Last fall I had this brilliant idea that I should profile an Arctic Apple grower for my Farming in Focus series. I think people would be interested to see the new GMO apples growing on real trees and being harvested by real farmers – it would make for fresh, accurate GMO imagery to combat the ludicrous syringe stuck in a tomato image that seems to show up in every article about GMOs. I got super pumped about my idea and shot off an email to Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), the creators of the Arctic Apple. I got an email back right away from Joel Brooks, OSF’s Marketing Communications Specialist, saying that it was a great idea but unfortunately since the apples were only just approved this year, the first commercial orchards aren’t mature enough to produce fruit yet. Brooks did offer, though, that they have a limited supply of apples this year off their test trials (where filming is not allowed) and would I like a sample to try? Of course I would, yes, please!!
A few months later a box of eight Arctic Golden Apples arrived on my front door and I don’t think my kids quite understood why I was so excited about a box of apples. For a while I just looked at them in awe and was a bit paralyzed about how to make the most of these eight apples. So I posted about it on Facebook and got some good ideas and a lot of general excitement from readers!
I was tempted to put them all into a delicious GMO apple pie, but that wouldn’t show off the true benefits of the Arctic Apple. I wanted to demonstrate and test the traits that set these apples apart from traditional Golden Delicious apples. Using RNAi (RNA interference, one of the hottest new applications of biotechnology for which Andrew Fire and Craig Mello won the 2006 Nobel Prize) scientists at OSF have essentially “turned down” the browning effect in apples. You know when you slice up an apple for your toddler and they proceed to eat three bites and then let the remainder sit on the plate for an hour and ultimately refuse to eat it because it’s brown and “icky?” Not the case with Arctic Apples. This minor tweak using the apple’s own genes is revolutionary for a number of reasons: 1. it will significantly cut down on food waste (around 40 percent of apples are currently wasted due to un-appetizing but fully aesthetic browning) and 2. greater convenience will hopefully encourage more consumers to eat fresh fruit.
My kids love apples, and now that they’re both school-aged, I’m faced with packing them a healthy lunch and snack every weekday. In the winter especially, it’s tricky to find fresh fruit to send with them to school. I want to send apples because they have a long cold-storage shelf life, but the options are to send the whole thing and know that a good portion of it will end up in the trash (plus with loose teeth it’s hard to take a bite out of a whole apple), slice it up and risk them not eating it at all because it gets brown, soak the slices in lemon juice which my kids routinely reject, buy pre-packaged slices that are expensive and that my kids also think taste weird, or send apple sauce that has admittedly less fiber and is messy. What if you had apples you could slice up on Sunday that would stay fresh in the fridge all week and you could dole out a few slices a day in lunches? Convenient, frugal, waste-free and good for you! Sign me up.
Testing the Apples
I did a few tests to demonstrate and test the non-browning trait. First I went to the store and bought a bunch of conventional Golden Delicious apples. Because in order to truly do a side-by-side comparison on taste and appearance, you have to compare apples to … well… apples. First I sliced both apples and put them in their respective bowls to observe. I took care to
slice the Arctic Golden first so as not to contaminate it with PPO (polyphenol oxidase, the enzyme that causes browning and which there is less of in Arctic Apples) from the conventional apple.
I started this experiment at 12:15. It was hard keeping my kids’ hands (and mine) out of the bowls, so we left the house and came back to observe the appearance at 5:15.
As you can see, there are considerably fewer slices in the second picture because … children. But you can also clearly see the Arctic Golden is visibly less brown. I’ll be honest, though, I wasn’t super wowed. Not because the Arctic Golden browned, it didn’t really, but because the conventional Golden didn’t brown as much as I thought it would and it’s not as striking as I’d hoped. I emailed Brooks at OSF to see what was up with that. I hypothesized that maybe the reason they chose the Golden variety as the first variety was because they inherently don’t brown as much? He told me that’s not the case. “The thing is, the speed and overall amount of browning can vary quite a bit,” Brooks said, “Not just by variety, but even among apples of the same variety for a number of potential reasons. Even the exact same apple would brown at different speeds in areas with different temperature, humidity, sunlight, etc. Golden Delicious isn’t one of the faster browning varieties (though it certainly can be dramatic, as shown in our timelapse), but it is one of the quickest to show bruising, especially because of its yellow skin.” He recommended I give the Arctic and conventional apples a good smack on the counter and see which fares better, but unfortunately by the time I got around to emailing him, we’d already eaten all the apples. So, something to test next time! He also told me that the reason they chose Goldens to start with is because, “it’s a great tasting variety with supply-chain issues that the nonbrowning trait can help address.” Because the light skin bruises so easily, it’s a harder apple to get from farm to market without damage.
My next experiment was what I call the lunch box taste test experiment. I went to the store and bought some pre-sliced, commercially available apples with citric acid to prevent browning. I put a few in a labeled ziplock bag in a lunch box with a cooler pack. I also sliced up a conventional Golden apple and soaked the slices in a bowl of cold water with lemon juice before putting the drained slices in a ziplock bag in the lunch box. Last, I sliced up an Arctic Golden and put those slices in a third ziplock in the lunch box. Then we loaded up the car and took the lunch box with us on a hike.
After the hike we pulled out the apples for a snack. I had both my parents and both my kids do a blind taste test of the three options, and then asked them to do the same for me (closed my eyes, they gave me three slices one by one and I reported which one tasted the best.) All five of us unanimously chose the Arctic Golden slices as having the best taste. I could taste the lemon apples (yuck, no wonder my kids won’t eat those) and the store-bought ones hardly tasted like apples anymore. But the Arctic Goldens tasted super fresh and crispy and weren’t brown. Conclusion: send Arctic slices in the lunch box. Which is what I did with many of
the remaining apples. We also just straight up ate a few of them plain because they were really tasty and I wanted to evaluate the apple in its pure form. When I got down to just three apples, I went ahead and made that GMO apple pie (mixed with some conventional apples as well.) It was delicious, but as I’m not much of a pastry chef, I didn’t take a picture of it because my crust didn’t turn out picture-worthy. 🙂
More than anything else, the GMO apples mark an important and necessary advance in the biotechnology arena from products with farmer benefits that non-farmer consumers may not really understand to products with beneficial traits specifically designed for consumers. Not only do the apples appeal to kids, but they also appeal to adults who care about reducing food waste. I asked Brooks what role OSF (and maker of the non-browning Innate potato, Simplot) play in the biotechnology conversation. “We see these [products] as signs of a positive shift for biotech crops and public perceptions,” Brooks said. “It’s much easier for consumers to appreciate a new technology when they can witness the benefits firsthand. Products like Arctic apples and Innate potatoes do just that, while also offering value throughout the rest of the supply-chain. And, we feel that our commitment to transparency and open communications is also symbolic of a trend towards improving communications between agricultural innovators/producers and the general public.”
If you take it even one step further, think about the potential of this technology for future products. I know it takes a long time (like 10 years) for a new biotechnology product to get to the market, but I can hardly contain my excitement about the potential of a nonbrowning avocado. I have no reason to believe that OSF is working on that, but it seems like such an obvious application of the technology, so I had to ask. As expected, Brooks wouldn’t say, but he did say this, “We do have other biotech-enhanced crops in the works besides nonbrowning apples, including those with consumer-oriented traits (such as other nonbrowning fruits) and also some with agronomic benefits. We are playing some of those cards somewhat close to the chest until we have more to share, though!” I’m keeping my hopes up.
I can’t wait until I can try more apples, but others have already done some cool experiments. This New York Times article shows a cool test of Arctic Apples in a smoothie (the smoothie doesn’t turn brown in the fridge!) and what happens when you bash the apples around in a backpack all day (they don’t bruise) and this guy tested how applesauce looks using conventional versus Arctic apples.
In the meantime, the first roll-out of the Arctic Apple seems to be going well. “Our first true test markets will be in fall 2016,” Brooks said, “But the reception we received in response to samples we provided at tradeshows or mailed out was phenomenal! Lots of positive blog posts and social media messages, plus a few strong articles in mainstream media.” OSF recently applied for US approval of their next nonbrowning variety, Arctic Fuji, and they’ll also be seeking approval in Canada. The next variety in the pipeline is Arctic Gala, with plenty of other Arctic varieties on the horizon.
Stay tuned for my next review as I’ve just received a bag of Innate potatoes!!