nib·ble (nbl)
v. nib·bled, nib·bling, nib·bles
1. To bite at gently and repeatedly.
2. To eat with small, quick bites or in small morsels: nibble a cracker.
3. To wear away or diminish bit by bit: "If you start compromising too early . . . they nibble you to death" (People).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

what the fuck is a pluot?

“What the fuck is a pluot?” This is a question I’ve asked myself many times while shopping for fruit. I wasn’t overly eager to try it out either as it looks sort of like a large red plum with something out of whack about it; namely something orange bubbling up through its translucent purple skin. But one fateful night when plum crumble was on my menu and I was out of options I purchased a bag-full. The fruit was very firm and juicy. Sweet but not too sweet. When baked, the pluot segments bled a lovely fuchsia juice. I was inspired to find out a little more about the fruit, particularly since it was becoming commonplace in even the tiniest fruit stands around Toronto. I discovered a far more complicated food than I ever anticipated; a hybrid fruit variety with quite a history, which opened a hidden story about how all stone fruits come to our stores and mouths, and how we can never hope to experience the same thing twice.

A quick Google located a Wikipedia blurb and a genetic categorization and a patent. It seems that like any other invention, hybrid fruit gets patented and protected. The concept fruit, the pluot, is the property of a company named Zaiger’s Genetics. This company has cornered the market on this type of fruit development, hybridizing, and selling the rights to grow their many varieties of stone fruit, cherries and almonds, all thanks to one man with an obsession; Floyd Zaiger.

The road to Zaiger’s Genetics began over fifty years ago in Modesto, California when Floyd began to hybridize azelias and rododendrons to tolerate the heat of the California climate. Floyd taught agriculture at the highschool level and then at Modesto Junior College. Floyd later took a position working under Fred Anderson, the protégé of the legendary agricultural innovator, botanist and horticulturist Luther Burbank. Burbank made many notable developments in the plant world (he developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants in his career which lasted over half a century). Burbank notably developed the Santa Rosa plum. Zaiger worked for the Anderson Nursery for two years before he came to a crucial crossroads – either stay on full time, or create his own business. He opted for a solo career and began to hybridize stone fruit as a hobby. A time consuming hobby – developing a single new stone-fruit variety is a ten to fifteen year commitment.

Today Zaiger’s Genetics is still under Floyd’s control and run by members of his immediate family, including his daughter, Leith Gardiner Zaiger, who was kind enough to give me a thorough company history. The charming madame of the Zaiger empire has a degree in plant science from the University California Davis, as well as a rough and tumble southern accent, and a direct and to the point attitude. As she put it, “I do everything around here”. The Zaigers are now seasoned professionals when it comes to stone fruit development, always working with several species at a time. In fact, they grow 60,000 seedlings a year. “We work on everything and their interspecifics, from cherries to almonds to apricots,” explains Leith Zaiger. Unlike some fruit hybrid companies, Zaiger’s Genetics do things the old fashioned way – by hand pollination. Their operations paint quite a picture – one hundred and forty acres of experimental fruit trees fill their Modesto, California property. It is there that the Zaigers develop new species of fruit trees as “God” might – growing seeds together, allowing the new fruit to mature, collecting the new seeds, replanting them, growing the new trees, and collecting the new fruit for evaluation. They work tirelessly to narrow which new species are strong and desirable enough to be developed into an official new variety. Its no game for the impatient and the customer is always right.

The Zaigers are essentially in the designer fruit business. Every species is custom made for its intended consumers. Everything from flavor to texture to size to shelf-life to acidity are factors in development. Their fruit is sold all over the world and with that comes a broad spectrum of preferences and needs, not to mention environmental conditions to be negotiated. And tastes evolve, and fast. But contending with this sort of fickleness is the Zaiger family passion and constant battle.

The Zaigers are ideally situated in Modesto, California. Leith describes the climate there as “pretty temperate.” Modesto is centrally located in California, with high temperatures in summer averaging 98 F, winter highs of 45-50F, lows of 50F by day and 35-40F by night. The area also gets two feet of fog over the ground, which undoubtedly casts a mystical mood over the experimental fields where fruit is grown not seen any other place on earth.

The Zaiger’s hand-pollination techniques make their product more desirable to the nurseries and farmers looking to steer clear of the stigmas of GMO fruit. When it comes to GMO growing practices, “some people feel you’re making ‘frankenfruit’, they feel that something detrimental would be added to the gene of the fruit”. Leith feels that, “GMO will most likely become a valuable tool, maybe not in my lifetime.” Though the Zaigers do not develop their new fruit in a laboratory, according to Leith, it is “not necessarily harder to control the new fruit using traditional techniques. Whether you grow the fruit in a lab or a greenhouse you still have to grow it out, it can always have the desired gene there, but if that gene is not expressed, it’s worthless.”

I was curious how often their experiments flop and if there is any way to predict what will result? “Every ten varieties we develop, we know two will fail but we don’t know which. Stone-fruit varieties are not like fine wine, they degrade with age; they break down. Sometimes they don’t have the longevity to last for a long time, though there are some exceptions.”

Every time the Zaigers develop a winning variety they name it, patent it, sell it, ship it and someone grows, distributes and sells it abroad. The new varieties change over with the seasons. This is because they are hybrids and have no descendants. As a result, consumers are always experiencing something new when we bite into a “peach” or “plum” from season to season. To illustrate how many varieties are developed and discarded I asked Leith if they had any best sellers, “I can’t answer that, I don’t track them after they are patented and named, there are just too many”. The various species engineered, sold and grown are part of an ongoing evolution. Basically every time you buy a “peach” or a “plum” or even a “pluot” at a market or store you could really be purchasing anything from a “Zephire” to a “Flavor Grenade” (two of Zaiger’s past popular and now defunct varieties).

Leith and her family consider themselves to be “fruit snobs”. They know what they like and know that when they go out to buy something they won’t fully be told what they’re purchasing. “It can get difficult for us as consumers, is that peach sub-acid or sweet etc?”. Leith and her family have the priveledge to constantly eat their fruit fresh off the farm before it has been chilled and shipped and stored – before it begins to decay and lose it flavor and texture. The store bought varieties pale in comparison. It is the Zaiger’s mission “to improve on the shelf life and taste of good products so the consumer can taste the difference between the many varieties of the fruit that they engineer.”

The phrase, “we can rebuild it, we can make it stronger” springs to mind.

The Zaigers have devoted their lives to developing painstakingly specific flavor profiles and physical characteristics. These will not be described to the consumer. As a result, they develop their fruits according to regional palates. A key example of a variety they perfected to meet discerning tastes is the white fleshed peach.  It all began when Floyd visited France in the late 1960s. He noticed white fleshed peaches were selling for much more money than yellow varieties. They were sweet and quite difficult to harvest, their flesh often too sensitive to pick without heavy bruising. Delicacies. So Zaiger returned home to the US to develop a stronger-fleshed white variety for France and the European palate. Today more than 50% of the European variety that exists was developed by the Zaigers in California.

The white fleshed peach is a curious development in light of the Franken-fruit debate. Many people also express concern over hybridized produce regarding its nutritional content, fearing it will be inferior to the original varieties of the fruits. But with stone fruit, there are no originals out there. Under the microscope, white fleshed peaches reveal some unexpected nutritional findings. Many scientists have speculated that the more intense the color of a fruit or vegetables’ skin the more nutrient-dense it is likely to be. This is particularly thought to be true of the beta-carotene and antioxidant content of produce. Antioxidants are molecules that go through our bodies, ridding them of free-radicals (molecules which have been linked to diseases). By flushing these free radicals from our systems, scientists speculate that we can shield our bodies from diseases, inhibiting the growth of things like cancerous cells. But past studies conducted by Dr. David Byrne published in HORT Science Magazine revealed that white peach varieties actually exhibit more beta carotene in some cases than yellow and orange varieties, a finding that even baffles Leith. Dr. Byrne also discovered that several plum and cross breed varieties of stone fruit have very high levels of antioxidants, higher than blueberries, the super-fruit called the most powerful conveyor of antioxidants available in North America. So it seems not all hybrids are nutritionally lacking, in fact far from it.

Dr. Byrne has conducted many studies on the nutritional content of various interspecific stone fruit varieties. He conducts his research via Texas A&M University, where he is a faculty member. He has received funding over the past few years from the USDA Food for Heath Project, Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Centre, and the California Tree Fruit Agreement (a collective of tree-fruit growers of the state of California that markets on their behalf). He has published his research in various journals. One of his key articles from 2006 reports, “that [though researchers report] blueberry has the highest antioxidant activity among fruit…the levels found in red-fleshed plums overlap the levels found in blueberry.

An interview with Dr. Byrne and Dr. Luis Cisneros, published on the Texas A&M, expands on the value of their discovery for the everyday consumer. The pair “judged more than 100 varieties of plums and peaches…[finding that they matched or exceeded] the much-touted blueberries in antioxidants and phytonutrients associated with disease prevention”. The finding was considered a great discovery in “tight economic times”, because of the far less expensive price for the average plum compared to blueberries.
A plum has roughly “the same amount of antioxidants as a handful of…blueberries.”

The antioxidant levels of one hundred different kinds of plums and peaches were compared to five brands of blueberries. The compounds located in the fruit were extracted and an experiment was conducted examining their effects on breast cancer cells and cholesterol. This type of testing had not been done before. Remarkably, the scientists found that “the phytonutrients in plums inhibited in vitro breast cancer growth while not bothering normal cell growth.” Their research was preliminary and since then, Dr. Byrne has received additional funding to conduct more research into the phenomenal properties of the hybridized fruits.

The amazing findings of Dr. Byrne and his associates have helped inspire new stone fruit development with a nutritional focus. This type of fruit breeding is happening locally, in Guelph Ontario. Thanks to the support of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers’ Marketing Board, the University of Guelph has been conducting research to develop healthier and tastier fruit designed for the Canadian market using genetics, selective breeding and biotechnology.

Stone fruit development seems a bizarre phenomenon in a culture infatuated with organic and heirloom produce. We are so obsessed with getting back to our food’s roots that we frequently steer clear of anything that seems like a work in progress. Yet we embrace stone fruit; hybrid varieties of fruits that are nutrient dense and delicious. Like many of human-kind’s experiments, stone fruits are constantly being perfected and are always evolving. They are not perfect, but many individuals, like the Zaigers, are striving to achieve a modern perfection that never occurred in the wild.

So what the fuck is a pluot? Subject to change.


(article originally released on

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