If you’re one of the many organic consumers with questions or concerns about the food preservation product called Apeel, Cornucopia has answers. We believe consumers have the right to know what they are eating, not only to protect themselves but to support agricultural practices deserving of their investment.
We’ve done extensive research to cut through misinformation and marketing copy. Read our guide, which includes some tips on what you can do to demand transparency around an ingredient you may not even know you’re eating.
What is Apeel? What are food coatings?
Food coatings are not a new concept — for centuries, the food industry has relied on edible, and even non-edible coatings (wax on a conventional apple), to extend the shelf life of your favorite produce. Apeel is one example of an edible produce coating, which is heavily processed to mirror the functionality of plastic wrap. Yes, it reduces food waste, but it also saves companies money by reducing packaging and costly controlled-atmosphere storage.
What’s in Apeel?
According to the website, Apeel products are “an extra ‘peel’ of protection made by adding another layer of what naturally exists on the fruits and veggies already.”
Organipeel, an Apeel product that’s meant for organic food, is registered with the EPA as a pesticide (a fungicide, specifically). According to this registration, the “active ingredient” of the product is 0.66% citric acid.
Citric acid is an allowed nonsynthetic in organic food (see § 205.605 of the National List). However, the majority of Organipeel’s ingredients are monoglycerides and diglycerides, fatty acids derived from plants. These fatty acids are used in processed food products including ice cream, candy, gum, and even baked goods, but they are not ingredients consumers would reasonably expect to find on their fresh fruit and produce.
Are fruit and produce coatings allowed on organic food?
Yes, with some restrictions. A coating will not be allowed if it contains one or more ingredients that are not allowed in organic food (from Sections 205.605 or 205.606 of the regulations).
Cornucopia believes there should be more clarity in the regulatory process for organic materials. This is especially true for coating ingredients that require complicated extraction processes. The fatty acids (monoacylglycerides) in Apeel’s produce coatings are extracted from grapeseed oil. The extraction process uses catalysts and solvents (the procedure for extraction can be found in Apeel’s GRAS paperwork here).
Glycerides are also on the National List, but restricted for “drum drying of foods”. This restriction indicates that Apeel cannot be used as a coating for organic fruit and produce.
This raises questions about how products are being reviewed and approved under the current organic regulations, and exactly how solvents and residues are evaluated by material review organizations including the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).
Cornucopia and our allies are watching these issues closely.
(The complete National List can be found in sections 7 CFR 205.601-606 of the USDA organic regulations.)
How did Apeel get into organic food?
Organipeel was approved by OMRI in 2017. However, the review raises concerns.
The “active ingredient” in Organipeel is citric acid, which can be used as a fungicide. But citric acid makes up a mere 0.66% of the product. Organipeel’s other ingredients are what make the product work. According to Apeel’s own website:
Apeel dramatically slows the rate that produce spoils. By maintaining moisture and reducing oxidation, Apeel supports the plant’s natural abilities to protect against environmental stress.
The focus of Apeel’s marketing material is clearly on the “protective cuticle” formed by the combination of fatty acids. OMRI’s comment stated that “[A]ny product that is OMRI Listed as a fruit coating needs to contain only ingredients that are not restricted on the USDA National List, and agricultural ingredients that are organically produced…”
Since Organipeel was not reviewed as anything other than a fungicide, OMRI’s comment suggests that a repeat review is necessary. The fact that glycerides are restricted means that the likely outcome of this review will lead to Organipeel being disallowed in its current formulation. (The National Organic Program has specific guidance on how to review products for post-harvest handling.)
Are edible coatings worrisome?
Fresh foods signal nutrient density, but food films upend that assumption. While the films prevent decay, there are unanswered questions about their impact on nutrient density.
Edible coatings may also pose a risk to some consumers, particularly those with allergies, sensitivities, and chronic illness and/or disability. The populations facing the biggest risk are often the ones that rely on organic food as a safe haven.
As anyone with allergies knows, not knowing what you are being exposed to can be deadly. While the Apeel manufacturer claims its fruit coatings are free of “major allergens,” the list of allergens that the FDA requires manufacturers to declare is well known to be limited. Because Apeel’s products and other companies’ edible coatings have “proprietary” formulations, it’s impossible to discern if that food may be safe for a sensitive individual.
Furthermore, mono- and diglycerides like those in Apeel products contain small amounts of trans fat. While mono- and diglycerides are considered safe, nutrition experts suggest limited intake – often by telling consumers to eat more whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables!
Some edible coatings may be compatible with organic ideals, but the process from manufacture to review to marketplace is not transparent enough to make that determination.
How is Apeel showing up in the marketplace?
What we know so far (including what Apeel states):
- Apeel has formulations that are “OMRI Listed for the growers and distributors of USDA Certified Organic produce.”
- Apeel is most commonly found on organic apples, but other fruit and produce varieties may follow.
- Cornucopia is investigating which distributors use this product. In 2021, Starr Ranch Growers highlighted Apeel as a solution to keeping its organic apples fresher longer. However, a recent Facebook comment from Starr Ranch implies that it no longer uses Apeel.
- If you are a retailer or co-op, please let us know if you have additional information about organic products containing edible coatings.
- In the conventional marketplace, Cornucopia can confirm that Apeel is being used on non-organic avocados, limes, English cucumbers, and apples. They may also be used on other cucumbers, strawberries, and other citrus fruits.
NOTE: There has been some confusion with the edible coating products manufactured by Apeel Sciences and a sanitizer under a similar name. The sanitizer product is not being applied to organic food.
What is Cornucopia’s stance?
Cornucopia has heard reports that Apeel, and other edible coatings, have caused reactions in sensitive individuals. We continue to monitor this issue and will add to this article as we learn more. Here are our chief concerns:
Lack of transparency: With no requirement to list edible coatings on labels, most coatings on organic and conventional fresh food go unlabeled. Consumers deserve the right to choose what they are feeding their families – and to avoid potential allergens.
While all ingredients must be approved for use in organic products, manufacturers are only required to disclose “active” ingredients. Cornucopia believes that all ingredients, including edible coatings and processing ingredients, should be clearly labeled on organic products. These ingredients also impact human and environmental health. Cornucopia will continue to seek a regulatory remedy for this issue.
Exposure to carrageenan: Due to the lack of transparency, it is unknown whether any of Apeel’s products contain carrageenan. Carrageenan is sometimes used in other edible coatings, including on organic produce. Interested retailers are encouraged to contact their suppliers to ask whether the produce they buy has been treated with a coating and, if so, whether it contains carrageenan. (Cornucopia would love to hear about these conversations!) Current human health research validates the experience of the many individuals who report health problems when consuming this controversial ingredient. Cornucopia’s work to get carrageenan out of organic food is ongoing.
Contact with toxic residues or substances: The sourcing and manufacture of edible coatings can leave toxic residues in the finished product. These levels are required to be below the FDA’s set limits, but there may be health risks associated with low-grade chronic exposure to residues and contaminants. According to Apeel’s GRAS Notice, its edible coatings may have residues including ethyl acetate, heptane, palladium, arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. The FDA concluded that the residues of these substances were below their required limits.
What can consumers do?
According to Apeel, “in the vast majority of cases, Apeel-Protected Produce is labeled in-store or on the packaging.” An online tool points you to local grocery stores that carry products with Apeel coatings, though the accuracy of this resource is unknown.
Informed consumers concerned about food coatings can tell their local grocery stores that they do not want these products and emphasize that they should always be labeled if they are used. Some independent retailers and grocery chains, including Natural Grocers, have committed to keeping their fruit and produce free of Apeel products.
If consumers are especially concerned, fruits can be peeled. Apeel’s products are not expected to migrate to the edible portion, and the main source of consumer exposure will be in products with edible peels.
Edible coatings are still much less common in organic produce than in non-organic – so choosing organic, including frozen organic, can help mitigate the risk of exposure to these coatings. Support your local organic growers, who are a lot less likely to use these coatings, and eat in season whenever possible.