Last month, Tesco announced the end of its trial of Apeel, an edible plant-based coating that claims to keep fruit fresh for twice as long.
The supermarket had kicked off a three-month roll out across 80 of its UK stores in 2022, applying the protection to an assortment of its citrus fruits to understand exactly what impact it might have on taste, texture and shelf life.
In April the supermarket confirmed the trial had come to an end and, though it’s remained tight-lipped on whether there are specific plans to use Apeel more widely, said “our learnings…will help us shape future plans.”
Crucially, Tesco isn’t the only grocer that’s been experimenting with the tech. Asda has rolled out the coating across mandarins, oranges and avocados in 150 of its stores, while its US owner Walmart relied on the innovation to launch ‘plastic-free’ cucumbers. Such is the appetite for the technology in fact that the California-based Apeel has been valued at more than $2 billion, according to Pitchbook.
So as Apeel-coated fruits and vegetables look set to become a familiar addition in supermarkets, here’s everything you need to know.
How does it work?
Apeel is an invisible coating made up of purified monoglycerides and diglycerides, edible fatty acids commonly found as natural compounds in the peels, seeds and pulp of fruits, vegetables and other plants. The company uses these food products, such as grape peel from a winery, and presses out an oil rich in the fat lipids, which it then turns into a colourless, odourless, and tasteless powder. Manufacturers simply need to add water and apply as a spray, a brush or as a dip. When applied on produce, this coating works to mimic the natural cuticle layer developed by many leaves, stems, fruits and flowers as a form of protection, the company says. Specifically, the ultra-thin protective coating locks oxygen and moisture inside, “dramatically” slowing the rate by which the produce spoils.
Is it effective?
According to the company, the addition of this invisible layer can roughly double the shelf life of fresh produce. But its impact does vary depending on the specific product. Its own research shows that avocados can have an additional three days of peak ripeness with the coating added, for example, while it creates a 45 per cent reduction in ‘shrivel and decay’ after 28 days for apples, and 94 per cent less shrivelling of limes treated after the same period. Results have fared well once the technology has reached supermarket shelves too. A pilot project between Apeel and German grocery giant The Edeka Group in 2021 found that Apeel-treated avocados had a 50 per cent reduction in avocado spoilage and a 20 per cent increase in sales.
Is it safe?
A safety sheet claiming to flag concerns about consuming Apeel-treated produce sparked concerns last month but – as it turned out – it was a case of mistaken identity with the information relating to a chemical surface cleaner with the same name. The Apeel used on fresh produce is made of fatty acids found in foods we already eat. “Apeel uses these plant lipids because they have a long history of safe consumption,” says the company.
Much the same goes for its impact on the environment, with its plant-based formula lacking the risk of synthetic chemicals. As such, in the US, organic certifiers have deemed it safe to use on organic produce (in the UK it is not currently allowed under Soil Association regulations).
A spokesperson for the Soil Association said: “We understand Apeel contains E471 Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids; this is not permitted under GB or EU organic regulation. So this would not be permitted for use on organic produce in Britain.”
Another factor to consider is that extending shelf life could potentially have a positive impact thanks to its reduction of food waste: Apeel claims that 44 million pieces of fruit have been saved from waste since it launched. Food waste is a major emitter of greenhouse gas, contributing to climate change.
Read more on how food waste is linked to climate change.
Does it have competition?
Though Apeel might be one of the most established edible coating manufacturers out there, this approach to extending shelf life has seen plenty of competition emerge in recent years. Sufresca is one company chasing at its heels. The Israeli agri-tech start-up has developed its own biodegradable coating made up of natural food ingredients that it says creates a breathable coating on fresh produce, partially blocking the exchange of gases that lead to decay. As the solution can be sold straight to processors and packaging houses as a liquid, it’s simple to integrate into supply chains, says the company, with hopes it can be rolled out to early adopters by in the coming months.
This article was edited on 11 May to clarify the UK’s position on using Apeel on organic produce.