x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Rise of the Frankenfruits

Grapples, graisins and lematoes are just a few of the weird and wonderful food hybrids now available.

Shoppers who cannot find Grapples in their local grocery store can always grab an apple and a fistful of grapes and cram them into their mouths at the same time.
Shoppers who cannot find Grapples in their local grocery store can always grab an apple and a fistful of grapes and cram them into their mouths at the same time.

It's hard to decide whether the Grapple is an exciting direction for healthy eating or the culinary equivalent of the end of the world. An artificially flavoured apple sold with the tagline "Looks like an apple, tastes like a grape", the Grapple (pronounced "gray-pull") is a sweet apple that has been soaked in Concord grape flavouring until it tastes like the fruit of a vine rather than a tree. While this freakish invention sounds like a one-off Halloween prank, it is actually extremely popular in the United States - since being patented in 2002, more than 36 million Grapples have been sold. In marketing terms, it's a work of genius - the product's makers have found a way of selling the fruit for $4 (Dh15) for a pack of four, a considerable mark-up on a product to which it is tricky to add extra value.

But unsurprisingly, the idea of an apple flavoured to not taste like an apple has also stirred up a good deal of controversy, leading many to wonder what will come next. Strawberry-flavoured broccoli or banana-flavoured potatoes, perhaps? Others have suggested the whole concept is something of a con. While the fruit has an intense scent, its flavour is frequently reported to be very similar to a normal apple. Its makers champion it as a useful tool in the fight against obesity, but the product's detractors loathe how it encourages the entry of the artificial into natural produce, and have dubbed the treated fruit "the crapple". So is it really as bad as it sounds?

Not necessarily. While it may sound like a food purist's worst nightmare, the Grapple's nutritional properties are in fact the same as a regular apple's. Their conversion of standard apples to grapeyness happens through dunking sweet Fuji or Gala apples in a vat of flavouring solution, apparently a mix of natural and artificial ingredients. This changes the way they taste but does not add any sugar or extra calories. Lasting only a few minutes, the Grapple's makers describe the infusion as a "relaxing bath", implying rather bizarrely that inanimate fruit are both sentient and capable of being destressed by being dunked in a vat of grape-flavoured solution. After this, the apples are kept in cold storage for a few days to allow the grape solution to soak through the skin into the apple's flesh - Fujis and Galas were chosen for the product because their thin skins are more permeable.

So what's the point? Well, the touted advantage of Grapples is that they can tempt children who have given up on eating apples to come back to them. Reminiscent of grape-flavoured sweets (in their scent at least), they are more directly suited to palates tuned to sugary instant gratification. The extra-sweet apples chosen and the grape flavouring might also encourage people not just to try them out again, but to eat Grapples as a substitute for less healthy snacks that contain refined sugar and little in the way of vitamins. If adding a little grape flavour to an otherwise natural product helps to get people eating more fruit, surely that can't be such a bad thing?

Perhaps not - but the idea of an artificially flavoured fruit is still hard for many to stomach. A world where people are starting to reject apples for tasting, well, too apple-ish is hardly anything to cheer about. If even the most basic products need to mimic junk food to be acceptable, then we have pretty much lost the battle for healthy, authentic eating. A child raised on Grapples is more likely to be perplexed and put off by the taste of a real apple after a time, just as children have been known to complain about organic chicken simply because they are unused to eating meat with any flavour to it. All the same, while this is slightly worrying, it does seem a little mistaken to get too worked up about something relatively healthy like the Grapple at a time when so many of us are guzzling transfats and refined sugar in an ever-growing variety of forms.

Similarly, it would be false to see other more mainstream fruit and vegetables as entirely natural products that bear no artificial influence. Many common fruits are the product of long experimentation and hybridisation, with wild plants bearing only small amounts of fruit gradually being transformed into the fruit-heavy standard varieties we enjoy today. The grapefruit, for example, is a hybrid, the result of a crossing between the Jamaican orange and the South East Asian Pomelo that took place in the West Indies in the 18th century. Likewise, modern bananas are the result of much botanical tinkering that has removed the many seeds to be found in wild varieties, leaving their parent tree unable to reproduce without human assistance. Such successful forebears don't necessarily provide credibility for today's experimentations with genetic modification, but they do puncture the myth of clear boundaries between the natural and the synthetic.

While there are no other fruit or vegetable products on the market quite as bizarre as the Grapple, there is nonetheless a fair bit of experimentation with new strains out there right now. With a small amount that is wonderful and a lot that's just plain weird, here is a round-up of some of the most significant hybrid fruits out there. @A&L-SubheadDivider:Atemoya Why bother injecting grape flavouring into apples to make them more appealing when you already have a fruit that tastes of ice cream? The criminally underrated atemoya is a cross between the sweetsop and the cherimoya, both natives of tropical South America. It has a wonderful flavour reminiscent of vanilla custard and almonds sharpened with a splash of pineapple juice. Its grainy but juicy texture is similar to that of a pear or quince, while its one drawback is its network of inedible pip-like seeds. Given how delicious it is, it's not surprising that the fruit is steadily gaining a market, being especially popular around the shores of the Caribbean and in Taiwan. The atemoya is also one of the few recent hybrids to have gained a foothold in the Middle East - readers may recognise it as ashta fruit, the knobbly fruit that is a popular base for desserts in Lebanon and increasingly across the region.

@A&L-SubheadDivider:Graisins These giant raisins are the product of the Japanese fondness for outsized fruit, curious in a nation that has taught the world to shrink and minimise so many things. Created for the Japanese market, these huge dried grapes are about the size of a kumquat. Though, they taste the same as the regular variety, it is hard to think of a real use for them beyond showing people and saying: "Look - a giant raisin!"

@A&L-SubheadDivider:Jostaberry This originally German hybrid wins no prize for looks - a cross between a gooseberry and a blackcurrant, its black, slightly furred skin makes it look almost cartoonishly poisonous. But what it lacks in visual charm it makes up for in vigour - the plant is exceedingly hardy and resistant to disease and is becoming popular with American gardeners who find its parent plants either too acid in their fruit or too frail to grow. The taste is similar to a blackcurrant, but with an unlikely note of kiwi creeping in to keep things interesting.

@A&L-SubheadDivider:Olallieberry A berry whose name is a tongue twister is unlikely to go far in the cutthroat world of fruit marketing, but the olallieberry has an interesting position as the hybrid's hybrid. Named after Olallie Lake in Oregon, the berry's parents are the loganberry and the youngberry, themselves crossings of blackberries with raspberries and dewberries. Given the preponderance of raspberry hybrids out there already, it's hard to see exactly what the point of them is, but for anyone who wishes raspberries were a little sharper, these red berries make a rather delightful jam that can be bought online.

@A&L-SubheadDivider:Pluots Unlike some hybrid fruits, pluots require no artificial tinkering to flourish. A cross between a plum and an apricot, they can sometimes grow of their own accord in orchards where their parent fruit grow close together. Firmer and sweeter than an ordinary plum, pluots have actually made some inroads into the market and they certainly have an unusually beautiful rusty lilac colour, not unlike that of copper beech leaves in autumn. They are most widely available in their dried form. Having tried these, I must admit that they are quite nice but hard to get excited about. While they have an interesting tanginess, they are more leathery and less luscious than either of their parent fruits.

@A&L-SubheadDivider:Lematoes Have you ever felt that the tomatoes you buy desperately need to be improved by an added scent of lemon and roses? I thought not. A lemon-flavoured tomato, nonetheless, has been created by a team of boffins at Israel's Newe Yaar Research Institute - more to see what's possible, admittedly, than to create a product for immediate release to the market. The researchers have managed to include a gene from the lemon-scented Ocimum Basilicum strain of basil, successfully producing aromatic properties that have been reported as ranging from rose and geranium to lemongrass. While this sounds rather pleasant, this genetic tinkering has managed to radically lower the levels of lycopene in the tomatoes, which have a noticeably lighter colour than standard varieties. With less of this extremely valuable antioxidant to go round, anyone who hankers for a lemon-scented tomato would be better off doing the obvious thing and drizzling a normal version of the fruit with lemon juice.