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A Cotton Candy-Flavoured Grape? Yes Please
August 7, 2013
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A wine producer cuts white grapes during harvest in Cahors, France, October 2012 (Photo: Getty)

Using science to make a natural fruit taste like junk food? It may sound like science gone wrong.

But a grape that tastes like cotton candy - developed by plant breeders in California - is actually an attempt at bringing natural flavours back to the fruit, which have been lost after years of breeding fruit to survive storage and shipping.

NPR reports that horticulturalist David Cain is using old-fashioned plant breeding techniques to create different varieties of grapes, each with its own flavour.

"When you go to the supermarket, there's like 15 kinds of apples - Fuji, Pink Lady, Gala, Braeburn. The list goes on," Cain says. "We want to give consumers the same array of flavours for grapes."

heirloom-fruits-strawberries.jpgIt's not just grapes that have had some of their natural flavour bred out of them to make them easier to ship and store: gardener Mark Diacono told the BBC that many modern varieties of strawberry (and other fruits) are not what they used to be.

"New varieties are often developments and/or crosses of older varieties bred for greater reliability and resistance to disease. Flavour is often lost in that process," he said.

Like Cain, Diacono is working on bringing some of those flavours back. He's breeding older varieties of strawberry, even though they tend to yield less fruit and develop diseases more easily.

It's not just plant breeders who are looking for fruits and vegetables with flavours that may not be available in the supermarket aisle anymore: there's also a "foraging" movement that searches for foods that grow in the wild.

heirloom-fruits-clasby.jpgKerry Clasby is one of those foragers (that's her on the left, with chef Tom Colicchio). She works in California, travelling to forests, garlic fields and macadamia farms around the state to dig up special varieties, which she then shares with her clients, who are mostly chefs at high-end restaurants.

She considers herself a link between small farmers and chefs, and she is selective about who she works with.

"If I find something cool, I want to have the three or four chefs who say we'll buy it all," she told the Christian Science Monitor. "When I find this great stuff, I'm grateful to have a good home where it's appreciated."

One of the pioneers of this way of looking at food is Alice Waters. In a 2004 profile, the New York Times called her "the chef who revolutionized American fine dining," and explained her passion for organic fruits and veggies grown on small patches of land.

Waters also believes that the best way to change the relationship North Americans have with their food is to start with kids.

"We're losing the values we learned from our parents when we sat around our family table, when we lived closer to the land and communicated," she told the Times.

"The way children are eating now is teaching them about disposability, about sameness, about fast, cheap and easy. They learn that work is to be avoided, that preparation is drudgery."

heirloom-fruits-waters.jpgIn 1996, Waters (that's her on the right) created The Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California - a one-acre garden with an adjacent kitchen/classroom, where kids can grow their own food and learn to cook with it.

The success of that program led to the creation of the School Lunch Initiative, which pushes for healthier daily lunches in U.S. public schools.

There are definite challenges in changing kids' relationship with food - Waters says "you can't just take the vending machines out of the cafeteria and think that solves the problem" - but maybe finding a way to make grapes taste like cotton candy, without making them unhealthy, is a good place to start.


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