Anyone who’s ever been apple-picking knows the difference between food off the branch and food off the shelf: A freshly picked apple is matte with dust. It can be scratched, scarred, and pocked with insect bites. An apple in the store is smooth. It shines. If Eve found the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil “pleasing to the eye,” then the fruit on offer in today’s supermarkets would surely dazzle her.
That grocery-store gloss is artificial fruit wax. Once an apple leaves the orchard, it is sprayed with a commercial coating specially formulated to impress buyers. These smooth sprayed-on coats give a glow to most retail produce—from cantaloupes to avocados to limes. Even pineapples, not known for their lustrous skins, are dipped into wax for a little extra sparkle.
What, exactly, makes a piece of fruit pleasing to the eye? And what does that visual pleasure have to do with eaters’ appetites?
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In 1950, the magazine Kiplinger’s Personal Finance alerted its readers to fruit-waxing technology: “Produce is prettier than it used to be—flossed up and glowing with warm, seductive colors,” the article teased. “The spruced-up fruits and vegetables owe their freshness and cleanliness to new uses of an old beautifier and preserver—wax."
But then as now, novelty can be deceiving. A letter to the editor followed, from California’s Brogdex Company. “Waxing processes for fresh fruits and vegetables are not new by any means,” Brogdex pointed out. “Our company originated and pioneered such processes, and we are now in our 28th year.” The Brogdex Company was eager to set the record straight on the longevity of waxing processes because its founder, Ernest Brogden, filed the first U.S. patent to cover fruit on a commercial scale, in 1922. Brogden’s original wax-and-kerosene mixture created “a film-like waxy coating that ... maintains the fruit in its original firm, plump, and fresh condition for relatively long periods of time.”
The Brogdex Company’s patented method set the principles that still propel commercial fruit waxing today: to preserve and to beautify produce. In the orchard, an apple produces its own wax, a bloom as dull-looking as talcum powder. The same natural coating adorns oranges, pears, and all other fruit. Its dusty white traces, made of fat crystals, are easiest to spot on the dark skin of a plum. This natural powdery coat keeps the fruit from drying out or getting saturated with rain as it grows. Once the fruit is picked and washed, though, its natural wax comes off, along with any dirt or chemical residue from the orchard. The fruit then needs a new coating for protection.
Artificial fruit wax merges food preservation and food presentation. It contains fungicides to inhibit mold growth, controls fruit respiration to delay ripening, protects from bruising while the fruit travels, and includes tints and glossy shellac to enhance a fruit’s appearance. Commercial coatings extend the life of a fruit so it can be picked, packed, shipped, and sold weeks or months after it left the tree—while still looking good in the process.
The waxes themselves are made from sugar cane, beeswax, carnauba, and resins. They’re so concentrated that one gallon, diluted with water, is enough to coat 10,000 pounds of citrus or 25,000 pounds of nectarines. In the early days of Brogdex, wax was buffed onto fruit like polish onto a floor, but in the decades since, the applications of wax have multiplied. There are dips into wax baths, flowing airstreams of solvent wax, and now, most popularly, waxes sprayed from many nozzles onto fruit traveling over beds of brushes. Coatings are meticulously formulated and applied to meet the demands of both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (which monitors for safety, making sure there’s nothing like high levels of pesticides included) and the consumer (who wants to pick up a fruit that isn’t discolored, strange-tasting, wet, sticky, dull, or covered in white waxy flakes).
The entire operation is so complicated and so finely tuned, it’s no wonder the Brogdex Company got touchy about its waxing processes. In 1931, Brogdex even took a patent dispute with American Fruit Growers, Inc., all the way to the Supreme Court.
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And yet, Brogdex got a crucial detail wrong in its letter to the Kiplinger’s editors. The company did not originate and pioneer fruit waxing. Artificial waxes don’t extend all the way back to Eden, but they do stretch back centuries. For more than 900 years, people have been alternately coating their produce and questioning what such coatings are for.
In the 19th century, Americans preserved the food in their pantries by coating it with gelatin, salt, or sugar. Fruit was preserved by soaking it in baths of brandy—a precursor to Brogdex’s patented kerosene method. In 16th-century England, people used a method called larding: Coatings of fat kept water and mold off stored food. A hundred years before that, the Japanese used yuba, an edible film made by boiling soy milk, to coat their foods for storage. The soft tofu skin ensured food quality and appearance, just as a thin layer of resin does for our produce today. And even earlier, in the 12th and 13th centuries, citrus farmers in Southern China packed their oranges and lemons in wooden boxes before filling the boxes with wax. Protected from spoilage, dehydration, and insect damage, the wax-covered fruit would then ferment over the long trip north before arriving as a delicacy on the emperor’s table.
Fruit wax smooths the divide between the fantasy and the reality of food. People want to eat an apple that delivers the crisp, delicious flavor of a fruit plucked straight from the tree. But they also want the convenience of getting that fruit from a neighborhood grocery store, and at any time of year. At an affordable price, to boot, and even when it’s out of season—which means it’ll need to last longer in storage than an orchard-fresh fruit might. Shoppers want that cheap produce clear of dirt, insect leavings, and chemical residue, even though that cleaning process rids the fruit of its natural protection. As if that weren’t enough, buyers also want their fruit to sparkle.
Fruit wax is one way produce suppliers try to satisfy all these contradictory impulses. They try to give consumers a fruit that’s better—or at least better-looking—than it ever was on the branch. Beyond fruit, foods including nuts, candies, meat, fish, cheese, and cereals receive a similar treatment: They’re coated to make them last longer and look better.
It’s artificial, but hardly sinister. Yet as Eve testifies, a little knowledge about fruit can be a dangerous thing. Blog posts and online articles abound alerting consumers to the supposed dangers of fruit wax. “WARNING WAXED APPLE CAUSES CANCER!” warns a wax-alarmist YouTube video with 2.5 million views.
Because the commercial wax is artificial, the thinking goes, it must be harmful. Perhaps it traps pesticides or contains carcinogens. The forced cheer in modern commercial coatings’ names—Semperfresh, Fruit & Vegetable Kleen, Decco Lustr—only makes them seem farther away from what’s natural.
Even Eve knew that a fruit “good for food and pleasing to the eye” is impossible to resist. And as each new health blog post pops up to drum the dangers of fruit coating, debunking sites like Snopes point out that food-grade waxes are proven safe to eat. The artificial waxes are indigestible, so they pass through the human body without breaking down or being absorbed.
Those concerned about allergens or animal byproducts can check the point-of-sale information that vendors are required to display alongside waxed fruit. It reads, “Coated with food-grade vegetable-, petroleum-, beeswax-, and/or shellac-based wax or resin, to maintain freshness.” In addition, the coatings are so lightly applied that they’re almost insignificant. One Washington State University study on the wax contents of apples found 994 parts per million for apples that retain their natural wax, 973 parts per million for apples that are washed, and 978 parts per million for apples that are coated with commercial waxes.
What about people who don’t want the wax anyway? Because the coating is formulated to be water-repellent, it won’t wash off, though it’s always a good idea to rinse fruit before eating. But there is one way for concerned consumers to get rid of a wax coating: They can just peel the fruit. Or buy unwaxed produce at a farmer’s market. Or, like Eve did, find a garden where they can pick their own.
This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.