Imagine a school lunchroom. Think about the noise and the smells and the various groups of friends splintered into their own little cliques. Consider the cartoon-laden lunch boxes and dirty sneakers and flirtatious notes being flung through the air. And now think about the trading landscape, not unlike the floor of a metropolitan stock exchange, with the contents of home-packed sack lunches being distributed rapidly and freely for the right price, the most-valued commodities being the usual Twinkies, donuts, Doritos, and Cokes. (Okay, sure, those items may be a little dated, but you get the point about them being the most sought-after.)
Now, imagine a school lunchroom much like your first vision, but with one distinct difference: The most valuable foods being swapped around are now fruits and veggies.
That utopia is the goal of Bakersfield-based fruit breeder David Cain, who's spent the past ten-plus years trying to develop a grape variety that competes against the sugar-infused processed snacks whose wrappers currently blanket the lunchroom floor. If hype is to be believed, it's a grape that kids will be trying to trick their friends into parting with, will be nudged into their parents's grocery carts while they're not looking, and will ultimately cut a bit into that childhood obesity epidemic that has everyone freaked out.
Behold: The cotton candy-flavored grape.
"We're trying to compete with candy bars and cookies and real cotton candy. So we want to develop varieties that especially kids like to eat so they will consume more fruit," he said.
Cain's company is called International Fruit Genetics, which may sound all sorts of alarm bells in our current landscape of GMO engineering. But before you jump to any conclusions, the grapes developed by Cain and company were done using cross-breeding techniques. This works by taking pollen from male grape flowers and carefully implanting into the female flowers, hopefully creating a new variety of grape, which is then cross-bred, on and on and on, generation after generation, until the new perfect strand of grape is made. So, while it's the work of "man" as opposed to nature, there's a certain threshold of organic production taking place. (The fact that the whole thing takes a substantial amount of time certainly helps give it some aesthetic bonafides as a farming, rather than laboratory, pursuit.)
But as far as why these new grapes -- and others that Cain's lab is currently developing -- will be taking over lunchrooms, the answer is simple: sugar. As in, they have some more. But while these grapes have a higher sugar content other "normal" grape varieties, nutritionists still give them the go-ahead for kids to eat, noting that "you'd need to eat 100 grapes to get the same amount of sugar as one candy bar."
Which is where I start to have some hesitancy about the idea. Maybe candy bars aren't the best equivalency when speaking about grapes, or fruits in general. Once that concept is introduced, it starts to sound an awful lot like the parent who melts a whole brick of cheese onto broccoli, or offers a glass of ketchup with their grilled chicken breast, because "that's the only way they'll eat it." Hiding nutrition under a mountain of gross does not a healthy diet make. And, more frighteningly, that sentiment gives children just a tad more power than the adults when it comes to determining what foods go into their bodies, which is the opposite of how the whole parenting thing should work.
Now I, of course, do not speak from a place of experience. I have no children, and the last time I babysat was more than a decade ago. But common sense is common sense. The day a kid trades his or her candy bar for a load of grapes is the day I stop claiming to know anything about how the world works.
Also, it's quite disconcerting when quotes like this start popping up:
"People are looking for more flavor," said Mark Carroll, senior director for produce and floral at Gelson's Markets, which will carry the Cotton Candy grape. "Once they get hooked, they want more no matter what."
Which are, frankly, the same tactics that Big Food's been utilizing to get us addicted to their low-nutrition/highly-processed nonsense for years. So, let's put this specific food development in the proper context. The heart's in the right place, but only because it happens to be located in the same area where the money is. As tends to be the case with anything associated with an industry that rakes in $1.1 billion a year, altruism is secondary to trying to exploit a market.
Look: I like the fact that people are trying to develop a food that both (a) has a nutritionally-rich content; and (b) is desired by children to eat. The problem is, this kind of development seems more like a Band-aid than an actual long-lasting solution.
Want recipes and food news emailed directly to you? Sign up for the new Food newsletter here!