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A conventional pumpkin beside an Apeel pumpkin.
James Martin/CNET

Apeel's longer-lasting fruit means fewer trips to the grocery store

How a newly minted unicorn, with investors like Oprah and Katy Perry, is making better produce through chemistry.

I started stocking up on dry goods -- pasta, rice and beans -- in late January. In February, I began amassing toilet paper -- not a crazy amount, just a few extra rolls -- after reading that it was being traded like currency in Hong Kong. Now, in May, my family is sitting on a modest stockpile of coffee, mac and cheese and frozen pizza. But every week, I'm pulling on my latex gloves, securing my mask and venturing to the germ-filled grocery store. The primary objective: replenish our supply of fruits and vegetables.

But what if I could just stay home instead? What if the apples and avocados kept as long as the bread? What if I could buy produce once a month instead of once a week?

If you're lucky enough to live near a Kroger's -- the nation's largest grocery chain, with more than 1,000 stores -- that's been possible since last September, when the retailer began selling avocados protected by an added coating of plant-based material. This extra layer of peel, if you will, allows these super avocados to last for a month or more -- two to three times longer than the standard variety.

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Avocados that could last a month or more.

James Martin/CNET

Apeel, the California-based company that's developed a line of edible armor for all kinds of produce, has plenty more in its pipeline. Its formulations help apples keep for 30 days. Blueberries can hang on for a full month. Limes remain intact for seven weeks

This not only helps extend shelf life, it opens up new options for distribution. In the US, food travels 2,000 miles, on average, from the farm where it's grown to a grocery store shelf. Because Apeel's asparagus has twice the lifespan of standard-issue stalks, it can be shipped by sea rather than air -- an equation-changing difference in terms of both cost and emissions.

At a time when every trip outside comes with risks, the longevity of our food -- and especially our produce -- has never been more important. Fewer trips to the store reduces the risk of picking up -- or spreading -- any sort of germs, which could mean the difference between getting sick and staying well. And as the COVID-19 pandemic offers us a preview of a future that's increasingly likely to be marked by climate change and, quite possibly, food shortages, Apeel wants its produce to be part of the solution.

Beyond grocery shoppers and environmentalists, investors are taking notice, too: Today, the company is announcing a fresh influx of financing that adds Oprah Winfrey and Katy Perry to its roster of investors. The new $250 million round brings Apeel's total valuation to $1 billion, according to the company.

A visit to the Time Machine

On a sunny Friday last October, CNET photographer James Martin and I visited Apeel's headquarters in Goleta, California. The office, which housed about 150 employees before the pandemic, is located in a nondescript strip mall about 10 miles west of downtown Santa Barbara. Our tour guide was Dr. Jenny Du, the company's first employee in 2013 and its current vice president of operations.

After donning heavy duty, navy blue lab coats -- mine had the name "Bro Namath" on the back -- our first stop was a room full of metal shelves that held a variety of fruits and vegetables in various states of decay. Apeel has developed a compelling way to demonstrate the impact of its technology -- a legion of home-built time-lapse photography stations, nicknamed the "Time Machine."

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In the Time Machine.

James Martin/CNET

On each shelf sat an assortment of cucumbers, avocados, lemons and apples -- some in better shape than others. A few Apeel avocados laid beside a couple of conventional ones. A camera, mounted on the top shelf, hovered over them. It clicked quietly and glided down a track before stopping above lemons.

The Time Machine has taken more than 2.5 million pictures since coming online in 2014. Apeel's R&D group runs the images through software -- including Google's TensorFlow machine learning application -- to observe the size and color change of each fruit and vegetable. Eventually the photographs are digitally stitched together to create a video like this one.

In the video, two normal avocados sit beside two of Apeel's. As the days go by, the conventional avocados begin to deteriorate. On day 10, they look ripe -- as you would expect. On day 16, significant blemishes appear on one of them. By day 18, they're both a total mess and on day 21, the one on the left finally collapses into itself.

Meanwhile, the Apeel avocados sit unperturbed, seemingly frozen in time. On day 30, as the video abruptly ends, they appear ripe -- but not perilously so. It's a remarkable spectacle.

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The comparisons are impressive.

James Martin/CNET

The life of a fruit: Nasty, brutish and short

Fruit is the only type of food that's universally beloved in my household. Bananas, cucumbers, raspberries, strawberries and blueberries are high-priority items for every trip to the grocery store. While adults appreciate the nutritional value, kids care only about their sweetness -- for them, it's sort of like candy and you can basically eat as much as you want.

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Witnessing the life cycle.

James Martin/CNET

Each kind of fruit takes its own particular path to ripeness. A fertilized strawberry seed grows and flowers and, eventually, sheds its petals. Its skin changes color, from green to red. Inside, the starches, acids and tannins recede as the sugar content increases. The skin softens. And there you have it: A ripened strawberry.

Read more: Driscoll's says the US food supply chain is 'more fragile than we thought'

As a nonclimacteric fruit, strawberries can ripen fully only while connected to their plant. Once picked, senescence -- the process of aging -- begins immediately. That makes them increasingly fragile and tricky to transport. It also dooms them to a relatively short shelf life. Climacteric fruits, like cucumbers (and bananas and avocados), continue to ripen after they've been picked, providing a more elastic schedule for harvesting, transportation and distribution.

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Inside Apeel's lab.

James Martin/CNET

Once a fruit has been harvested, the existential threats multiply. Moisture. Dehydration. Heat. Cold. Mold. Fungus. Insects. But the primary causes of spoilage are usually water loss and oxidation. Keeping your fruit in a spot that's cool and dry will get you pretty far. But there are more drastic measures one can take to keep produce healthy.

From wax to kerosene -- and beyond

Over the millennia, humans developed numerous ways to extend the life of fruits and vegetables. As detailed in Julia Phillips' terrific 2017 history of food preservation for the Atlantic, Chinese farmers used wax to protect their oranges and lemons. In the 15th century, the Japanese figured out how to boil soy milk to make an edible film, called yuba, that could serve as a protective shield for food. A hundred years later, the English were using a process called larding -- that is, coating vegetables and meat in fat to ward off bacteria. (Today, this is more widely known as a technique of French cuisine, the confit, based on the French verb "confire," which means "to preserve".) Two hundred years ago, Americans recruited all kinds of substances -- from alcohol to gelatin to salt -- to safeguard their food. 

Read more: How to keep your fridge food fresher, longer: Milk, eggs, berries, more

In the twentieth century, petrochemistry changed the game. In 1922 Ernest Brogden patented a process (PDF) for coating produce with a combination of wax and kerosene that protected it against spoilage. It also gave fruits the glossy sheen we've grown accustomed to seeing in stores today. Though modern shoppers may be horrified by the thought of eating an apple that's been given a wax-and-kerosene bath, virtually every grocery store today sells produce treated with artificial coatings. And paraffin wax, otherwise known as petroleum wax, remains on the Food and Drug Administration's list of "food additives permitted for direct addition to food for human consumption."

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Food coatings have become a high-tech business.

James Martin/CNET

Technology has continued to spawn new methods for keeping produce fresh. For decades, apples have been treated with a gaseous compound called 1-MCP -- the active ingredient in a product known commercially as SmartFresh -- that plays tricks on apples' natural ripening cadence.

Jayasankar Subranmanian, a professor who specializes in tree fruit breeding and biotechnology at the University of Geulph-Vineland in Canada, says it all comes down to a gaseous compound, ethylene, that jumpstarts ripening. "Once ethylene penetrates an apple's skin, it unlocks the ripening process. But 1-MCP essentially clogs the lock," he says. "And it blocks the lock to such a degree that, in a controlled storage environment, an apple could last for nearly a year."

The drawback is that 1-MCP undercuts an apple's flavor and mouthfeel. And though use of the compound has decreased as consumers have become more discriminating over the past decade, you've probably eaten fruit treated with it. (The FDA does not require growers or grocers to label treated produce.) Many consumers might not knowingly choose to ingest something called 1-MCP, Subranmanian says, but compared to the many fungicides and pesticides used on fruits, the risk it poses is minor.

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The company is growing alongside its fruit.

James Martin/CNET

Subranmanian and his colleagues are working on their own technology to extend the life of produce, using a common food additive called hexanal. After a strawberry is picked, its cells start to collapse, which is why it starts shriveling after a few days. But SmartHarvest, a startup based in Toronto that's developing the hexanal-based coating, says it can slow the activity of the enzymes that initiate this collapse. Though the technique is different from Apeel's, some of the results are similar. According to SmartHarvest's website, its process can extend the life of a cherry by 10 days and a peach by up to four weeks. 

Another potential competitor is Cambridge Crops, which has developed its own "all natural and edible protective layer" that extends the shelf life of a wide range of foods including meat and fish in addition to produce. According to a Boston Inno article article from 2019, the coating is derived from a silk protein, which "creates an invisible barrier that regulates the exchange of oxygen, water vapor and slows down microbial growth." Cambridge Crops raised $4 million of seed funding last summer

How to gently choke a fruit

Following in the footsteps of the English larders, Apeel has placed its bets on fats. Most aboveground plants develop a natural wax barrier made up of organic fatty acids -- called cutin -- to protect them from the elements. This barrier keeps moisture in and preserves its internal climate -- sort of like a GoreTex raincoat. The denser the cutin, the more enduring the plant and the longer it can last on the shelf.

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Chemistry could prolong the lives of your fruit.

James Martin/CNET

"After you pick a fruit, it's still alive," says Apeel CEO James Rogers. "Its cells are still doing the regular stuff -- taking out garbage, processing energy, consuming and expelling gasses." Fruit needs to breathe -- but if you can moderate the rate of respiration, you can slow down the cellular collapse. Apeel's coating serves as an extra layer of peel that curbs the rate of water and carbon dioxide escaping relative to the rate of oxygen entering. 

"Apeel is basically choking the fruit, but gently," Subranmanian told me. "It's a very neat trick."

But you can go too far. "You actually don't want that barrier so effective that it wholly blocks off oxygen," according to Jenny Du. "Because that's how you get things to ferment. And when you have fermentation, that changes the flavors inside."

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Apeel CEO James Rogers and Jenny Du in Apeel's first office. 

Apeel

As the head of extraction engineering, Du's role is to figure out how to take wasted plant matter -- leaves, stems, sticks and peels -- and extract the compounds and molecules the company can use in its coatings. Lou Perez, Apeel co-founder and current VP of technology, oversees the development of coating materials. It's a big job.

The average number of produce items carried in supermarkets has increased from about 100 in 1980 to closer to 400 today. And every type of fruit needs its own particular GoreTex raincoat. So far, Apeel has developed coatings for more than 50 categories of produce -- though it's commercialized only avocados, apples, limes, oranges and mandarins. Rogers told me, "We can imagine a future when there's an Apeel section in a grocery store."

The FDA has approved Apeel's commercially available coatings as "generally recognized as safe." Though that may sound like damning the formulations with faint praise, "GRAS" is a generally noncontroversial designation for common food additives from caffeine to caramel to chives. 

"The formulations are not some strange botanical extract," said Rogers. "We use the same structural building blocks -- molecules -- that give plants their structure."

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The "V-blender" mixes ingredients for Apeel's formulations.

James Martin/CNET

But because we don't know exactly what Apeel uses in its formulations, consumers don't know exactly what they're eating. This is less concerning with an Apeel avocado, given that most of us discard the peel before eating it, but could be more worrisome with Apeel asparagus. In an interview with CNET, Dr. Eric Decker, the head of the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts, wondered if a food allergy could be triggered by eating an Apeel cucumber that had a trace amount of a different plant.

When I asked the company about that, it responded through a representative: "Allergic responses can be triggered when protein from an allergenic source is present in a food product. Apeel's products are not protein-based, but rather lipid-based. Because the ingredients in Apeel are found widely in plants, the feedstock source may vary based on seasonality and overall availability. Regardless of source, the ingredients are the same. Apeel is committed to the purity of its products and its manufacturing process is designed to ensure compliance with the highest safety standards mandated by food safety regulatory authorities wherever Apeel is sold."

Jack Bobo, the CEO of Futurity, a food brand consultancy, predicted that Apeel will face increasing scrutiny as it grows. "People will start asking more questions. And there will be competition -- if it's successful." 

Big produce is big business

If attracting the attention of Oprah Winfrey is any kind of indication, Apeel has already been successful. But even before Oprah got involved, investors were taking notice. Prior to the quarter billion dollars of new funding announced today, Apeel had raised more than $110 million from heavy hitters including Andreessen Horowitz, DBL Partners and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And with the size of the potential market, there's still plenty of room for growth: In the US alone, there are more than 38,000 supermarkets, which -- pre-pandemic -- brought in more than $700 billion a year, according to the Food Marketing Institute

But it's not just the financial opportunity that investors find attractive. The company frames its product as part of the solution for a range of global problems including carbon emissions and food waste. Despite the extreme lengths taken by farmers, distributors and grocers, between 30% and 40% of all US food is thrown away -- about 400 pounds per person. That's about $165 billion worth of food wasted in the US every year, including $18 billion per year of tossed produce. Globally, food waste accounts for $1.2 trillion.

Try it out: Find a store near you that sells Apeel produce

Apeel says that the retailers selling its avocados throw out 50% fewer of them -- a halving of food waste. And there are other sustainability bona fides, too, such as reduced packaging. In October, in partnership with Houweling Group, the company announced a line of Long English cucumbers that don't need to be wrapped in protective plastic. Apeel has said that its cucumbers helped Houweling eliminate 60,000 pounds of shrink wrap annually.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt many segments of the food and beverage industry, Apeel's operations continue apace. In an email to CNET, James Rogers gave no indication that pandemic is hampering business, writing, "As stay-at-home recommendations impact consumer food purchasing behaviors, the fight against food waste and making the most of our food supply are increasingly important considerations. This pandemic has further shed light on the importance of preventing waste and extending fresh food shelf life throughout the supply chain."

And, of course, in 2020, one of the chief benefits of Apeel's longer-lasting produce is more compelling than ever: Fewer trips to the store.