The USDA approved on this day, Feb 13, 2015, the first genetically modified apples for sale and growing in the United States. The two varieties under the trademarked moniker ARCTIC, are variants of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious. The new apples, Arctic Granny tm, and Arctic Golden tm were created by the Canadian company Okanagan Specialty Fruits.
The improvements to the cultivars, unfortunately, were not motivated by the need to improve nutritional quality (at least Golden Rice engineers can claim this), nor by aiding farmers (with pest and disease control). It was motivated by…you guessed it…aesthetics. The new and improved Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples will resist browning when sliced. That’s right, finally, an apple you can wait hours to eat after slicing. I know I for one, have been befuddled by chopping up my apple, then going for a quick XX ski, only to return to find my apple gone all brown. No more. Sure, I could have used a Cortland or one of the other apples already known to brown slowly (there are 498 varieties documented to naturally have this trait), but darn it, I wanted my Granny!
The fact of the matter is that a browning apple is not an indication of decay. Enzymes present in the apple (polyphenol oxidase) oxidize its phenolic compounds, ending after a bit more chemistry into brown tissue in an event similar to the melanin reaction in your own epidermal cells. (Lemon juice or citric acid your mom uses to prevent browning works because they have a low pH which denatures the polyphenol oxidase and cannot oxidize the phenolic compounds).
So, cut cells turn brown. It is brown, that’s all for the most part… some wavelengths absorbed, brown ones reflected. Is that it then, we don’t like brown food? Perhaps we should eschew coffee and chocolate and hamburgers too. You know what may be more alarming than an apple that turns brown after you rupture its cells? One that doesn’t. Consider that apple that has been diced up and set in its container. How long has it been there anyway? If it is an apple from the new Arctic series, it may have been there for two weeks. That’s right, two weeks is the claim of the company. But we have an idea how long, since we or a family member dismembered it, right? This gets to the heart of the matter: An apple designed to be slow oxidizing (sluggish to brown) isn’t really all that useful to you and me. It is however, critical in use of prepared foods. Imagine fruit salads or pre-sliced bags of apples for preschoolers (these exist already). Containers sitting in a case for goodness knows how long.
These new cultivars (Fuji and Gala will also be released) have had their polyphenol oxidase gene turned off. There appears to be no agreement in the scientific community whether the enzyme serves a positive or negative function. Oxidation can lead to nutrient loss (as can exposed tissue regardless, as well as time). The entire process also triggers pathogen defense, so the apple’s browning may signify a suppression of decay.
This critique is not necessarily an attack on so called genetic modification of life forms. It is a critique on the priorities we set. If there is any case at all to proceed with caution in such a new undertaking, we should do so. Furthermore, if we are poised to utilize such a technology perhaps it should have a more useful or even benevolent outcome. It seems pristine apple slices are a far cry from those promises of suppressing disease and feeding the hungry.