Too ripe, too soon? Fruitect it!

| Written by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo

Attention, fruit farmers and exporters: there’s a new way to extend the shelf life of your produce! That’s right. UP Los Baños scientists have discovered a way to help the fruit industry cut back its post-harvest losses by making produce last longer.

Dr. Veronica C. Sabularse, Dr. Hidelisa P. Hernandez, and Rhea DC Mallari from the Institute of Chemistry have created Fruitect Mango, a liquid coating formulation that delays the ripening of Carabao mango. Other formulations are suited for White Sunrise papaya, PPY-14 papaya, Smooth Cayenne pineapple, and Lacatan banana.

It’s easy to apply. It can be brushed on harvested fruits or it can be used as a dipping solution. It rinses off with just water because it’s not like the usual wax-based coating which needs to be removed with soap and water. In addition, it’s green technology. It comes from agricultural waste, which makes it a byproduct that prevents main agricultural products from going to waste.

According to the team, initial data showed that Fruitect can also minimize moisture loss, shriveling, and abrasion during transport. But the measure of success lies in one very important factor: taste. One would think that delaying the natural ripening process would affect the freshness and taste of the produce, but it doesn’t.

“Our research assistants ate the fruits in our experiments and they all said, ‘Masarap!’ [Delicious!] Rhea can attest to that,” Hernandez says with a laugh. “So, no. There were no observed changes in taste. The fruits tasted the way they were supposed to, comparable to freshly picked ripened fruits from the farm,” adds Sabularse.

 

The team that created Fruitect, from left to right: Rhea DC Mallari, Dr. Veronica C. Sabularse, and Dr. Hidelisa P. Hernandez​ of the Institute of Chemistry, UP Los Baños. (Photo by Misael A. Bacani, UP MPRO)
The team that created Fruitect, from left to right: Rhea DC Mallari, Dr. Veronica C. Sabularse, and Dr. Hidelisa P. Hernandez​ of the Institute of Chemistry, UP Los Baños. (Photo by Misael A. Bacani, UP MPRO)

 

The backstory

Sabularse actually started working on coating formulations back in 1996. “The idea of coatings has been around for a long time,” she says. “That’s what I worked on when I was on fellowship in Australia and when I came back, I had the idea of making use of agricultural processing waste.”

In 2010, Sabularse’s proposed research on nanobiocomposite coatings was one of four exploratory projects on nanotechnology funded by the Philippine Council for Advanced Science and Technology Research and Development, now the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (PCIEERD), of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). Three years later, the council’s nanotech exploration had become a program and Sabularse and Hernandez had already joined together and were granted funding for additional research.

”PCIEERD had a condition: that we work on major export commodities. Post-harvest losses range from 20 to 80 percent,” Hernandez reveals. Almost four years later, four Fruitect formulations were created.

Trial and error

Like any scientific research requiring experimentation, Fruitect and its four formulations resulted from the age-old painstaking process of trial and error— from the optimization of extraction of ingredients from raw materials to making and recalibrating the formulations to actual testing, which involves physical observation and chemical analysis. Each Fruitect formulation is specific to a variety of papaya, mango, pineapple, and banana.

“We really have to emphasize that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Sabularse explains. “We can’t guarantee the desired result if the technology isn’t used as intended,” Hernandez adds.

Following export storage conditions of 13°C, Fruitect Mango delays the ripening of the carabao variety by 16 days. At 25°C, the delay is four days. Fruitect Papaya delays the ripening of the PPY-14 variety by five days when stored at 20°C, and the white sunrise variety by 28 days when stored at 13°C. Stored at 25°C, Fruitect Pineapple extends the life of the sweet cayenne variety for six more days. Fruitect Banana also prolongs the life of the lakatan variety by six additional days when stored at 28°C.

The coating formulation for papaya has already been granted a utility model patent, while another patent application for mango coating has been filed.

 

Experiment on Carabao mangoes showing control group and group treated with Fruitect Mango. These were stored at 13°C, the storage temperature during export. Fruitect Mango delayed ripening by 16 days. (Photo from Dr. Hidelisa P. Hernandez, UPLB IC)
Experiment on Carabao mangoes showing control group and group treated with Fruitect Mango. These were stored at 13°C, the storage temperature during export. Fruitect Mango delayed ripening by 16 days. (Photo from Dr. Hidelisa P. Hernandez, UPLB IC)

 

The present and future of Fruitect

“We’re always invited to DOST technology transfer events across the country and we’ve been getting calls from interested farmers and exporters,” says Hernandez. These are not just those with thousand-hectare farms and exporters of produce to foreign countries, but also those with smaller farms and who export locally or across Philippine islands.

In addition, they’ve been “getting inquiries about coating formulations for other produce like strawberry, cucumber, okra, and tomato,” according to Sabularse.

The team says that going around the country to the tech transfer events has been an eye-opener for scientists such as themselves who are usually engrossed in their research and cooped up in their labs.

Hernandez is hopeful of the future. “We see a lot of potential in the multitude of problems that are presented to us. There are so many possibilities like other waste materials to repurpose or other agricultural products that could be major exports if only they had longer shelf life after harvest. We can still make so many improvements.”

While the team is working toward helping the fruit industry in waste utilization and decreasing post-harvest losses, it also hopes to reach out to regular folk who harvest fruit from a few trees around their houses or even consumers who just want their fruits to last a little longer.