Is "New and Improved" Ever a Good Thing in the World of Food?

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Opal apple growing

There are at least 7500 different kinds of apples in the world.

Some of that ingenuity can be attributed to the wondrous creativity of God, who also created both the hippopotamus and the praying mantis as an example of His breadth and scope. Winking smile

Some of it, although still ultimately God’s awesome power, can also be attributed to man’s creativity and scientific mind.

And that starts to sound a little scary.

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In the world of food, anytime I see something “new” I immediately look at it sideways and then run the other way.

“New and improved” is always a mark of something over-processed and probably detrimental to one’s health when it comes to food. Right?

In the case of hydrogenated oils, Nutrasweet, and fat-free cheese, “new” is most definitely a bad sign.

But what about all those apples?

I walked into our local big box store about a month ago and saw that the endcap in the produce section had a “new” apple, the Opal Apple. It looked like my old friend the Golden Delicious, but the “new!” sign gave me pause.

Do we real foodies have to become concerned about finding only heritage varieties of apples and eschewing anything that’s ever been mixed with another kind of tree? How can we even trace apples back to only the originals? They don’t exactly come stamped with “descended from Garden of Eden” stamped on them.

(If they did, you might actually want to stay away from those in particular. Eating them caused some problems for a certain Adam and Eve…)

When the Opal Apple company asked me if I wanted to work with them on some posts, I had to dig in and do some research. As awesome as it was to have produce that actually had a brand to work with and a marketing firm, I had to make sure I wouldn’t be promoting the next Frankenfood.

Apples are Not Genetically Modified

apples are not genetically modified

Many people are pretty convinced that genetic modification, the process of introducing one species into another and/or making changes at the genetic level of an organism, is a slippery slope at best, and extremely harmful for human consumption at worst.

Thankfully for my apple-loving family, apples are not yet on the list of GM foods we have to worry about. Hopefully they never will be.

We’ve talked recently about how wheat is also not GMO, but it’s still altered so much that it may be harmful to the human gut. The genes haven’t been modified, but wheat is exposed to radiation and has gone through such radical changes in the hands of scientists that it’s almost not recognizable as wheat anymore.

It’s not actually rocket science (or genetic biology even) to crossbreed two apples into a new “cultivar” like the Opal Apple.

In fact, if we’re lucky, it’s going to happen in our own backyard this year.

Creating a New Apple

DSC02236 (475x356)

We have two apple trees in our backyard that my kids got as birthday gifts in 2012. (Best. Birthday. Gift. Ever, by the way! Talk about clutter free, practical, but so fun!) One is a Honeycrisp, and one is a Gala. The only way they’re going to bear fruit is if they’re pollinated, of course, that’s basic botany.

An apple tree can’t pollinate itself. The bees have to have another apple tree close enough to visit in order for the flowers to turn into fruit, so you always have to plant at least two apple trees.

When the little bees visit our Gala and then our Honeycrisp, the pollen will transfer and make the flower fertile, which will then become an apple – if the birds don’t eat it first.

That’s the birds and the bees, you know.

Here comes the cool part: Every apple on both trees will have unique seeds that will have qualities of both the Gala and the Honeycrisp.

Planting an Apple Tree

how to grow a new kind of apple - Opal

Raise your hand if you’ve ever saved seeds from an apple you ate to plant a new apple tree.

If you got serious about it, you might have labeled the seeds according to the apple variety: Golden Delicious, Fuji, Jonathan.

The crazy thing about apples is that even if a Golden Delicious apple tree was the pollinator for another Golden Delicious apple tree, the seeds wouldn’t necessarily grow a recognizable Golden Delicious, because apples do not “breed true.”

That’s why creating a new apple is relatively easy: Johnny Appleseed did it all across the nation if he really did wander about, planting apple seeds. Each tree would have been a little different.

Creating a good new apple, one that has desirable qualities from both parents and is actually better than its ancestors is a bit more difficult: “The odds of a seed producing a better variety are very low, less than 1 in 10,000.” (source)

A Good New Apple

That’s why when a new apple comes along, you can be pretty sure that someoneOpal apple on a tree either worked very hard to find the “best” progeny of a couple other varieties, or they got very lucky.

Enter the Opal Apple.

The child of the Golden Delicious and the Topaz, the Opal Apple was created by the Institute of Experimental Botany in Prague to have some handy features (and one nice surprise):

  • crisp flesh
  • sweet flavor
  • hardy, doesn’t bruise easily
  • resists oxidation naturally, so it doesn’t get brown as quickly (the nice surprise)
  • Follow Opal Apple on Facebook to learn more and for opportunities to win some.

chocolate almond butter dip with apples - in Blendtec (2) (475x356)

To create a new cultivar, its makers have to “play bees” by brushing pollen from one tree onto another, then planting its seeds, waiting, and tasting. I can only imagine it takes a great deal of patience, and you really want to know what you’re looking for!

The Opal Apple has been very popular, with an 89% approval rating. Perhaps we should consider Opal for president…

Opal Apples even support gardens for kids via Katie’s Krops, which is pretty awesome.

How to Keep an Apple Cultivar Going

baby eats apple

What’s really interesting about growing apples is that once you get the kind you want, there’s that seed problem I mentioned above: the seed isn’t going to produce the same apple as its parents. So how do apple growers end up with Golden Delicious every year, and how did the Opal Apple people keep the Opal going?

It’s called grafting.

You take good rootstock and a little stick from the tree you want, line them up, tape them together, and about 95% of the time, the little stick (a “scion”) will grow a new apple tree, and the fruit will match the one you cut it from 100% of the time.

The type of rootstock you choose determines the size of the tree and the depth of the roots, which is why you can get both dwarf and regular sizes of just about any apple.

Interestingly enough, this will not be happening in my backyard this year, which leads me to reason that keeping an apple variety around is actually a lot more “unnatural” than creating a new apple.

That’s why even a “new” apple a day…doesn’t need to scare the real foodie away.

Have you tried the Opal or seen it in stores? What do you think? What are your favorite qualities in an apple?

Opal apple

Apple recipes:

sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Opal apple photos are from the Opal website, who sponsored this post.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by First Fruits Marketing and Opal Apple. See my full disclosure statement here.

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22 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Heather says

    This confusion is one of the many reasons GMO labeling needs to happen.

    I remember as a kid we had a few apple trees in our back yard. Whenever asked what variety they were my mother would shrug her shoulders and answer, “apple”. She will get a kick out of finding out how accurate her answer really was.

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  2. Amy says

    I tried my first Opal last weekend. I am not a fan of the Delicious varieties. Too mushy for me. I love the crisp bite of Galas and Braeburns, and the tartness of Winesaps (very difficult to find these days). I was delighted. The Opal is crunchy but sweet, and did hold up very well–took me 5 days to get around to eating it. I will definitely buy again when they are on sale. Thanks for the indepth info as I was not at all familiar with them when I bought!

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  3. Laura says

    Yes, we tried an opal about a month ago. My 4 yo was fascinated by the pile of yellow apples. They are very good but very expensive! Organic galas were cheaper. Of course honeycrisp will always be my true apple love.

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  4. says

    Sorry to break it to ya… but there is a GE apple. Not on the market yet, but one of its so-called virtues: non-browning.

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    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Yuck. At least it’s not on the market yet. We’ll have to keep our eyes peeled, but at least it’s good to know that it’s possible to resist browning withOUT going GMO! :(

    Katie

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  5. says

    No I haven’t seen the Opal apples in our supermarket but I will definitely be looking for them. My wife really loves these types of apples so she will want to try them as well. I remember taking horticulture in high school and we did an experiment grafting an apple and a pear tree to see if we could. I don’t believe it ever took off. Bummer

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  6. Cathy says

    In California backyard growers have “fruit cocktail” trees, which are single trees with several fruit varieties grafted on. With the stone fruits you could have peaches and nectarines on the same tree (and I think you can do plums and pluots and apriums). Our house came with an apple with 3 different varieties. Only one has born decent fruit because we’re not in a good apple-growing zone in the first place.

    While grafting certainly wouldn’t occur in nature, it’s something anyone could do in their back yard, so I don’t think it’s much less natural than other agricultural practices (like irrigating crops). And pretty much any fruit or nuts that originate from California will be grown from grafted trees, where disease-resistant root stocks form the base (e.g., walnuts sold in stores have black walnut root stocks).

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Lizi says

    Are opal apples organic? Apples are consistently the #1 most contaminated fruit on the dirty dozen list, and that is AFTER they are washed AND peeled…yikes!
    I always stay away from conventional apples, I don’t even take one look, whether they are super cheap or some fancy new delicious variety, I vote with my dollars loud and clear: no pesticides for my family, thank you very much.
    What do you think, Katie?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Lizi,
    I’ve just started trying to seek out organic apples, but honestly – I take what I can get sometimes. My food budget has ballooned this year with the addition of more organics, and I’m certainly still not 100%. No pesticides is a great goal, but not always a practical one, sadly.

    ???

    Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Lizi,
    I got a response from the company about organic apples:

    “We do have an organic version of Opal apples; we suggest that they check with their produce manager because not every retailer carries this version.”

    :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Lora says

    Here’s another reason having your own apple trees is terrific: I was very disappointed to read recently that the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board currently allows use of streptomycin and tetracycline on organic apples and organic pears: http://www.naturalnews.com/039472_antibiotics_organic_fruits_petition.html. I wonder if the Opal Apple company refrains from this use of antibiotics.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Lora,
    I will ask them and get back to you, thank you! :) Katie

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    Lora Reply:

    Thank you, and I also appreciate your link on FB to your post from some time ago about the most effective ways to clean apples. In addition, I came across the following link for a petition about the phase-out of use of antibiotics being allowed on organic apples: http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/1881/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=9988.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Lora, Here’s the answer from the company:

    “Streptomycin/Tetracycline is used to combat Fire blight. We are a very unique company in the we use almost no Streptomycin/Tetracycline. We do not use Streptomycin/Tetracycline on our organic Opals. Nearly all of our other Organic apples are grown without Streptomycin/Tetracycline and are EU compliant.”

    Good news in my book! :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. says

    has anyone tried granny smith apples. I have been informed they are really good for you but i can not find them anywhere? All advice welcome…

    [Reply to this comment]

    'Becca Reply:

    That’s funny–where do you live? I live in Pennsylvania and grew up in Oklahoma, and Granny Smith is one of the apples most often found in supermarkets both places. I think they might not grow organically as well as others, though, because we sometimes see organic Granny Smith in stores here but they aren’t one of the varieties usually available.

    Granny Smith is a very tart apple, almost sour. Some people like them for fresh eating and others don’t, but they are good cooked.

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  10. says

    Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire has fascinating info about apples, including his visit to a wild apple forest in the Eastern European homeland of apples.

    I hadn’t heard of the Opal Apple; I like the name and plan to say it as often as possible. :-)

    I live in Pennsylvania, where 3-pound bags of organic apples typically cost $5-$6; that’s cheap enough for me, so we buy only organic apples now. Our CSA farm grows apples, and in the fall we can buy local apples in supermarkets, but by this time of year most apples are trucked clear across the country from Washington.

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Marisa says

    Another timely post, Katie! We just got the Opal Apple in at our local supermarket. I have a VERY picky daughter that will not eat an apple usually because she does not like that it turns brown. The opal apple is perfect for her. It is super yummy too. They are pretty expensive though. I hope as they become more popular the price will decrease some.

    [Reply to this comment]

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