Food waste is an unfortunate and common occurrence. While the vast majority of food waste comes from unused food in homes, a not insignificant portion of food waste occurs during transportation: basically, anytime between when the food is harvested to the time it hits a grocery store shelf. Part of the reason for this waste has to do with how the food is stored during transportation, including a lack of effective storage mechanisms.
In an effort to combat food waste in this arena, researchers with Empa’s Biomimetical Membranes and Textiles lab and researchers at the University of Bern and South Africa’s Stellenbosch University have developed digital replicas of citrus fruit that could help monitor transportation conditions for fruit vegetables and reduce food waste. The digital fruit is described in a recent article published in Nature Food.
To start, researchers looked at how citrus fruits, specifically, are currently transported throughout the world. They took advantage of universal temperature sensors available in every transport container to look at 47 different containers and how citrus fruits fared throughout their entire journey (about 30 days). This included how the storage container environments caused damage to the fruit (including decay or mold). Unfortunately, researchers found that about half of all fruit shipment containers did not maintain an optimal temperature and moisture environment for the fruit to survive, causing damage to a significant amount of fruit.
However, turning the temperature down isn’t exactly the answer. While cold could prevent certain kinds of problems (such as the presence of fruit flies), temperatures that are too cold can damage fruit. The goal, in other words, is to strike some kind of balance. Cue the digital fruit, a secret imposter among real fruit.
Researchers believe their tool can help provide more real-time monitoring of shipping container conditions, helping determine an effective balance between different environmental factors that can affect fruit. The hope is that the digital produce can simulate exactly how different fruits and vegetables experience different temperatures and moisture levels with greater precision.