The emerging market for fresh sliced apples

Are presliced apples the next baby carrots? At a time when sales of all precut fruits and vegetables are rising as hurried consumers seek out convenience foods, it could just happen. A reported 38 percent growth in sales of presliced apples from 2006 to 2007 supports the idea. Here’s what you need to know about this emerging market.

Although fresh sliced apples have been available since the late 1990s, they did not take off until about 2002. By 2005, at least 20 U.S. processors were supplying apples to retail, food service and school markets. Studies in schools have found that kids who would not tackle an entire apple will eat an individually wrapped (about 2-ounce) serving of the presliced fruit. McDonald’s introduction of Apple Dippers provided a boost to the presliced apple market. About 64 million pounds of sliced apples a year go into the restaurant’s Apple Dippers, and another 40 million pounds into its apple-walnut salad.

Processing sliced apples

Slicing apples for the fresh-cut market is a challenging process. As anyone who has cut open an apple knows, they are inclined to turn brown and mushy. To keep their appeal, apple slices need to be able to retain their whole apple tartness or sweetness, texture and appearance from processor to consumer. To accomplish this, they must be maintained at 32 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit from grower to consumer. They must also be treated to prevent discoloration.

Apples are cut at the rate of 100 apples per minute.

In broad terms, processing entails sani-tizing the whole apples, then coring and slicing them, and spraying them to remove particles created in the cutting process. Next, the slices are coated with one of several proprietary compounds, generally ascorbic acid to prevent discoloration and calcium to maintain texture. (On consumer packaging, the combination may be termed vitamin C and calcium.) After the apples are coated, either by dipping or by low-volume spray, they are air-dried. Lastly, the slices are packaged in individual servings of about 2 ounces, or in larger 14-ounce to 3-pound clamshell units, film packs or poly bags. White room processing is critical to success.  

The right apples

Apples for the fresh-cut market need to be firm, generally of dessert quality and available year-round. Empire, Braeburn, Gala, Fuji, Cameo, Crispin, Jonathan, Pink Lady and Granny Smith varieties may be used, but the most frequently selected varieties are Gala, Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Empire. Several varieties common to New England and the Northeast have been tested for possible cutting. Of Cortland (Red Cortland and Standard), Empire, McIntosh and Rome apples, Cortland and Empire retained good flavor, texture and appearance during 44 days of testing. McIntosh fermented within 25 days.

Apple slices are dipped in a vitamin C solution to keep them fresh.

At Champlain Valley Specialty in Keesville, N.Y., Owner Jerry Dygert has been processing sliced apples since 2005. He uses Empire apples sourced from the region in which the sliced apples will be consumed, thus keeping each area in its own apples. For the New York market, Champlain Valley Specialty gets apples from the Hudson and Champlain Valleys; for the New England market from Vermont; and for the Virginia market from Virginia. Currently processing apples from nine New York growers, two Vermont and one Virginia grower, Dygert uses 120 to 125 count (approximately 2.75 to 2 7/8-inch diameter) apples shipped to his processing plant in 18 to 22-bushel bins. Apples must be without stickers. Although some processors accept waxed apples, Dygert does not prefer them since waxing introduces an unnecessary substance.

In one exceptionally high-production week in early 2008, Champlain Valley Specialty’s 30 workers turned four tractor trailer loads—160,000 pounds—of whole apples into 1.2 million individual 2-ounce bags of sliced apples. Customers include the New York City schools. While Champlain Valley Specialty is not immediately seeking new sources of apples for its Grab Apples brand, Dygert foresees that changing as demand for presliced apples increases.

For Crist Brothers Orchard in Walden, N.Y., Empire apples for the fresh sliced market are a small but growing part of sales. About a quarter of the trees in their 600-acre orchard are Empires, and approximately 5 percent of the crop is currently shipped for sliced apple processing. Apples for slicing are sorted on their packing line where they are selected for exact size (2.75 to 2 7/8 inches). Because they are picked from the packing line, all apples either get waxed or all apples do not get waxed. Stickers are not applied to apples to be sliced. Although the sliced apple market currently pays less than the fresh market, it is not, says Crist, a second-class market, and it is definitely a market in which Crist Brothers wants to be involved. “We must supply a high-quality product, grown right and harvested and stored properly. We are meticulous about doing everything right.” While New York State is an expensive place to grow apples, Crist points to its proximity to markets as a big plus. The grower challenge, says Crist, is to keep to a level where good apples are always available.

Northeast prospects

For Northeast apple growers, presliced apples present an opportunity to increase per capita consumption of locally grown apples. Studies conducted in the New England region have found that knowing fresh fruits or vegetables were grown locally increased the likelihood that consumers would purchase them. Results of a 2003 study by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, for instance, found that 78 percent of consumers surveyed in Connecticut and 75 percent of those surveyed in Massachusetts would be more likely to purchase produce grown locally. These consumers also consider locally grown food to be healthier and fresher than food grown or produced outside the region. Another plus for Northeast apples is transportation costs lower than those for apples shipped from the West Coast. Apples that have not been transported across the country in refrigerated trucks are also fresher.

After they are coated with a vitamin C solution, apple slices are shaken and dried.

Market analysts have suggested the possibility of expanding fresh-cut apple packaging to include cheese, peanut butter or other dips. Other possibilities include adding caramel or berry flavors, already being tried by one West Coast processor. As a healthy alternative to junk food, sliced apples address and coincide with national attention to the issue of childhood obesity.

Sliced apples are lifted upwards through chutes to Grab Apples packaging machines.

Although there are opportunities to be a part of the fresh-cut apple market, processing and marketing present challenges. Among them is proper refrigeration throughout the life of the product. Another is the product’s relatively short shelf life. Correct processing and refrigeration can prevent browning and softening and preserve texture and flavor for 21 to 40 days. While this is a shorter time than many vending machine-type snack foods, it is a period comparable to or longer than other produce.

Another system of processing apples being introduced in New Zealand may lessen the $1.5 million capital investment currently required to build a fresh-cut processing facility with a capacity of 500 to 1,000 pounds of slices per hour. The New Zealand “Fresh Appeal” technology uses a disinfection process to wash sliced produce and a UV light to kill pathogens. Heat is then used to penetrate the slice to kill subsurface contamination. Instant cooling is aimed at extending shelf life.

Noting that the market for sliced apples in New England is undeveloped, Gail McWilliam Jellie of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture in a 2006 study concluded that “the opportunity for New England growers is to work with an existing sliced apple processor to develop the sliced apple market in the region with a branded New England product.” She further suggests that growers could either supply apples to a processor or that growers could create a venture to market and sell fresh cut slices made with their own apples. It’s something to think about.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Henniker, N.H.