Fruits and vegetables seem like pretty static things. A squash is a squash. A cucumber is a cucumber. Fava beans are fava beans.
You’d think that when you’re eating fresh produce, you’re having an experience that people have had for generations. But it’s not always so, and in fact frequently you’re eating something considerably worse in quality than what past generations ate.
This week, Mother Jones discussed the long-term decline in the quality of some produce. As farmers have focused more on prettiness and appearance, they’ve bred vegetables that are less nutritious than their ancestors. The stats are crazy. Broccoli has 27% less iron than it had in the 1950s. Corn has 37% less calcium.
Of course, the poster child for produce-in-decline is the Red Delicious apple, which at one point was apparently delicious. But it obviously went horribly wrong, as it’s now clearly the worst apple, having been bred for colour and durability (hence the thick skin) without any regard for texture.
In 2005, the Washington Post wrote about the decline of the Red Delicious:
Who’s to blame for the decline of Red Delicious? Everyone, it seems. Consumers were drawn to the eye candy of brilliantly red apples, so supermarket chains paid more for them. Thus, breeders and nurseries patented and propagated the most rubied mutations, or “sports,” that they could find, and growers bought them by the millions, knowing that these thick-skinned wonders also would store for ages.
“Did they do it because it has less flavour? Obviously not,” said Eugene M. Kupferman, a post-harvest specialist at Washington State University’s tree fruit research centre in Wenatchee, Wash. “They did it because it has better legs and they are getting more money for it.”
In other words, the Red Delicious farmers started acting like an inflation-happy central banker. Lured to the “more is better” mantra, they stopped focusing on quality, and just started trying to put out as much shiny junk as they possibly could, resulting in a brief sugar high (in the 80s, perfectly) followed by a crash.
In the meantime, other varieties have blown up, taking the apple world by storm. Washington State growers are increasingly fond of the Fuji. In the Midwest, the Honeycrisp (which is delicious and crisp), and now, farmers who are relentlessly focused on innovation are growing successors to the honeycrisp, which we must say, sound amazing!
Get ready for the (are you ready for this?) the SweeTango apple:
AP: Honeycrisp was a phenomenon in the apple industry because its taste and texture were so good it sold for about $1 more per pound than other varieties. Those investing in SweeTango are banking on it commanding the same premium price, and they’ve formed a cooperative to grow and sell it nationwide.
SweeTango will start showing up in some Minnesota farmers markets labour Day weekend and arrive in selected grocery stores around the Twin Cities, Seattle and Rochester, N.Y., a few days later. If all goes according to plan, the apple should be available nationwide in 2011 or 2012, said Byrne, who’s president of the cooperative and vice president of sales and marketing for Pepin Heights Orchards in southeastern Minnesota.
SweeTango and Honeycrisp were developed at the University of Minnesota. The new apple has Honeycrisp’s crispness and juice but kicks up the flavour and adds an intriguing note of fall spice. It was made by crossing Honeycrisp with Zestar!, another University of Minnesota variety.
We can’t wait to eat it, and (importantly) it seems like others in the apple industry have realised that maintaining quality is the way to go, as evidenced by the price-per-pound they can get.