The specific qualities required in fruits and vegetables will depend on their end-use and the selection of appropriate cultivars for particular products is of paramount importance. The quality of an individual product is also affected by its specific preharvest 'experience'. So, for example, the position of a fruit on the tree will determine its nutrient and water status and its exposure to environmental factors such as sunlight or pests and diseases. All these factors may ultimately influence post-harvest shelf-life (Hofman and Smith, 1994; Sharples, 1984). Experience may enable those who regularly handle certain produce types to predict variations in shelf-life of produce from different sources, for example, based on soil type or weather factors before and during harvest.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are not considered to be high-risk products with respect to food safety as they normally become completely undesirable for consumption long before any hazardous microorganisms or toxins might develop. There is, however, evidence that sealing fresh vegetables in modified atmosphere packaging may extend shelf-life, while still allowing the growth of pathogenic bacteria, in particular Listeria spp and Escherichia coli O157 (Phillips, 1996). For most fresh produce, shelf-life is best defined as the period within which the product retains acceptable quality for sale to the processor or consumer. It is necessary, therefore, to identify what 'acceptable quality' means before it can be decided at what point the product no longer satisfies those expectations.
For the fresh produce market, specific minimum quality standards exist in many countries; however, owing to the international nature of the fresh produce market, there is a trend towards international standardisation of quality grades. The European Commission was one of the first organisations to develop international standards for fresh fruits and vegetables (MAFF, 1996a-c). Many of these standards have been adopted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Usually, standards required for multiple retail outlets are considerably more stringent than these minimum standards and will be defined for the supplier by the retailer. Providing the quality standards have been met, the factors which limit storage and shelf-life fall into the following categories: appearance, texture and flavour/aroma. With respect to the processing industry, each company will have its own carefully defined quality criteria based on the nature of the processing undertaken. These criteria will be agreed in advance with the supplier.
Appearance is the key factor for consumers in making purchases of fresh produce. As the multiple retail sector has come to dominate food retailing in many countries, consumers have come to expect fresh produce to have near perfect visual appearance. Displays of fruits and vegetables are characterised by uniformity of size, shape and colour. Vital components of visual quality include colour and colour uniformity, glossiness, and absence of defects in shape or skin finish and freedom from disease.
The importance of appearance in the processing industry will depend on which part of the produce is used in the product and whether the appearance can readily be enhanced during processing, for example by the use of natural colouring additives. In most products, the peel will be removed from the produce, so purely surface blemishes will be of little consequence. Internal flesh colour is usually more important than peel colour. Size and shape may be highly important where processing is automated rather than manual; however, for some products these attributes are less important, for example for juice extraction.
Many fruits and vegetables undergo colour changes as part of the ripening process. Unripe fruit is usually green (the so-called 'ground colour') and in many types of fruit, the green colour becomes lighter during ripening and maturation owing to breakdown of chlorophyll, for example in apples, grapes, papaya. This may reveal underlying yellow or red pigments (Tucker, 1993). Peel and pulp often undergo different colour changes, as in apples and bananas. In some cases, fruit colour is a strong indicator of eating quality and shelf-life, for example, tomatoes and bananas, whereas in others it is not. Many pre-harvest factors can affect fruit colour independently of other ripeness characteristics. So, for example, the peel of oranges grown in tropical regions may remain green despite having attained acceptable eating quality. Yellowing of green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach will reduce their quality as may browning of cut tissues, for example butt-ends of Brussels sprouts. Other aspects of appearance which reduce quality include the loss of freshness, like the wilting of leafy crops, loss of surface gloss or skin wrinkling and the development of external and internal defects caused either by natural senescence, physiological disorders or the growth of disease organisms.
Eating quality includes a complex of texturalpropertieswhich arenotreadily defined or measured. Crisp firm tissues aregenerallydesiredin vegetablecrops; however, the development of tough fibres during storage in stem crops such as asparagus is not at all acceptable. Some aspectsoftexturecan bejudgedvisually as described above, for example, where produce has begun to wilt or shrivel. Although some degree of softening is requiredforoptimalqualityinfruit,over-softening is undesirable and is a sign of senescenceorinternaldecay. Themain-tenance of textural quality is often critical in certain types of processing, for example in canning and freezing.
Flavour is a complex of taste and aromaticcomponents. Totalflavourcanrarely be assessed by the consumer prior to purchase but it is critical in the repeat purchase of a particular product or productcultivar.Keytastecomponentsinfresh produce are sweetness, acidity, astringencyandbitterness.Sweetnessofsome fruits may increase dramatically duringripeningowingtostarchtosugarcon-versions, for example in apples, bananas, mangoes and pears. At the same time, astringent factors (tannins) will disappear(Tucker,1993).Sugarlevelsoffruits are often measured to determine whether produce has reached the required ripeness for marketing. Sugar levels do not usually fall significantly during storage; however, maintaining the sugar to acid balance can be important to the fruit flavour balance, for example, in citrusspeciesandgrapes. Acidlevelsgen-erally decrease during storage. If the acid/sugarratiofallstoolow,theproduct can become bland and lose acceptable eating quality. This will also be of importance in processed products in which extra sugars or acids are not added. Bitter components can develop in various fruits and vegetables under certain storage conditions (see physiological disorders in section 7.6.1) or when infected with certain pathogens.
Aroma can be determined to some extent before purchase by the consumer but it tends to be important as a positive factor only in highly aromatic products such as certain cultivars of melons or mangoes. With the emphasis on visual quality which has dominated retailing, it has been claimed that flavour and aroma have been lost from many fresh products as breeding has concentrated on culti-vars which will survive the rigours of post-harvest handling without loss of visual and textural quality. Refrigeration also tends to limit the development of aroma volatiles in ripening fruits. The aroma profile can change dramatically during the post-harvest life of fresh produce, particularly in climacteric fruits in which the dominant volatile may be quite different in the unripe fruit, the ripe fruit and the over-ripe or senescing fruit (Morton and Macleod, 1990). Unpleasant aromas may develop from a number of causes described in later sections (7.3.2 and 7.5). An unexpected or unpleasant aroma may make a product unmarketable even if all other quality factors are quite acceptable. Therefore aroma can be an important factor in the storage and shelf-life of fresh produce.
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