Photo from Philippines News Agency

Once harvested, highly nutritious fruits and vegetables are highly perishable, prone to decay in a very short life span.

Now comes MAP, or Modified Atmosphere Packaging, a not so new technology recently re-tried and re-tested to keep fresh cut fruits and vegetables just that, fresh.

Filipino consumers now have access to fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables through an innovative packaging technology that improves shelf life and the quality of freshness.

The Packaging Technology Division of the Industrial Technology Development Institute-Department of Science and Technology, has adapted MAP to local conditions, putting new breath on what was previously the short storage life of fruits and vegetables.

MAP, as the name indicates, modifies the composition of the internal atmosphere of a package in order to improve shelf life. Lowering the amount of oxygen to zero, for example, slows down the growth of organisms and the speed of oxidation. The oxygen is replaced with nitrogen or carbon dioxide which then inhibits bacteria growth.

The method was discovered in the 1930s when Australian traders shipping meat to New Zealand noticed that the high levels of carbon dioxide in cargo holding rooms increased shelf life.

The technology has been available in the Philippines for a while. But it has not really caught the fancy of the local food industry.

Using MAP, food is not kept under normal air conditions; rather, its atmosphere, or the gas concentration inside the packaging, is altered in such a way that the biological and chemical processes that would otherwise degrade the product are slowed down. The packaging environment, in short, is designed to slow down the growth of microorganisms that may start the decomposition process – but without affecting the fresh product quality and characteristics.

Once harvested, fruits and vegetables undergo biological and chemical changes; the harvests take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide, which is normal. Once packaged, however, a different picture emerges: respiration changes the concentration of oxygen and carbon dioxide inside.

Oxygen eventually runs out and carbon dioxide takes its place in abundance. That’s when decomposition kicks in: an oxygen concentration of 2% or lower creates a condition ideal for fermentation and the growth of destructive microorganisms.

MAP prevents the destruction and mayhem by altering the concentration of oxygen and carbon dioxide and slowing down degradation considerably.

There are two ways to do it. One is “active” MAP which uses a mixed gas with a known proportion of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This gas is injected into the product to prolong shelf life. Every commodity has different concentration ratios to prolong shelf life and maintain freshness quality. The ratio in mango and pineapple, for example, is 4% oxygen, 10% carbon dioxide, and 86% nitrogen.

The other is “passive” MAP which allows fruits and vegetables to reach optimum gas optimum gas concentrations naturally. In time, the optimum gas concentrations are achieved; then respiration and the permeability (the rate at which gas passes through the packaging material) come into play.

ITDI research and development tested “passive” MAP on fresh fruits such as pineapple, papaya, pomelo, watermelon, honeydew melon, and durian. Vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and lettuce; fruits; and vegetable salads were tested as well.

Research shows that fruits and vegetables packed under “passive” MAP significantly increased shelf life by up to 200% when products were placed in permeable packaging materials and stored at a chilled temperature of 5°C.

The research went beyond shelf life. The proper processing protocols were established for the proper preparation of semi-processed fruits and vegetables. Specifications were made for packaging materials appropriate for fruits and vegetables.

The longer shelf life means that fruits and vegetables can now travel greater distances and reach far markets.

ITDI’s MAP researchers came up with the appropriate packaging to transport ready-to-eat packed fruits and vegetables. Simulation tests were conducted. To ensure good quality and freshness, raw materials were bought on-siteat farms in Benguet, Tarlac, Bicol, Leyte, Bacolod, Davao, and South Cotabato.

To increase marketability, researchers came up with a label design and brand name: “EatFresh”.

At the same time, the research team brought up the idea with farmers that they can avail of the technology, courtesy of ITDI farm visits, seminars and lectures to bring possible solutions to post-harvest losses.

It was easier said than done, never mind the promising results in the laboratory. We were challenged, for example, by the shortage of raw materials, not to say, the erratic weather that spanned the project. We were always scouting for alternative sources of raw mat.

All for a good cause. As consumers demand spike for fresh preservatives-free and ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables products, we hope that the MAP technology will become more popular than it is now. And it’s not just for the health and wellness consumers; farmers and traders will become healthier too, in a manner of speaking.

Fruits and vegetables play a considerable part in Philippine agriculture. From January to September (when agriculture grew by 0.6%), the Philippine Statistics Authority reported increased production for banana, pineapple, mango, cassava, camote, eggplant, and calamansi.

Think off more growth if and when fruits and vegetables are properly packaged, considerably decreasing postharvest losses and increasing farmers’ pocket money.

Written by:
Dane Archibald G. Balanon
Department of Science and Technology-Industrial Technology Development Institute (DOST-ITDI)

Published by:
Department of Science and Technology-Science and Technology Information Institute (DOST-STII)