Designer Fruits: Already in a Grocery Store Near You

PHOTO: Ha Huynh/Getty Images

A Brazilian commercial that aired this May featured people in a farmer's market enjoying free fruit samples, offered on trays outside of stands. But unlike most markets, as people in the ad tasted the sample and removed their toothpicks, their eyes bulged with expressions of confusion.

That's because these samples weren't apples and oranges. Rather, they were samples of pinegrape, bananaberries and kiwigerine.

The ad, produced by Ogilvy Brazil to promote a new food blender, created blended, or hybrid, fruit. It opened with text reading, "To promote the ultimate blending machine, we created the ultimate blending fruit. Literally."

The ad is not as strange as it appears. Designer hybrid fruits, which are created by molecular science (as in the case of the Brazilian commercial) or by cross-pollinating fruit for extended periods of time (a much more common process), are increasingly finding their way into our grocery stores. In 2007, hybrid fruits started becoming a popular trend, appearing in Whole Foods and generating $100 million in business that year in the U.S. alone.

Most recently, a fruit breeder based in Delano, California, David Cain, is hoping to strike it lucky with his cotton candy grape, a green grape that elicits flavor from the popular carnival snack. The grapes will be carried in Gelson's markets, a small grocery chain in California.

Cain, who specializing in grape breeding, already has a product in high-end grocery stores throughout the country: Witch Fingers. The seedless black grape is long, thin and sweet. In bunches, it looks like a shriveled hand.

When Witch Fingers came out in 2011, it cost $7/pound. Regular grapes at a grocery store average $3/pound. Two years later, after gaining some popularity and producers, the Witch Fingers grapes can now be found on FreshDirect.com for $4.99/pound.

More popular varieties of hybrid fruit include the Nectaplum, a hybrid of a nectarine and a plum, and pluots and apriums, both crossbred plums and apricots. Most of the hybrid fruits that have already made their way into your grocery store were created in Modesto California, by David Zaiger and Zaiger's Genetics, which has patented over 200 varieties of hybrids.

But people have been eating hybrid fruits for decades. Ever have a Gala apple? They were the second most popular apple in the U.S. in 2006, according to the U.S. Apple Association. And they're also a hybrid fruit, derived from a cross between a Golden Delicious and a Kidd's Orange Red Apple and developed in New Zealand in the 1930s.

The hybrid process happens as plant breeders take the pollen of one plant, say a plum, and cross it with the flower of another plant, for example an apricot, to produce a seed. The seed is then planted and a new plant is born. It can take 10 to 15 years of breeding generations upon generations of a plant for the resulting fruit to have the right texture and taste for commercial sales.

And there can be many variations within the breeding of the two same fruits. Take the example of plums and fruits, which combined can create plumcots, pluots and apriums. A tree that is crossbred with a 50:50 ratio of plum and apricot is called a plumcot. But add more plum pollen throughout a few generations of breeding and the pluot is born, its name emphasizing the plum because of its genetic makeup. The process of creating an aprium is similar, meaning that the 50:50 variety is crossed with more apricot pollen to create the apricot-heavy hybrid fruit.

After years of production, when breeders are happy with their product, they patent the fruit. Then the patented fruit can be sold to farmers who hope to profit from the appeal of branded designer fruit.

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