Why Do Fruits & Vegetables Go Bad?

Mother and Daughter Washing Peppers at a Kitchen Sink
A mother and daughter are washing vegetables. (Image: Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images)

Don't let your produce spoil your health or your budget. Fresh fruits and vegetables are full of nutrients, fiber and antioxidants. They are living, breathing organisms that will go to waste if not used in time, and their nutritional value diminishes as they begin to spoil. Understanding how produce spoils, what to look for and what you can do to slow down the spoilage process pays dividends for your body and your wallet.

Causes

Most fruits and vegetables go bad because of damage caused by microorganisms such as bacteria and mold, enzymatic processes or bruising. Microorganisms speed produce deterioration through structural decay. Microorganisms such as bacteria and molds release their own enzymes as they grow, speeding up the spoiling process. Enzymes, which occur naturally in live fruits and vegetables, are part of the natural aging process. Enzymatic browning leads to discoloration and, later, spoilage. Bruising physically alters the exterior of your fruits and vegetables, which trigger enzymatic reactions.

Produce Selection

Look for vibrant colors and undamaged fruits and vegetables when selecting your produce. Appearance is almost always a good indicator of quality. Select your produce last during your shopping trip so any fruits and vegetables that require refrigeration do not spend too much time at room temperature. If you are buying a group of items in a container such as a bag of apples, inspect all items carefully. Even if just one apple has mold, remember that it spreads quickly and leads to rapid decay for the rest of the bunch.

Storage

How you store your fruits and vegetables has a significant impact on their lifespan. Cold temperatures are best for slowing down respiration — but do not store produce inside airtight containers, because the total lack of respiration will speed decay. Exceptions are onions, garlic and potatoes, which are best stored outside of your refrigerator in a cool, dry and dark space. You also need to take storage compatibility into consideration. Fruits emit ethylene gas, which speeds ripening, and some vegetables are more sensitive than others. Incompatible combinations include apples and apricots stored with spinach, lettuce or other leafy greens, "Vegetarian Times" magazine notes.

Alternatives

Frozen fruits and vegetables are an easy fix to eliminate your worry about spoiled produce. Purchase frozen items in a store or even freeze your own homegrown items. There are also products on the market designed to improve the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Ethylene gas absorbers and ethylene-gas-absorbing bags, for example, soak up gas and slow respiration.

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