performs as advertised, it could bring sweeping changes to the produce industry and grocery aisles. It could reduce food waste and the use of pesticides and increase the varieties of fruits and vegetables available.

If the product performs as advertised, it could bring sweeping changes to the produce industry and grocery aisles. It could reduce food waste and the use of pesticides and increase the varieties of fruits and vegetables available.

But the company’s product is still largely untested at a commercial level, and it faces several potential hurdles beyond effectiveness. Consumers may be wary of a new coating on fresh food, for example, and growers may decide it adds too much cost.

“The socioeconomic factors are as important as these technologies themselves,” said Christopher B. Watkins, a professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.

Americans have greater access than ever to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables year-round. That abundance can come at the expense of taste, as plants are chosen for their ability to withstand time and transportation, not necessarily for their flavor. And yet an enormous amount of what’s produced still rots before it can be shipped.

Another effort to alter that trade-off is SmartFresh, a product developed with Professor Watkins’s research that keeps apples from ripening too quickly in storage.

Apeel’s products, sold under the brand names Edipeel and Invisipeel, take plant materials and extract all liquids from them to produce tiny pellets. The company then uses molecules from those pellets to control the rate of water and gases that go in and out of produce, thus slowing down the rate of decay.

The version of Apeel for avocados, for example, creates a barrier that effectively fools anthracnose, a fungus that exploits tiny cracks that develop in the fruit’s skin when it begins to shrivel. Anthracnose extends a little leg through those cracks and into the fruit itself, creating the ugly brown spots that are such a nasty surprise when an avocado is opened.

Edipeel can stave off anthracnose by up to 30 days longer than existing techniques for combating the fungus. “It basically sees a different molecule than it’s used to seeing and moves on,” Mr. Rogers said.

Invisipeel can be applied while crops are still in the field. Edipeel can be applied after a harvest; crops can be coated while on a conveyor belt or dipped in the solution.

So far, the products are derived primarily from the remains of produce that has been certified organic, like grape skins left over from wine production and stems left behind after broccoli is harvested. They can be easily washed away with water.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved Edipeel as “generally recognized as safe,” a status that means a product is safe to eat and good for sale.

Some big venture capital firms are now placing bets on Apeel. Andreessen Horowitz and DBL Partners recently led a round of $33 million investment in the company that was announced Tuesday. It has raised $40 million in total.

Apeel has just begun sales of its products and said it was starting negotiations with produce companies that together account for some $6 billion in sales, according to a presentation made to potential investors.

Vijay Pande, who leads Andreessen Horowitz’s $200 million bio fund, said Apeel’s appeal was the many different issues it could tackle, from reducing a company’s carbon footprint to increasing the diversity of fruits and vegetables available.

“There are one or two first markets to go after and demonstrate impact, but where you go from there with this company is extremely broad,” Mr. Pande said.

He said Apeel could, for instance, increase yields by reducing losses at the harvest level, which would translate into lower prices for consumers. It could reduce agriculture’s environmental impact by allowing growers to ship products with an Edipeel barrier at higher temperatures. And before harvest, an Edipeel barrier could repel pests and fungi and thus reduce the use of pesticides.

And then there is the impact on wasted food.

“The answer to feeding the growing world population isn’t just to grow more food, it’s to preserve more of what we already grow and make optimal use of the resources we already have,” said Ira Ehrenpreis, a managing partner at DBL.

Apeel came into being when Mr. Rogers was a doctoral student in materials science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He began to wonder whether the same processes he was studying to develop coatings that could be used to produce inexpensive plastic solar cells might also be applied to extend the life of produce.

He then drafted Jenny Du, a fellow grad student who had studied the synthesis and application of inorganic nanostructured films among other things, and the two of them began working in his garage to develop Edipeel.

In 2012, the concept won $10,000 in the UCSB New Venture Competition, and then Mr. Rogers received a $100,000 award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was interested in how the idea might help small farmers in Africa.

The foundation has used the product on the cassava root, an important source of calories in the African diet and thus is grown widely by small farmers there. Cassava root also can be processed into starch for use in commercial food preparation.

Once plucked from the ground, however, the roots deteriorate rapidly, making it virtually impossible for small farmers to exploit the crop commercially.

“If not consumed or processed in 24 to 48 hours, you lose significant amounts,” said Rob Horsch, who leads the agricultural research and development team at the Gates Foundation. “That makes it hard to generate any income from what’s produced, and a lot of it goes to waste.”

Edipeel more than doubled the shelf life of cassava, helping the root retain starch long enough to get it to a processing plant. According to an analysis by Apeel, use of its Edipeel product will create $1 billion in the market value of cassava in Nigeria alone.

“Farmers who used the product during trials in Africa are now clamoring for it,” Mr. Rogers said.

Edipeel is also being tested by Jay Ruskey, the proprietor of Good Land Organics in Goleta, Calif.

Mr. Ruskey grows finger limes, which produce a citrus “caviar” prized by chefs and bartenders. The limes, which look rather like gherkins, are good for two weeks at the most, making broad distribution almost impossible.

“Most people do not understand how much is applied to fruits and vegetables to keep them looking good — there’s a lot of wax out there,” Mr. Ruskey said. “It’s gotten to the point that if you have iced tea with us, we no longer give you a lemon slice because of the wax on it.”

The barrier Apeel has created for Good Land almost doubles the viability of the limes at this point, and Mr. Ruskey is now testing the application process and shelf life in the market.

“So far,” he said, “it looks very promising.”

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