Ethylene gas (H2C=CH2) is a harmless odorless, colorless, gas that is produced from both natural and man-made sources, and that has a profound effect on the freshness of produce.

As is so often the case, the effects of ethylene gas on produce was discovered by accident. For years, lemon growers had stored newly harvested green lemons in sheds kept warm by kerosene heaters until they turned yellow and ripened enough to deliver to market. When new electric heating systems were installed, the lemons no longer turned yellow on time. Investigation soon found that the critical factor in the ripening process was the ethylene gas given off by the burning kerosene in the heaters.

In fact, it was discovered that fruits and vegetables actually produce ethylene as they ripen. Experts think that the ethylene gas acts as a signal to the other plants to synchronize and coordinate ripening, thus maximizing the appeal of the plant to their seed disseminators (e.g. birds) and assuring the dispersal of their seeds. Scientists have since studied the effects of ethylene gas on produce and found that the effects are widespread. Other plant tissues can produce this gas as well. Even after harvest, fruits, vegetables and flowers are still alive, continuing their biochemical processes, including ripening and the generation of ethylene gas. Bruising or cutting some fruits and vegetables can even cause them to increase their ethylene gas production. For more information please see this Wikipedia’s history of ethylene in plant biology.

Since the discovery of the relationship between ethylene gas and the ripening process over two decades ago, industry has developed technology to manage the amount of ethylene gas in order to accelerate or slow down ripening and spoilage. Commercial warehouses, ships and trucks are nearly all fitted either with ethylene absorption technology or ethylene generation machines.

However, when you buy fruits and vegetables and bring them home they sit on your counter or in your refrigerator where ethylene gas accumulates and accelerates the ripening process. You perhaps live in one of the numerous households that experts say throw away over $600 worth of produce per household each year due to accelerated spoilage from ethylene gas.

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