Every year, over 1.3 million apples are discarded — but that’s nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of bananas discarded every year. Whatever fruit or vegetable you look at, we discard a lot of it. Food waste is a major global issue, and it’s happening at every level from farm to plate. Globally, up to 40% of all picked fruit is wasted, which is a huge environmental and economic problem.
Some retailers have attempted to solve this problem by packaging fruits in plastic, which keeps them fresh for longer, but created another problem in the form of plastic pollution. But according to some research, there could be another approach that works.
Researchers working at the University of Guelph in Canada have found that they can use hexanal (a compound naturally produced by fruits and veggies) to keep them fresh for a longer period of time. Plants produce hexanal to ward off pests and delay the onset of the enzyme phospholipase D, which makes fruits and veggies go bad.
The researchers used nine different methods of administering the hexanal to fruits, including a spray formulation, a wrap, stickers, and sachets.
“Fruit that is dipped in hexanal after harvest can stay fresh for between three and four weeks longer. This means that fruit can be tree-ripened, picked and shipped to its destinations, where it would arrive in better condition and would contribute to less fruit being discarded as unpalatable or marketable,” the researchers write in an accompanying article.
Mangoes were found to stay fresh for up to three weeks longer, while for nectarines (which are particularly prone to browning), the browning was delayed by nine days.
“We also found that there’s potential for using hexanal to improve the transportation of tastier fruit varieties that are currently too delicate to ship internationally,” write Jayasankar Subramanian and Elizabeth Finnis, two of the researchers involved in the study.
The researchers also emphasize that this could improve the livelihoods of farmers living in impoverished areas. Although they are at the very base of our modern food chain, they often make the least money, and have the least bargaining power. When food gets wasted, it’s often the farmers that end up losing the most.
Hexanal, in spite of its artificial-sounding name, is a natural compound, and it is also safe and approved for consumption. It’s also pretty cheap and production can be scaled easily.
Of course, it will take time (and probably, larger studies) before the use of hexanal can be actually implemented in the agricultural system. But having access to a method that can make produce last longer could end up making an important difference in the world.