Published on 08/22/01

New Appliance to Keep Produce Fresh Longer

You spend extra time at the supermarket selecting the perfect apples, pears, tomatoes and lettuce only to throw half of them away a few days later. But soon you'll be able to prolong the life of your produce with the help of the controlled-environment pantry.

Similar to a refrigerator, the pantry is a new appliance being developed by Jim Dooley, president of Silverbrook, Limited, in Federal Way, Wash.

Scientists at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences are working with Dooley under a Small Business Initiative Research grant he received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Fridge Isn't the Perfect Place

"Right now, most consumers don't have much choice when it comes to storing their fruits and vegetables at home," said Stan Prussia, a CAES biological and agricultural engineer. "Home refrigerators are OK for convenience. But all the produce is stored at the same temperature, and that's not good from a quality point of view."

UGA researchers say another downside to storing produce in the refrigerator is the loss of flavor.

"You may be able to extend the shelf life by putting produce in the refrigerator, but you're also sacrificing quality," said Rob Shewfelt, a UGA food scientist working on the pantry project.

"Quality is the key," Shewfelt said. "Take the Belgians for example. They won't sell chocolate that's more than 7 days old because of the reduction in quality."

The new controlled-environment pantry is designed so the temperature and humidity can be controlled precisely in separate drawers.

"A refrigerator has only one temperature, but products require different temperatures for the best quality," Prussia said. "Even if you could control the temperature in your refrigerator, you couldn't keep it the right temperature for all your produce. The conditions needed don't match what's available."

Prussia says crops like green beans, squash and oranges need higher temperatures than crops like peaches, raspberries and strawberries.

Don't Put Bananas Next to Lettuce

Another plus to storing produce separately is the reduction in gas exchange.

"Ethylene, a natural product that comes off bananas, avocados and cantaloupes, can be harmful to other crops like lettuce and celery," Prussia said.

But if produce is stored separately, this is no longer a problem.

The controlled-environment pantry is about two years away from being available to consumers. And then it will begin as an upscale, novelty product.

"It'll be a lot like when automatic bread makers first hit the market," Shewfelt said. "They weren't for everyone at first. But now just about everyone has one."

Countertop Version

UGA scientists are also conducting research to support the development of another Dooley product: the electronic fruit bowl.

Like the larger pantry, the bowl will include temperature and humidity controls, but will be small enough to sit on your kitchen countertop.

"Many times, produce is discarded because we forgot it was in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator -- out of sight, out of mind," Shewfelt said. "By putting them in this bowl, they're out where you can see them. Yet they're still being stored efficiently."

Shewfelt says certain fruits, like peaches, plums and grapes, could be put in the bowl together. But you wouldn't want to add bananas to the mix.

"Certain fruits would be compatible and certain ones would not," he said. "But the main thing is they are where you can see them, and this encourages more consumption."

The overall goal of both devices is to help consumers keep their produce at their standards of good quality. "When people buy good-quality produce, they want to keep good quality and eat good quality," Shewfelt said.

On the flip side, Shewfelt says mixing your produce can be helpful at times.

"To speed the ripening of a peach, just put it in a brown paper sack with a banana," he said.

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.