By DANIEL AKST
Fast-food chains long ago found ways to boost the ingredients—sugars and fats—that humans find hardest to resist. What if you could similarly amp up the appealing qualities of fruits and vegetables—without adding hormones or modifying genes?
In a new paper, researchers at the University of Florida report success at manipulating the taste and aroma of fruits and even flowers by bombarding them with certain wavelengths of light.
The research raises the prospect that scientists may be able to cheaply and easily improve the taste of the things we ought be eating most, possibly by means of refrigerators that shine a light on your food when their doors are closed.
It is long been known that the quality and duration of light serve as signals to plants, influencing their growth, color, ripening and nutritional properties. It’s also well established that a lot of the taste and fragrance of produce arises from volatile organic compounds. In the Florida research, scientists set out to see if they could use light to influence these compounds after the produce was harvested.
The researchers exposed petunias, tomatoes, strawberries and blueberries to five different lighting conditions, including total darkness, and then measured the resulting volatile organic emissions. These emissions varied a great deal. They found, for example, that blue light produced no significant increase vs. normal light in four key compounds related to tomato flavor. But shining a far-red light, a type undetectable by the human eye, resulted in big increases in all four compounds.
Thomas A. Colquhoun, the paper’s lead author, hopes that the research will eventually lead to what he calls “a light prescription,” detailing the color, duration and sequence of lights that produce optimal flavor in every crop. He noted that the light treatments use LEDs, which require little energy, and do not impair nutritional content.
Indeed, in other experiments the researchers have been able to boost some nutrients with light manipulation.
“Light Modulation of Volatile Organic Compounds From Petunia Flowers and Select Fruits,” Thomas A. Colquhoun, 10 other authors, Postharvest Biology and Technology (July online)