Perspectives Online

Fresh sliced apples for a growing market

Dr. Mike Parker of the Department of Horticultural Science is experimenting with a variety of techniques for prepackaging apple slices.
Photo by Daniel Kim

When Americans reach for a snack, we want convenience, and many times we reach for convenience foods that pack on the pounds.

To encourage people to reach for more fruits and vegetables when seeking that snack, two College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty members want to make apples for school children - and adults - more of a convenience food. Dr. Sylvia Blankenship, professor of horticultural science and associate dean of the College, and Dr. Mike Parker, associate professor of horticultural science, are experimenting with ways to package fresh apple slices, just as "baby carrots" are packaged now.

Fresh apple slices will not only provide a healthy convenience food, but would open new markets for North Carolina apple growers. The two researchers are focusing their efforts on apple varieties grown in the state.

Fresh sliced apples are not a new product. Parker and Blankenship have seen quite a few poor product examples, many of them from lunches their children bring home from school. They feel that, with proper preservation methods, North Carolina growers could provide the state's school lunchrooms with a higher-quality product.

"North Carolina produces 5 million bushels of apples," Parker said. "There's no reason we can't provide fresh-sliced apples for the Southeast."

The fresh-cut food industry is one of the fastest-growing markets for fruit and vegetables, Parker said. It is a $100 billion industry, growing at 10 to 12 percent per year in the United States.

Prepackaged apple slices could be used in a variety of ways. They could be packaged in larger quantities for baking or catering and in small packages for school lunches or snacks. Already, some fast-food chains are packaging apples and dips like caramel as snack alternatives.

"Kids will eat these for the flavor," Parker said. "They'll also eat them because of the novelty."

And Blankenship points out that even adults are more likely to pick up a few apple slices off a tray than to bite into a whole apple.

The problem with apples, of course, as opposed to a product like fresh-sliced carrots is discoloration. Parker and Blankenship are looking at different dips for North Carolina apple varieties to determine which preserve apple quality and color best. A successful fresh-sliced apple product would have a shelf life of about nine to ten days under refrigeration.

The two researchers started out experimenting with different fruit juices as preservatives for apple slices, but those were not effective. A better combination is ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), calcium and citric acid (orange juice), they found.

They also have discovered that some North Carolina apple varieties brown too much and would not make a good fresh-sliced product. Major varieties grown in the state include Fuji, Gala, Pink Lady, Rome and Gold Rush. An appealing apple package might include slices from a variety of the state's apples, Blankenship said.

They also know that to produce a high-quality fresh-sliced product, you must start with fresh apples. Blankenship was involved with the development of a now-patented product, "Smart Fresh," that keeps fresh apples firm longer, extending the shelf and storage life of apples. The product is being used extensively on Washington State's apple crop.

Through a partnership with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College's Food Ventures project, four to five apple growers will embark on a pilot project next year to get North Carolina apple slices into schools. Food Ventures provides food-processing facilities that can be rented for small-scale food projects.

Parker says the schools have agreed to give the North Carolina apple slices a try in the lunchroom. Participating growers will use Food Ventures to process and package their apples in a short period of time, a more practical investment than trying to develop their own processing line.

Blankenship believes that as healthy eating catches on, more people will turn to fresh convenience foods like the apple slices. "You're setting patterns in kids that will last a lifetime," Parker said.

They both believe that making fresh-sliced apples available for North Carolinians and providing new sales markets for apple grower is a win-win match for the state.

- Natalie Hampton