My back yard apple tree produces some ugly looking fruit. They’re usually spotty, often misshapen, lack blush and taste tart. I never see apples that look like my back yard ones in the supermarket. They wouldn’t make the grade.
Supermarkets give their fresh produce suppliers strict product specifications, and my apples wouldn’t pass. The specifications cover a range of things. Some of them are about freshness and taste, such as the brix (sugar) levels, flesh firmness and the maximum number of days that have passed since it was packed. These rules are in place so that the consumer takes home a fresh, tasty piece of fruit. Then there are logistic specifications such as the type of packaging and labelling. This can be important to both store operations (such as scannable barcodes and crates that fit in the lounges) and the overall look of the store. And then there are specifications concerning the visible aspects of the fruit. The flesh and skin color, the extent to which marking is allowed and the size range of the product. The result? Bins full of (almost) identical and (almost) perfect looking fruit. For suppliers, meeting specifications can of course be challenging. Mother nature has her role in the supply chain and she isn’t very interested in following supermarket rules. Fruit that is too big, too small, misshapen, lacks a certain look or has marks that are larger than the specification allows get downgraded to “out of spec” product.
This post isn’t to point fingers at the “big bad” supermarkets for only taking a portion of what mother nature has to offer. The implications at store are more complex than it may first appear. Imagine your local supermarket putting out a crate full of apples at the start of the day. It’s a wide mix of what has come off the tree. Some are nice, symmetrical, evenly red striped apples. Others, however, are misshapen. Some have russet around the stem. Some have funny color patters. Some are small. At the end of the day the bin would be well picked over. The nice fruit will be sold and the less fortunate looking fruit remains. It doesn’t help anyone to have fruit getting old on the shelves. Wasted fruit is a bad outcome for everyone in the supply chain. As for consumers we’re increasingly demanding in our wants. We’re wanting value for our money. We want the nice apple and we’re going to leave the iffy looking one that we’re a bit suspicious of behind.
So then there is the dilemma, of what to do with the downgraded fruit? Well, some supermarkets are creating ways of multi pricing on products and making it available alongside their standard line. Often different pack types are utilised so the downgraded fruit doesn’t get confused with the standard line at the check out. Think bags of juicing oranges and punnets of jamming strawberries. And of course, farmers markets have the flexibility to offer a range of product also.
So as a consumer, how do we know what fruit just looks a bit funny but is great to eat and what fruit should we stay away from?
The weather plays a big part in this whole downgraded fruit situation because it’s such a major factor in the growing process. Hail, frost and wind for example, can all completely destroy fruit. It can break the skin surface, fungal rot can develop in the wounds. However, sometimes the hail just pits the skin leaving marks that don’t look pretty, but they haven’t punctured the skin and it’s happened at a stage in the fruit development that the fruit is still ok. Fruit can make it through a frost with just cosmetic brown spots to show for it and abrasions from fruit being thrown into its own branches can heal, leaving a scar but leaving the inside relatively unharmed.
Fruit can also get sunburned, yellowing the color of the skin that is on the exposed side of the plant. As long as the sunburn isn’t too severe (causing break down in the fruit) it’s still fine to eat. The opposite of this problem can occur when the fruit is hanging further inside the tree with high folliage cover and doesn’t color up properly due to lack of sun. Or sometimes with produce that grows on the ground (such as watermelons) they may end up with pale patch where they have been sitting. The fruit inside is fine.
Insects such as thrips, miners or scale might be having a bit of a chew on the plant at some stage in the growing time and leave a mark. I know that sounds a bit gross, but the marks are often purely a cosmetic issue.
There are also natural genetic mutations that can look a bit odd. These are just nature’s quirks. Funny color patterns, distorted or misshapen fruit is perfectly fine to eat.
Really ripe fruit is also fine to buy if you are going to use it quickly so buy with a plan! Ripe fruit can be great in smoothies and cooking. Some fruit is a little easier than others to tell how ripe it is. A banana, of course, is obvious but not all fruit change in appearance as it ripens quite as dramatically. Fruit often feels softer as it ripens (such as stone fruit, mangoes and tomatoes). If it’s ‘mushy’ it’s too soft. For fruit with the stems still on (like cherries) the stems are a good indicator of freshness as they dry out first. Fruit with a natural bloom (like blueberries) lose the bloom the older they get. Citrus, go for fruit that feels heavy for its size.
There are some circumstances however, that the fruit isn’t good for consumption. These are the things to look out for:
- A soft (or watery) spot on the fruit
- Visible rots or mould (check the stem ends of the fruit too as this can be a common spot for aptly named, stem end rot)
- Juice leaking from the fruit is another sign of breakdown
- Stay clear from fruit with cuts or holes in skin. Decay can often get into the wound
- Another classic sign of breakdown is if it smells off.
So next time you see an odd shaped, funny colored, ripe or marked piece of fruit (that might be going cheap!) take the time to have a proper look at it before you may just find yourself a tasty bargain.