Smart Research Keeps Produce Fresh

Grocery store produce section with appleas, cider, plums and more.

SmartFresh keeps apples fresher longer.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away — and SmartFresh, an award-winning technology developed at NC State and used around the world, keeps those apples fresher for more days.

SmartFresh technology puts ripening on hold while produce is packed and shipped, extending its life on supermarket shelves by up to several extra weeks and reducing food waste. The product leaves no chemical residue, and apples treated with it remain flavorful, crisp and visually attractive while retaining their nutritional value. In addition to apples, it is used commercially on flowers, as well as some other fruits and vegetables.

This application of the compound behind SmartFresh was discovered in the 1990s by two NC State professors and researchers, the late Edward Sisler of the Department of Biochemistry and Sylvia Blankenship of the Department of Horticultural Science.

For years, the pair had been studying ethylene, a hormone that influences ripening and death of plants. In doing so, they found that 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP), a hydrocarbon molecule, is similar enough to ethylene to allow it to interact with ethylene receptors and extend the freshness of the fruit, vegetable or plant to which it is applied.

Blankenship says the discovery was a result of many years of work and much trial and error.

“We realized in the course of our experiments that we had done something significant,” she says.

The technology was first licensed in the mid-1990s to a company that used it to preserve flowers before a new company, AgroFresh, was established in 1999 to develop 1-MCP as a commercial product for fruits and vegetables.

Over the last 15 years, the product has become more widely utilized throughout the world. SmartFresh is currently registered for commercial use in 40 countries worldwide, and 2015 sales were reported at $164 million.

It has also won prestigious international awards and has been called one of the most important produce industry innovations in years. In 2009, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization cited SmartFresh technology as the global standard for product quality and safety.

For her work on the research that led to SmartFresh, Blankenship won the NC State Office of Technology Transfer’s 2015 Innovator of the Year, an award giving annually to a faculty, staff or student inventor.

“SmartFresh is a technology that’s been widely adopted, (and) that’s a great measure of success,” says Kelly Sexton, director of NC State’s Office of Technology Transfer. It has also been a financial success, bringing in more than $25 million in licensing revenue to the university over its lifetime.

“The royalty revenue has been the highest that we’ve ever had,” Sexton says.

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