A perfectly ripe strawberry sitting in a lab at a startup in Santa Barbara, California, looks and tastes exactly like any other perfectly ripe strawberry. But on the grocery store shelf, it would last twice as long as the regular strawberries you’re used to. It hasn’t been genetically modified, it just has some added protection.
The startup, Apeel Sciences, uses a new method for fighting food waste. Apeel turns uneaten food material–like orange peels, stems, leaves, and grape skins–into a precisely blended powder that can be used to create an invisible, edible, incredibly thin barrier on produce.
“That barrier slows down the rate that water evaporates out of the produce, and slows down the rate that oxygen gets into a produce,” says James Rogers, CEO and founder of Apeel. “By doing that, we’re able to dramatically extend the shelf life of the produce, because those are the things that really cause the produce to spoil.”
The powder, called Edipeel, is packaged like small packets of sugar to make it lightweight and easy to distribute. “We rip [the packets] open wherever we want to use them, and then we reconstitute them in liquid form,” Rogers says. “In that liquid form, we can then dip fresh produce in that solution or spray that solution onto a surface of a piece of produce. When it dries, it leaves behind this imperceptibly thin barrier of plant material on the outside of the produce.”
For consumers, the technology could mean better quality fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes are routinely picked when they’re underripe so that they’re ready by the time they make long journeys from fields to grocery stores; if they’re refrigerated along the way, more of the flavor is lost. With the new peel-like barrier, fruit could be picked at peak ripeness and still make it to consumers intact.
The process could also dramatically reduce waste at each stage of the food chain. “The grower gets the benefit of a piece of produce that is more highly transportable and doesn’t require the same amount of refrigeration,” says Rogers.
Good Land Organics, an organic farm on California’s Central Coast that is one of the startup’s early customers, used the method to extend the life of finger limes–an exotic fruit that’s popular with chefs and bartenders, but only lasts a few days off the tree. In the past, the farm couldn’t market its limes before they went bad. Now they last twice as long.
At supermarkets, produce using the new treatment can last longer on the shelves. Consumers have produce that lasts longer at home. The startup envisions that food companies might also start using the product in creative ways that match consumer use: A bunch of bananas, for example, might be coated so that one banana ripens on Monday, the next on Tuesday, and so on.
Roughly 40% of the food grown in the U.S. is currently wasted as it makes its way from farms to distributors, grocery stores, restaurants, and homes. The energy and water used to produce that food is also wasted.
Apeel makes a separate formulation that can be used while crops are growing. The thin barrier of “Invisipeel,” the startup’s pre-harvest product, can protect produce from pests such as fungus without the use of pesticides.
“[Fungi] randomly blow on to different surfaces, and then they check for molecular recognition of that surface,” he says. “And if they recognize that surface as being molecularly similar to what they’ve been evolved to see for the last million years, then they say, ‘Aha, this is food.'” With Invispeel applied, fungus won’t recognize the produce and doesn’t take root, keeping the plants safe.
The company’s products are FDA approved and already in use by a few small customers, but Apeel now plans to expand on a much larger scale. Andreesen Horowitz and DBL Partners recently led a $33 million investment round, and the startup has raised a total of $40 million.
The products could have sweeping impact in the U.S. as long as consumers are comfortable with the idea of the coating (though they should be, as produce is often already coated with wax). But Rogers thinks Apeel could have even more impact in developing countries.
“Because of a lack of installed infrastructure, you’ve got these ‘food islands’ where there’s tons of food being grown, but there’s no ability to get that food from where it’s grown to a market,” Rogers says. Without refrigeration, food often goes bad before it can be sold.
“The smaller farmers can apply it to their produce and now have their mangoes last 10 or 15 days longer,” he says. “So now they can actually get those mangoes from a place that they currently couldn’t get any value for them to a place that will actually value this thing.”
The cost of the products, he says, is already nearly low enough to make it affordable by subsistence farmers.
“I love what we’re doing commercially, and we’re going to give people more nutritious, wider availability of seasonal produce in the U.S. and other developed countries,” he says. “But what really gets me out of bed in the morning is the transformational impact.”