My regular fruit vendor always tries to push me those shiny-looking apples he calls “phoren” apples and I always decline and insist on Indian varieties. Though the phone apple is it Washington or Fiji does look tempting but there are a few factors that always put me off and I tend to avoid. Primarily because of the carbon footprint involved in importing these apples but there is one critical issue that generally is overlooked i.e. WAX coating.
These imported apples are heavily coated with wax which happens to be the cheapest method. Now the first question that comes to mind is why wax? There are a few reasons, shine being the primary one, and to increase the shelf life of the fruit. You might be wondering what does that have to do with the shelf life? But that was the reason in the first place it came into existence to help attain the fruit's longer shelf life. It could have been the ideal choice at that time when it came being that was a few decades back but given how drastically our food habits and consumer pattern have changed, it no longer serves the purpose it intended to. Let’s dig deeper. First of all, we need to understand the fruit lifecycle.
When flowering happens on the tree, based on certain climatic conditions, the flower turns into a fruit and sunlight helps ripen it. The ideal fruit to eat would be which ripens naturally on the tree. When we harvest fruit, it is still breathing and living and with every passing day it’s ripening but if it does not find a market in the stipulated timelines then the same ripening starts decaying the fruit since the sugars inside start rotting. Most of the fruit we consume is artificially ripened where our problem lies.
Why do we prefer shiny fruit? We as consumers are fascinated with exterior good-looking things and this is why the rampant use of wax in coating our fruits even if the apple is rotten from inside it still shines which enhances its marketability. Though wax has been used for a few decades as a coating, the real issue lies in the solvent which it is mixed with to apply it evenly. These solvents are chemical-based and quite harmful to our consumption
Since the farm-market linkages have always been patchy in our country and changes a lot of hands which thereby adds to delay at every point. To mitigate this delay, the fruit is firstly harvested before it’s fully ripened and then coated with wax to ensure that it doesn’t ripen fast. Now wax is meant to tackle only a couple of changes that happen in the fruit after it’s harvested and hence most of the time it fails to meet the purpose. By the time the fruit reaches its final destination, it has lost weight due to moisture loss, it is shriveling, and in some cases microbial infection. Now wax coating is not equipped to handle the spectrum of such issues.
In the old times, the fruit and vegetable markets were designed to support local and seasonal produce. With the advent of cold storage/controlled atmosphere godowns, there has been a paradigm shift in the way we consume food, where we are eating apples throughout the year which should not be the case in the first place. I personally believe we have come quite far which has made these coatings a necessity but wax can definitely not be the answer. Even if they term it food-grade we should never ever consume it. It's no longer a choice or an option, but something we have to do away with.
To make matters worse, to remove the wax there are quite a few ways like washing it with warm water, removing the wax using a knife, and last and final removing the skin and eating the fruit but the biggest issue with removing the peel is that for fruits which has an edible peel, 70% nutrients of the fruit flies in the peel so if you remove the peel of an apple because of wax coating then you are just eating very expensive fiber and nothing else.
Primarily the job of a protective layer or coating should be to tackle issues like texture, taste, microbial infection, moisture loss, and enhancing shelf life, i.e. to reduce wastage and loss to the fruit. But since most of these are fat-based and nonsoluble in water, chemicals are used to do the job, thereby compromising the health of the consumer and putting them at severe risk.
In that case, is there any hope left?
Yes, that's where a plant-based protective layer comes into the picture. Why plant-based you may ask? When we have a problem to solve then it's best to go back to basics and try to understand how nature is solving this problem.
If you have ever noticed a freshly harvested fruit, it has a white color layer on its skin which is called “Cutin” and works as a natural coating to keep it fresh but it has a time limit, and if certain care has not been exercised while harvesting then cutin gets damaged leaving the fruit exposed.
This protective layer is made up of components extracted from different waste streams of fresh fruits and veggies hence it is 100% plant-based and edible. Its bio base also makes it bio-degradable in nature. Early experiments show its robustness to handle different issues when it comes to fruit physiology be it texture, taste, or nutritional content, and has shown promising results in arresting the moisture/weight loss.
While there is still a long way to develop a fully functional layer that is suited to Indian climatic conditions, it could hold the potential to solve one of the biggest issues of our times which is preventing waste and at the same time channelize edible produce to the masses to solve the pressing issue of food scarcity. We strongly feel that we as a country could set an example for others to follow suit.