Why Are Fruits Different Colors Now?


On a recent visit to the supermarket, I found myself terribly disturbed by a carton of fruit. There, among the raspberries and blueberries, were ghostly white strawberries. They were the inverse of every strawberry I had ever seen—fully ripe berries with pale flesh bleeding pinpricks of red. Their seeds called to mind clogged pores in need of a nose strip. Rattled, I pivoted my cart toward less haunting produce.

The little freaks, I later learned, are pineberries, a cultivar named for their supposed subtle pineapple flavor but far better known for their spooky hue. Slicing one open reveals an interior that is unnervingly white. They aren’t the only wacky-colored fruit in the produce section these days: Other strawberries come in pale yellow or creamy blush, pink-pearl apples are a shocking magenta inside, and there are now kiwis to match every color of a traffic light. You can get yellow watermelon at H-E-B, pink pineapples on Instacart, and peach-colored raspberries at Kroger.

This is the era of bizarro fruit: Unusual colors are “a clear trend in the produce section,” Courtney Weber, a professor of plant breeding at Cornell University, told me. The variations in color sometimes come with a subtle flavor shift, but the difference is primarily aesthetic. People don’t buy peach-colored raspberries because they taste peachy. They buy them because they look cool.

Fruits that are the “wrong” color are not new. Some, like the Arkansas Black apple, arise spontaneously in nature. In other cases, breeders develop them by crossing different-colored fruits. But these haven’t historically made their way to your supermarket, because growing them at the volume necessary to serve large chains is risky and expensive. Typically, produce found in big stores must be grown in huge quantities, packed and shipped long distances, and sold quickly enough to not rot on the shelf. To tick all of those boxes, breeders developed hardy supermarket stalwarts such as the Gala apple, the Cavendish banana, and Thompson seedless grapes. In many cases, breeding efforts aimed to bring out appealing and uniform color—a major reason the Red Delicious apple came to be so popular.

Now things are getting goofy. Although breeders largely still use traditional techniques, such as cross-pollination and grafting, to produce fruit with certain traits, the process is now more efficient because of advances in genomics. “If you understand how the trait is inherited, it’s easier to make the appropriate genetic combinations to get what you’re after,” Weber said. He previously developed a purple strawberry; these days, he’s working on raspberries in sunshine hues.

The appetite for bizarro fruit has led some big companies to invest in creating new varieties. Driscoll’s, the berry giant, developed pale-yellow “Tropical Bliss” and baby-pink “Rosé” strawberries over decades of breeding in-house. Fresh Del Monte has gone a different route: The company’s coral-fleshed “Pinkglow” pineapples have been genetically engineered to accumulate lycopene, the compound that turns tomatoes red. The fruit is sold only at a smattering of retailers in certain states (notably not Hawaii, which restricts pineapple imports). But it has been so popular that Fresh Del Monte recently suggested that the pineapple has boosted the company’s bottom line.

You can’t go into just any grocery store and find these kinds of weird fruits. They are stocked at some mid-priced stores—Trader Joe’s, for example, sells pink-fleshed oranges—but they are far more likely to be found at higher-end groceries. At least for now: Fruit innovation beyond ghostly berries and colorful kiwis is “on the horizon,” Lauren M. Scott, the chief strategy officer of the International Fresh Produce Association, told me.  To a lesser extent, the vegetable aisle has gone kaleidoscopic too, with candy-striped beets, violet-colored green beans, and cauliflower in shades of lavender, marigold, and lemon-lime. “People love new things, but they’re also creatures of habit,” Scott said. That is, they don’t want things that are too new. For the average customer bored of regular old fruit, the barrier to entry is lower for a pink apple than it is for, say, a rambutan.

For consumers who stumble upon them, the experience can be trippy. The new colors can come with tastier fruit—a red kiwi is sweeter than the original tart green. But color shapes our expectations for flavor, which weird-colored fruit can thwart in a way that feels novel and exciting, if not nonsensical. White strawberries look unripe, but don’t taste it. Yellow is usually associated with tropical flavors such as citrus and pineapple, so people expect a yellow watermelon to taste “like banana popsicle,” Weber said. But it just tastes like a watermelon. Likewise, he said, a yellow raspberry tastes like a raspberry.

The golden age of golden raspberries is what happens when advances in plant breeding coincide with a cultural obsession with aesthetics that also gave us indigo-hued Empress 1908 Gin and the pastel-colored nightmare that is the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino. Color makes food fun, even when it doesn’t make any sense. People do it for the ’gram—or, at least, to satisfy the same craving for visual excitement that social media fosters. Even though I’m weirded out by white strawberries, I have to admit that they make a fruit platter look super chic.

In time, the grocery store could become a bounty of blue bananas and purple mangos, and in the process, bizarro fruit may reshape our basic conception of produce. Ask an American child to draw you an apple, and they’ll sketch a Red Delicious. They will paint grapes purple. But maybe someday, they’ll consider some other colorways because of what they see in the produce aisle. Fantastical as that future supermarket seems, it would be one step closer to nature—where fruit colors are far less predictable than a clamshell of perfect berries would have you believe. Yes, white strawberries are weird. So is the fact that we expect all strawberries to be red.



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