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.