Florida strawberries need to stay cool or they’ll turn mushy, research shows

Grocery stores often break the critical cold chain when they display strawberries in unrefrigerated cases, seeking the sweet smell that attracts shoppers.
Strawberries are grown for research in Wimauma at the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research And Education Center.
Strawberries are grown for research in Wimauma at the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research And Education Center. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 21, 2021

FORT LAUDERDALE — It’s that time of year when fresh Florida strawberries are in season and plentiful on store shelves. But it’s a rotten feeling to get them home, only to have them turn to mush in a day or two.

Don’t feel bad — it’s probably not your fault. And new research shows you may be able to keep your strawberries plump for longer.

The research done by two Florida scientists found that your berries were most likely predestined to go bad some time between when they were picked and arrived on your kitchen counter. That’s a 7- to 10-day journey in which the strawberries may have gotten too warm.

Jeff Brecht, a horticultural sciences professor at Florida, says strawberries should be kept around 34 degrees — just above freezing. He warns that breaking the so-called cold chain could ruin the batch.

Hillsborough County has much at stake in the research as home of the nation’s winter strawberry crop. Florida’s 11,000 acres of strawberry farms are centered around Plant City and typically reach their peak harvest around Valentine’s Day.

Related: The scientist making Florida strawberries bigger, sweeter and sometimes grape-flavored

But grocery stores often break that critical cold chain when they display strawberries in unrefrigerated cases, said Brecht, who recently wrote a paper along with his University of South Florida counterpart, Ismail Uysal. The stores, the professors said, reason that warmer strawberries emit a sweet smell that attracts shoppers.

And that same ripening scent is also the berries’ undoing. “You’re starting them on the downhill path to developing decay and softening and all that kind of stuff,” Brecht said, “all the reasons why consumers throw strawberries away before they can eat them all in their kitchen.”

Even if stores handle the strawberries properly, the damage may already be done. Brecht said strawberries need to be cooled within an hour or two of picking them, something that sometimes isn’t done.

The cold chain can break again during shipping, when strawberries are sometimes packed onto trucks in a way that doesn’t allow air to properly circulate.

“If there’s any temperature abuse, if you allow them to warm up at some point, there’s no way to get them cooled back down again,” he said.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to preserve those bright red treasures for longer. Brecht said if all temperature safeguards are followed and the strawberries spend a maximum of three to four days on a truck — it’s usually much shorter — they should be fine for days after a consumer makes the purchase because they get to stores so quickly.

“Six days, easily, strawberries are in someone’s home after being picked,” he said. In fact, 90 percent of strawberries made the journey without breaking the cold chain.

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So fight the urge to display your newly purchased strawberries on your counter. Instead, pop them into the refrigerator as soon as you get them home.

Growers and grocers could both potentially make more money from strawberries if they maintain the cold chain. Brecht said an experiment in Australia showed if people have a bad experience buying a peach, they might not purchase another peach for six weeks. But if people have a good purchasing experience, they might return to the store relatively quickly to purchase more.

Brecht warned, however, that not all fruit prefer the 34-degree rule. He said some fruits, such as bananas, shouldn’t be stored below 58 degrees or they suffer from chilling injury.

Either way, his goal is to understand more about how temperature affects fruit of any kind.

“We used strawberries because we knew we could easily show temperature effects,” he said. “But all produce is affected by temperature like that so this could be extended and expanded to other produce.

“And the result would be everyone, all consumers, would be consistently getting better quality produce. That’s our dream, that’s our goal.”

- Chris Perkins