Apeel's natural plant-based approach helps solve modern environmental problems.
Humans have always adopted the most effective methods of food preservation available. Apeel Sciences is now writing a new chapter in food history with its plant-derived technology for reducing food waste in the third millennium.
At least half a million years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors discovered that fire cooking extended the shelf life of big game (with the shelf perhaps being a rock ledge in the cave of a nomadic clan). Preserving fruits and vegetables by sun drying apparently became popular around 12,000 BCE, as humans began settling down into farming societies.
Curing meat and fish with salt was the preservation method of choice from the Middle Ages through the 1700s (despite any deleterious effects on the diner's blood pressure). Other approaches to making food last longer have included pickling, fermentation, smoking and even burying our future meals.
Individuals began being credited with food science breakthroughs in the 19th century. Nicolas Appert won a cash prize of 12,000 francs from the French government in 1810, for his canning invention that addressed the food preservation needs of Napoleon's vast armies.
Another Frenchman, Louis Pasteur, demonstrated in the mid-1800s that heating prevented beer and wine from going sour. Pasteurization is now used mainly in the dairy industry, but the great scientist's explanation of how bacteria and other microbes cause food to spoil was pivotal.
Clarence Birdseye developed his "quick freeze machine" in New York in the 1920s, after watching native people in the Canadian Arctic employ the elements to preserve fish. His flash freezing technique brought vegetables to the masses in the last half of the 20th century, as home refrigeration spread throughout the developed world.
Besides dramatically delaying the spoilage of harvested fruits and vegetables, Apeel's natural plant-based approach helps solve modern environmental problems.
The company was started in 2012 by James Rogers, then still earning his Ph.D. in materials science in California. Having previously researched the molecular barrier that protects stainless steel from rust, he reasoned that food might be preserved from decay in a similar manner.
Rogers eventually invented a method for extracting molecules from parts of plants that humans typically don't consume, such as stems and leaves. Applying this natural material, called Apeel, back onto fruit results in an ultrathin, invisible "second peel" that serves to keep air out and moisture in. This suppresses transpiration and respiration, the root causes of food spoilage. The protective layer is completely edible, and has been approved for use on certified organic as well as conventional produce in the United States.
By extending shelf life without refrigeration and unnatural practices like fumigation, Apeel enables growers to harvest their crops at peak ripeness. That means lower loss rates for retailers, and more flavorful and nutritious food for consumers.
Apeel's landmark idea — using food to make food last longer — marks a unique chapter in food tech innovation.
The technology also reduces the net use of chemical pesticides and conserves water and energy. That's because when food rots prior to consumption, all the pesticides, water and energy used to grow that food are wasted as well. And spoiled food ends up in overburdened landfills, which are major emitters of greenhouse gases.
The basic aim of food preservation has not changed all that much over the ages, whether the prevailing best practice meant storing rice in clay pots or coating apples with beeswax. Today, Apeel is earning its place in the food history pantheon in a revolutionary way that's just right for the 21st century.