The brainchild of James Rogers, a materials scientist who had his Eureka moment while studying for a PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Apeel Sciences creates an “idealized little microclimate inside of each individual piece of produce,” via a semi-permeable barrier [‘Apeel, formerly known as ‘Edipeel’] that allows Rogers to modulate the rate at which water evaporates out and oxygen gets in.
The avocados – from avocado grower and packer Del Ray, and avocado and citrus grower and packer Eco Farms – have double the marketable shelf-life, and will feature the Apeel logo, the Goleta, CA-based company told FoodNavigator-USA: “Apeel unlocks major benefits for all parties in the avocado supply chain.
“Growers and suppliers can now offer a higher quality avocado to their retail partners, which helps differentiate a supplier's avocados from the competition and earn favorability with retail partners. Retailers benefit from less shrink in their stores and the associated hard-dollar savings. Retailers also benefit from happier customers who get a better value, better tasting avocado, with more ripe time -- which translates into more time to enjoy the avocado at home once it has ripened and most delicious.
“Today’s produce is picked at a less than optimal time, creating a quality that is poor, less than desirable nutritional standards, and lacking full taste potential. With Apeel [which is supplied as a powder that can be mixed with water and sprayed onto produce, or used as a dip, at packing facilities], fruit can be picked later in the ripening process, thus raising the quality, nutrition, and taste, while reducing waste at the same time.
“Additionally, since Apeel avocados have double the marketable and edible shelf life, suppliers can finally reach new markets with their offerings, so more avocado suppliers could conceivably now reach mainland China, where consumer demand is starting to boom.”
‘Produce is a living, breathing thing, even after it is picked’
But avocados with double their typical shelf life are just the beginning, says Rogers, who argues that if you can quadruple the shelf-life of fresh produce, you could potentially eliminate the use of preservatives, controlled atmosphere, fungicides and potentially even refrigerated transport, something Apeel Sciences’ investors - who have pumped $40m* into his company since it launched in 2012 - were quick to recognize.
“The key metric is that once you achieve an average of about a 4X extension in shelf life, you could completely replace the use of the cold chain.”
Most people don’t think about this, he explained during a recent tour of his facility with FoodNavigator-USA, “but produce is a living, breathing thing, even after it’s picked. The trick is to maintain as much moisture as possible and maintain a very delicate balance between the rate of oxygen getting in and the rate of carbon dioxide getting out.
“If you cut down the oxygen too much, the fruit won’t develop appropriately and it will develop off flavors, and if you don’t cut down the oxygen enough, you’ll have no impact,” said Rogers, who secured a letter of no objection from the FDA to his GRAS determination for Apeel last year, and is now producing commercial quantities for citrus and avocados, with multiple other applications to follow spanning everything from strawberries and bananas to mangos, green beans and asparagus.
Perhaps the most effective tool to demonstrate what Apeel does is what employees refer to as 'The Time Machine,' whereby Apeel lines up treated and untreated produce side by side, films what happens over a period of days or weeks, and then creates a time-lapse video, so viewers can see exactly how the samples compare at day 3, 6, 10, 20 and so on.
While time-lapse photography/film is not new, Apeel's Time Machine also records and analyzes data about color, texture, size and volume, and feeds this back into its computer systems to inform the development process, so is not just something fun to show potential customers as part of the sales pitch.
Invisible, plant-based, GRAS, and approved for use in produce
So what’s in Apeel?
“By limiting ourselves to materials that are extracted from plants [typically Apeel uses agricultural by-products such as tomato skins and seeds, where the source material is consistent], we select the appropriate combinations such that when we mix them up in water and they dry, they self-assemble into structures [an edible ‘skin’ of consistent thickness] that allow us to independently modulate the rate of oxygen and carbon dioxide transmission to create this optimized microclimate,” said Rogers, who described the composition as “predominantly lipid-based.”
This does not, however, make it waxy or greasy.
Indeed, the primary attraction to retailers is that Apeel is both ‘all-natural’ and invisible: it’s colorless, odorless, tasteless and undetectable on produce (no sticky or waxy residue), said Rogers. “You can’t see it, smell it, taste it, or feel it. And it’s just plants. We use food to preserve food.”
- Read our recent interview with James Rogers at Apeel Sciences HERE.
*Apeel Sciences has raised $40m to-date from partners including Andreessen Horowitz, DBL Partners, BMGF, Upfront Ventures, S2G, and Powerplant Ventures. Additionally, Apeel has received grants from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation for post-harvest loss reduction programs in Sub-Saharan Africa.
As the conditions in Apeel’s labs differ from the conditions fresh fruit from Chile might be subjected to as it travels to US supermarkets, for example, the company has developed sophisticated monitoring techniques to track the conditions (temperature, humidity etc) in which produce is being transported, in real time, and then mirror those conditions in its facility so that it can develop solutions that it knows will work in the field.