Chain stores' preference for looks over taste threatens many apple varieties
Biting into a crisp Macintosh apple sends a shock of sensations across the tongue. The tartness mixed with a hint of sugar—the very essence of fall for many people raised in northeastern states—may soon be only a memory.
Established and even beloved apple varieties like the Mac, with its soft texture and green patches, are being replaced by firmer, more uniformly red, and, usually, sweeter apples. Just 15 of the nearly 100 varieties of apples grown commercially in the United States now constitute more than 90 percent of production in American orchards. One reason for the declining diversity of apples and other produce is the domination of retail grocery chains to whom appearance means everything.
“I'd say the majority of produce buying is impulse sales,” says Johnny Crawford, northeast regional buyer for Wal-Mart, the country's largest grocery retailer. “It's got to look good so consumers will pick it.”
Crawford’s assessment helps explain why Red Delicious is the best-selling apple at Wal-Mart. The deep-red apple is not particularly flavorful, but Crawford, who has worked in the apple industry for nearly 30 years, says buyers think it’s pretty. Another variety that's gaining momentum is the light-red, mildly flavored Gala apple, which may overtake the Red Delicious in popularity within five years, Crawford says.
The taste of apples fluctuates from region to region, even within the same apple varieties. In upstate New York, for example, locally grown Red Delicious are known for their strong, sweet flavor. But most New Yorkers never experience that flavor be-cause retail chains cater to customers’ aesthetic taste, rather than their taste buds. Big chains like Wal-Mart generally won’t sell apples grown just up the road because they prefer a less-flavorful but more brightly colored apple shipped across the country from Washington State or shipped in from the Southern hemisphere.
“I was in a competitor's store [in upstate New York] today, and they had very limited varieties of New York apples; most of the department was Washington apples,” Crawford says. “Washington apples just look better. I'm not saying they taste better, but they look better.”
But there's hope for apple lovers who want more than bland-tasting fruit. Hugh Price, chair of Cornell University’s Department of Horticultural Sciences, believes that American consumers' preferences are changing.
“They're not as concerned about appearances,” Price says. “Fuji, Braeburn, and Gala apples aren't particularly pretty, but, oh, they're good to eat.”
A look at sales confirms his hunch: Although no U.S. apple farmers grew the sugary Fuji apple in 1988, Washington State now produces 9 million bushels a year.
Karen Russo is a freelance journalist living in New York City.