Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rant Diffused

About a year ago I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.  It's probably the most important non-fiction book I've read.  And although I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a zealot and I'm definitely not a puritan when it comes to what I put in my body, I do get passionate about what I perceive to be problems with how our food reaches us and the gradual progression of our "food" becoming little more than industrial products packaged for our convenience.  Whatever knowledge and passion I have on this subject I owe to Omnivore.  If you haven't read it, you should.  (Okay, non-paid product plug out of the way.) 

My wife, on the other hand, has other things on her mind and really can't devote the sort of energy it takes to be mad at the world like I can.  I have to be okay with that because its her mind.  But every once in a while, I'll try to educate her about something without overwhelming her in the kinds of drama she doesn't want.

So when she brought home these pre-sliced apples I was prepared to turn it into a teachable moment.

You see, these apples don't turn brown.  Normally when I slice an apple it will turn brown before I can shove it into a tub of caramel and jam it into my gaping maw.  I've accepted this as a defining natural characteristic for an apple so when these apples didn't turn brown it really made me question what unnatural preservatives could be pumped into these to alter them so dramatically. 

As I've stated on this blog numerous times, I'm not scientifically-minded by nature but I am curious about science.  With that in mind, I decided it was time to conduct a non-controlled experiment.  I took this picture with the intent to see just how long it will take for these apples to turn brown.

Here we go.  Do scientists say anything at the start of
a project?  Play ball, we have lift off, or get 'er done? 

While waiting for them to turn brown I got online to do a little extra research.
Brief aside: I am of a generation that has straddled both sides of the information age.  When I was in school research was conducted by reading encyclopedias, source material, and microfiche.  My 8th grade paper was on the history of the atomic bomb.  So I went to our family encyclopedia to start reading up on the subject but I couldn't find anything on it at all.  Turned out, our encyclopedias were older than the atomic bomb was.  Kids have it so easy these days. 
Back to apples.  According to the package there are only two ingredients in these apples.  The apples themselves and calcium ascorbate.  "Haha, Crunch Pak people, I've got you in my sights now!" I thought.  If calcium ascorbate doesn't sound like scientific jargon meant to conceal ghastly side effects I don't know what does.  Acorbate just sounds like something that will harden your arteries, shut down your kidneys and cause priapism.

They don't look great, but they aren't getting browner.

Or maybe it's just good use of science.

According to a company called UniChem it's pretty harmless.  In fact, it sounds like it might even be good for us.
Ascorbic acid is the pure form of vitamin C; however, with the combination of calcium, the supplement calcium ascorbate is produced. Because calcium ascorbate is less acidic and thus, easier on the digestive tract, it can be consumed in high doses without the possible side effects like diarrhea, rashes and stomach aches that may occur in individuals who are sensitive to taking pure vitamin C.
This picture is blurry because I was too drunk on
apple cider to hold my phone still. 

It goes on to say that:
Calcium ascorbate offers an efficient way to supplement vitamin C and the essential mineral, calcium, at the same time. Amongst other mineral ascorbates, calcium ascorbate is a non-acidic form that can provide the same great benefits of vitamin C without upsetting the stomach and digestive system.
So, if the only thing that's been added to these apples to keep them from turning brown is this magical combination of vitamin C and calcium you could make the argument that these apples are even better for you than regular apples are!

Sober again.  No noticeable change in 4 hours!

Still, isn't it more than just a little unsettling that these don't turn brown?  I left the apples out overnight and still didn't notice any browning.  They had gotten very dry and the peels were starting to bubble a little bit but the flesh still looked like a fresh-cut apple.

So I've concluded that my thesis was all wrong and that these apples are probably fine.  They are probably better than fine, in fact.

For an in-depth article on how these apples were brought to market, check out this piece from the New York Times Magazine:  Twelve Easy Pieces.  Within the article are some interesting facts such as:

  • In studies, students in Florida ate twice as many apples when they were sliced as compared to whole apples.  Students in Nevada ate three times as much when the apples were sliced.
  • Americans eat half as many pounds of apples as Europeans do per capita.
  • They figured out that cutting an apple in 12 slices optimizes freshness.  Apparently, when you cut an apple in normal situations the apple increases production of the hormone ethylene.  The cutting also ruptures cells that had compartmentalized substances that suddenly spill out and intermingle.  
  • In 2005, McDonald's stocked 54 million pounds of pre-sliced apples.
  • Before the 1960s, boxcars full of unmarketable apples were dumped into Washington's Columbia river.  Then they learned to make frozen juice concentrate out of those apples instead.
  • Apple growers in Washington harvest apples in late summer and early fall and store them in oxygen-depleted containers so they can slowly distribute them throughout the year. 
So my teachable moment that I was getting all ramped up for?  Looks like the teacher became the student.  Story of my life. 


  1. I always wondered about those apples that didn't turn brown. Thanks for an informative post!

  2. What a crazy coincedence.

    I was wondering if this book was featured on any sort of show or something this week, because I've sold three copies of it in the last 2 days. And then you're posting about it.

    Weird. I'll have to put this on my reading list. Of course my reading list is a mile long, but it'll be on there somewhere :)

  3. Holley - Glad I could help answer a question.

    Kyna - I think it's the kind of book that will keep surfacing. Even though it's been out for 4 years, it's still #45 on Amazon's list of books in the "social sciences" category whatever that is. It's also #646 in plain old "books". I'm not gonna lie and say it's a total page turner, but given its subject matter it is actually pretty interesting.

  4. Kyna, by the way, I have a bunch of books on one particular bookshelf . . . I call it my Guilt Shelf because every time I look at it I feel guilty for not having read any of the books on it. Sometimes I just want to give them all away so I can walk into the room without feeling like I just showed up for class without my homework.

  5. With every apple peel fiber of my being, I don't want to believe this, but it sure is an interesting read. Thanks for doing the research and being teachable.

  6. Chad, I was reading this thinking, 'Ok, he's going to show us all the evil ingredient that makes these apples refuse to turn brown' but then, no such luck.

    Actually, I was glad to hear you couldn't find the toxic add-on, as odd as that sounds. I was really skeptical of pre-sliced apples, too. I haven't seen them here, but we're in the Rust Belt and it takes years for progress to drift this far north.

    Finally, something prepackaged that is good for a person? Wonders never cease.

  7. Toni - I laughed at "every apple peel of my fiber". I didn't want to believe it either. In fact, I'm sitting here hoping that someday a real scientist will comme on here and tell me that I missed something. I evne looked up calcium ascorbate on the USDA's web site and they appear to have signed off on it too. In fact, it sounds as if they helped develop the product for this use.

    Karen - I'm surprised they haven't reached you yet. Maybe you're too far away for them to reach you in time to still look fresh. Apparently they have about 3 weeks before they start looking brown.

  8. Well, this scientist just usually says 'here goes'...and hopes the experiment doesn't have to be repeated 12 times ;) Yes, calcium ascorbate is pretty benign. I use lemon juice to stop mine going brown when using them in the kitchen, but same idea. Question is, what kind of apple are you eating? Perhaps because I grew up in England, apples aren't just 'apples' to me. I want to know the variety, appreciate the difference in flavor, and personally, apples in plastic are an abomination to me, as is over-packaged 'fresh' food...but that's my own rant. Back to yours. If you still want to eek out a 'teachable moment', next fall, visit an heirloom apple orchard that's doing a harvest tasting event. Then I promise you'll have something to rant about...FLAVOR! ;)

  9. What kind of apple? That's a good question. I have no idea which apples they put in these bags. Based on some of the things I read online it seems likely that there could be any number of varieties they use but they don't mention which on the bag. I grew up in Washington where apples are a pretty important crop and I have fond memories of going to orchards in the fall. Hopefully as my daughter grows up the sliced and bagged apples will become an unnecessary convenience.

  10. Chad, in regards to the statistics on use of sliced to non-sliced apples: i must agree. My wife is a apple lover and eats them everyday. Recently she found the tip on adding lemon juice to sliced apples. Now she adds these to my daily sack(bag)lunch. I eat more apples because I'm too lazy to bite into a whole one. lol. weird huh. Anything to help our younger generation to eat more fruit is good to me. I worked for a school once and whole fruit was offered at every meal. What happened? they threw away the fruit! and this was federally funded. Sigh..

  11. Greggo - can you taste the lemon juice on your apples? If so, does that throw you off a bit when you eat them?

    I just started watching The Wonder Years on Netflix and your comment about kids throwing away their apples reminded me of this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MiA8LUnPNI

  12. When I worked in Zurich, I watched in horror as my colleague unpacked his lunch. Lovingly prepared by his wife. One easy peeling mandarin orange, peeled, and wrapped in clingfilm.

    What you haven't mentioned are issues around possible contamination by bacteria or agricultural and packaging chemicals. When we buy bagged - washed and ready to eat - we rinse it again. I'd eat ready cut fruit salad in juice/sauce, but not sliced apples thank you. Glad I CAN still eat and chew a whole apple ;~)

  13. Great post. I've tried the bagged apples, and I think they taste a little different. I'll take my apples the old-fashioned way.