Researchers from the University of Santiago created a methodology and a prototype equipment to measure and determine the properties of the skin of these fruits, which, together with the application of an edible coating, can extend their lifespan and improve business performance.
According to a report of the Office of Agricultural Studies and Policies (PASO), over the past ten years, the planted acreage, production, and export of blueberries in Chile experienced significant growth, leading increases among domestic fruit.
14,506 hectares were planted in 2014, i.e. an increase of over 1,000% compared with the 1,360 hectares planted in 2005; production also increased, though to a lesser proportion, and exports amounted to $503.9 million dollars in 2014, which resulted in a growth of 383% for the area.
Chile exports between 60% and 70% of its production and, on average, prices have increased by nearly 20%. Business is auspicious, but, in most cases, this fruit must be transported thousands of kilometers before it reaches its main target markets and there is the danger it loses its freshness and quality.
A new proposal
Funded by the Office of Technology Management from the University of Santiago de Chile, Dr. Silvia Matiacevich, a researcher at the Department of Science and Food Technology and head of the Food Technologist career, worked on a novel approach to address this problem. The results of her research led to the development of the prototype of a piece of equipment and a methodology for determining the permeability of the cuticle of blueberries, an idea that has a patent application in Chile and in the international system of patents PCT.
Matiacevich worked with Dr. Fernando Osorio, a researcher at the Department of Science and Food Technology, who stated that determining the permeability of the cuticle of the fruit was very important because it directly affects the fruit's quality.
"If the cuticle, which is the membrane through which the blueberry relates with the outside world is not intact, the fruit can be up to twelve times more permeable, losing its moisture or exposing itself to attack by microorganisms. Thus, the main objective of this invention was to create a method and an apparatus for measuring and determining the physical properties of intact cuticles in a fast, simple and inexpensive way," he said.
Dr. Matiacevich said that one of the main benefits of this invention was that the team had been able to make a contribution, as there had been numerous analyzes of the cuticles' permeability before, mainly from the plant leaves and fruit, but isolating the cuticle, not in vivo, as was done in this case.
"Up until now, there was no easy and inexpensive way to measure permeability (and surface free energy) in whole fruits under controlled conditions," she said.
Dr. Javier Enrione and Olivier Skurtys also collaborated in this study. The latter participated thanks to a BPST Conicyt Project, which was led by Dr. Fernando Osorio.
Moreover, Dr. Matiacevich said they had been able to work on an edible coat for the fruit thanks to the funds from an Innova-Corfo project led by Dr. Osorio. The coating, which is made of components that are safe for human health and do not alter the organoleptic characteristics (physical and chemical properties), has had good reviews by consumers in sensory analysis were they indicated there were no major differences between the fruits that have the coating and those without it.
"Some time ago, 90% of the blueberry shipments to China did not get there in good condition. We estimate that this figure will drastically change and that 90% of the shipments will arrive in good conditions thanks to this system. Not only that, but the fruits will have a longer shelf life," said the expert.
Dr. Osorio said that if they'd have had very positive results in the advance stages of the research and that these varied depending on the blueberry crops and their growing conditions. He also stated that the industry was very interested in these kind of solutions and that their next big challenge was to continue with a new project to take this development into the market. Meanwhile, Dr. Matiacevich stated that they were also working to apply these solutions to other food products.
Julia Pinto, technical manager of the Chilean Blueberry Committee, believes that anything that helps to maintain the condition of the fruit is good, since it must arrive fresh and safe to other destinations. Thus, she noted, the development of this film is a good tool to achieve that objective; however, it is essential to do some commercial testing and generate mechanisms so this invention can be packaged and is available for businesses. "The most important thing is that the fruit has a good quality and condition. After that, the most important post-harvest technology is cold storage. Accompanying this with complementary technologies is for the better," she concluded.