New technology tells consumers if their fruit is fresh

Fresh produce

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From supermarkets to farm food shops, ‘freshness’ is a buzzword of the food industry. The restaurant sector is, of course, no different, and for many years eateries have been sourcing fresh produce and putting an emphasis on local and organic foods on their menus. If you speak to anyone about their favourite eating experiences they will no doubt reel off countless stories of occasions where they ate out on holiday and sampled fresh fish caught from the village port that day, or a country pub where they dug their spoon into apple crumble with fruit picked from the pub garden that morning. Consumers know the deal: fresh food is the most nutritious, the most ethical, and the best-tasting choice.

This interest in fresh food has been expanding in the previous few years, and now it is not just the food industry setting the standards for consumers. Science is getting involved, too. Pioneering researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a clever handheld device that can actually scientifically determine how ripe an apple is by measuring the glow of chlorophyll in the fruit's skin under ultraviolet light.

In their report, they explain, “we demonstrate a smartphone based spectrometer design that is standalone and supported on a wireless platform.” This device is unique in that it can be hand-held, and sends its results to a smartphone, which could enable it to be used by farmers in determining when to harvest their crops and where to send stock. The ripest apples should ideally go to places where they are likely to sell out quickly, but that doesn't always happen, according to the scientists, as Live Science reports.

During the tests, scientists reported that “a satisfactory agreement was observed between ripeness and fluorescence signals.” The riper the apple, the dimmer the glow emitted from the chlorophyll, as this chemical breaks down over time. According one of the researchers, Das, the technology could be used for other foods such as broccoli in the future. He also noted: “this demonstration is a step towards possible consumer, bio-sensing and diagnostic applications that can be carried out in a rapid manner.”

This is good news for restaurant connoisseurs who are trying to live a healthy lifestyle. According to research by Technomic, almost 60 per cent of consumers claim to place high value on the availability of healthy options, with three out of four saying that freshness is key to their concept of good value, says Restaurant Business Online (RBO). Consumers are likely to feel an even stronger desire for fresh produce with the development of ripeness-testing science, and, moreover, if this technology continues to develop, they will be able to actually test their food’s freshness from their table.

In an article for RBO, Joan M. Lang claims that the increase in consumer interest in fresh fruit and vegetables must be taken seriously by restaurants. She says:

“There are several business reasons for this, not least the ability to attract vegetarian, vegan and health-conscious diners with more distinctive preparations. Veggie-based recipes generally carry lower food costs, yet signature treatments support premium menu pricing. Fruits and vegetables also are easy to cross-utilize, minimizing waste. And certain treatments add value to ingredients such as overripe fruit, bruised vegetables or often-ignored “ugly produce,” extending their shelf life.”

So, whilst these developments demand increased investment in fresh produce by industry players, this doesn’t mean that all foods that have slightly passed their best should be discarded – far from it. Consumers want to eat fresh fruit and veg, but they certainly don’t want food to be unnecessarily thrown away, as can be seen from the many petitions circulating demanding that the UK government require supermarkets and business to donate unsold food to charities. Restaurants ought to attempt to use every part of an item in dishes, and to utilise vegetables that aren’t perfectly ripe enough to serve whole in inventive ways to increase their longevity.

Balancing these competing customer requirements for freshness and sustainable ethics is essential for restaurants and eateries who hope to sustain the interest of customers looking for a premium experience with only the best produce but also a dining experience that does not compromise the conscience. As consumer control and knowledge over produce freshness increases with the release of these technologies, establishments must be one step ahead in ensuring that they serve only the best to increasingly savvy customers.