Girl holding freshly harvested apples

An American tradition

Chilly October mornings and the smell of autumn leaves accompany the thumps of falling apples across North America. Apple cider, crisp, pie, butter, baked, bobbing, and of course eating fresh off the tree all make this my favorite fruit season of the year. The apple has a long romantic history in both my life and across America; unfortunately, a new chapter in our relationship with this fruit has just been grafted into the story.

I grew up near an antique apple orchard in Northern Michigan (in fact, the photo above was taken by my sister who still lives near that same orchard!). Centuries-old varieties of fruit trees have been preserved on this farm to the delight of the surrounding communities. My parents would bring home the most delicious cider and bulging bags of fruit from the orchard. The multicolored apples burst with unique flavors and textures. Now when I taste a new variety or revisit a regular favorite, each bite takes me back to growing up in rural Michigan.

Apples for the masses

I was so happy when I moved to the Pacific Northwest and found that here too, apples grow plentiful and supply much of North America’s year-round apple cravings. While working at a natural food store, I was introduced to the common varieties that are grown, refrigerated, and trucked across thousands of miles – Granny Smiths, Red and Golden Delicious, Galas and Fuji apples are now commonplace, no matter the season.

Kitchens and restaurants serve fresh apples in hundreds of savory and sweet dishes. For almost all apples, exposing the delicate flesh to air oxidizes certain cell enzymes, which will rapidly turn the fruit brown. From fruit salads to school lunches, fast food sides to fancy decorative garnishes, dish upon dish has been affected by the apple’s browning nature.

Much of the developed world has grown accustomed to eating only picture-perfect produce. I have worked with several food retailers where we would use lemon juice to extend a little life out of sliced apples. All too often I saw perfectly tasty, slightly brown or bruised fruit get tossed into the compost or trash. Several recently developed varieties of apples are out to change this scene.

Down with the brown

The Golden Delicious and Topaz apple varieties were naturally crossed together by a team of Europeans in 1999. The result was coined the Opal apple and debuted in the United States in 2010 by Broetje Orchards. Two years later I tasted my first Opal in Bozeman, Montana. I was working a sampling table for the Community Food Co-op where I served up apple pieces dipped in caramel. The scrumptious slices flew off my table; it wasn’t until after my six-hour shift that I noticed how brilliantly white the remaining apple cores were in my compost bucket.

Since the Opal first hit the American market, the fruit has quickly become a new favorite. I heard from countless customers about how they appreciate both the flavor and the apple’s ability to naturally resist browning for several days. To ensure customers know that this unique trait was derived from natural breeding, in 2014 Broetje Orchards went through the process to verify the variety as a non-genetically modified organism (non-GMO). The Opal apple has since earned the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. During this time, news began to surface that genetically modified (GM) non-browning apples were being tested in orchards and nearing government approval.

The USDA gave the green light to GM Arctic apples in 2015. Developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, non-browning Arctic apples have had their original polyphenol oxidase (PPO) enzyme genes removed and replaced by genes that produce trace amounts of PPO. The genetic modification means that when an Arctic apple is bitten, bruised or sliced, there will be no enzymatic browning to the flesh for at least a week or even two, depending on the environment. Consumers will now be able to eat sliced apples that appear healthy and fresh for many days after the fruit normally would have begun to brown.

The first varieties to arrive in grocery stores will be the Arctic Granny, the Arctic Golden, and the Arctic Fuji. Arctic Galas and other fruit are currently in development. As the orchards are still maturing, we will see a gradual increase of the Arctic varieties landing on consumers’ plates in the coming years.

An apple a day, and how to keep the GMOs away

As our new chapter in apple history gets under way, here are some shopping tips to help us navigate the produce section:

  • Arctic apples may be red, yellow, or green depending the variety. Identify these apples by the snowflake logo and the Arctic name on their stickers.
  • Opal apples are bright yellow with occasional faint hints of red or green. Look for the Opal name on the sticker. Non-GMO Project Verified tags have not yet been introduced by Broetje Orchards.
  • Conventional vs. Organic: Like all coded produce, conventional apples have four digits on their tag, while organic varieties have five digits and begin with a 9. The USDA prohibits GM produce from receiving their organic certification. All Opals, whether organic or conventional, are Non-GMO Project Verified.

When buying apple products or eating apples at restaurants:

  • Look for the Butterfly! Always check for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal on packaged foods that contain apples.
  • Most processed foods that include more than 5% Arctic apples will feature the snowflake logo and name on their packaging.
  • Ask before you order. When eating out at restaurants, check the menus for apple ingredients and ask the staff about their fresh apples or apple products.

Bringing home a non-browning apple can lead to exciting new possibilities in cooking meals or preparing snacks. Let’s continue our American apple tradition and help our communities to clearly understand their fruit choices.

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