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Dr. Barb, the Nutrition Budgeteer

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Are You Throwing Away Too Much Produce?

Do you buy fresh produce with good intentions of eating it but then find that you throw a good part of it away because it has turned old, slimy, brown, soft, or undesirable? Part of the problem may be the way you store your fruits and vegetables. The culprit may be Ethylene Gas.

FAQs About Ethylene Gas

What is ethylene gas is and why is it found in some plants?

Ethylene gas is a naturally-occurring hormone produced by some fruits as they ripen. It helps the plant by ripening its fruit, opening its flowers, and shedding its leaves. It is not harmful to humans. The most common example is the ethylene gas given off by bananas as they ripen and turn from green to yellow. In general, fruits that continue to ripen after being picked are the ones that produce high levels of ethylene gas that could lead to the storage problems (described below). Plants produce ethylene gas for all kinds of reasons, so it’s a matter of the level being especially high during ripening that causes storage problems.

Are some fruits and vegetables sensitive to this ethylene gas?

Yes. If you store an ethylene-sensitive fruit or vegetable next to an ethylene-producing fruit, you can affect the former’s quality and reduce its shelf life. You can cause premature aging and decay of the ethylene-sensitive food.

What are some specific examples of what happens when an ethylene-sensitive fruit or vegetable is next to an ethylene-producing fruit?

For example, lettuce leaves can become spotted. Green beans can lose their color. Carrots can become bitter. Broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower can become yellow and their leaves can shed. Cucumbers and summer squash can become soft. Eggplant and sweet potatoes can become brown and discolored.

Also, the more damaged a fruit is, the more ethylene gas it produces. So, if you have a soft apple in the refrigerator, separate it from everything else. Use it up immediately and either eat it or cut it up for your pet or the birds.

So, what’s the bottom line? Given the information above, what’s the best solution?

Keep Ethylene-sensitive fruits and vegetables away from ethylene-producing fruits and vegetables. With the exception of tomatoes, most ethylene producers are fruits. Store vegetables in a separate place from fruits in the refrigerator.  Perhaps use a separate crisper drawer. Many of the ethylene producers listed below can be stored on a kitchen counter, outside of the refrigerator. Many fruits need to ripen at room temperature. Once ripe, then you can place them in your refrigerator. But try not to place any of the ethylene producers next to an ethylene-sensitive fruit or vegetable. Use resealable plastic bags to keep items separate. Don’t refrigerate tomatoes. Refrigeration causes tomatoes to lose their taste. If you keep a fruit bowl on your kitchen counter, do not have bananas in the same bowl as apples (which are better refrigerated, anyway), apricots, avocados, nectarines, papayas, peaches, pears, or tomatoes. Keep all these items in separate places in your kitchen, if possible.

Shoppers, take a good look at the produce section of your local supermarket to see where and how items are placed. Most stores will keep the bananas away from the apples. The tomatoes are not refrigerated and are away from other fruits. Vegetables are in refrigerated sections, away from the fruit. Supermarkets don’t want to promote premature aging of their produce.

 

The two tables below list which fruits and vegetables are Ethylene Producers and which are Ethylene Sensitive. Note that some fruits appear on both lists.

Table 1. Ethylene Producers

Apples

Melons

Apricots

Nectarines

Avocados

Papayas

Bananas

Peaches

Cantaloupe

Pears

Kiwifruit

Plums

Mangos

Tomatoes

 

 

 

Table 2. Ethylene-Sensitive Produce

Apples

Lettuce

Apricots

Nectarines

Asparagus

Okra

Avocados

Parsley

Bananas

Peaches

Broccoli

Pears

Brussels Sprouts

Peas

Cabbage

Peppers

Carrots

Spinach

Cauliflower

Sweet Potatoes/Yams

Eggplant

Tomatoes

Green Beans

Watermelon

Leafy Greens (such as spinach and kale)

Yellow Summer Squash

 

Click here to download a copy of the FAQs About Ethylene Gas information and tables. 

 

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