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Most Wasteful of Food Thieves: Ethylene Gas & Cold Temperatures

By Vicki McClure Davidson


You're in the mood for a crunchy, zesty salad and stroll to the fridge. But, wait! Who stole your crisp head of lettuce and replaced it with a soggy, brown mess of decaying greens?

What insane food thief would take your gorgeous, plump, firm tomatoes and exchange them with mushy facsimiles that are oozing and have mold spots?

Whose slimy mushrooms are these?

Tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables can decay faster when exposed to ethylene gas. | Photo credit: Scott M. Liddell,
Tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables can decay faster when exposed to ethylene gas. | Photo credit: Scott M. Liddell,

You don't have a food thief. You likely have a problem with prematurely aging fruits and vegetables. The culprit is either ethylene gas or too much cold.

What Is Ethylene Gas?

Most fruits and vegetables generate ethylene gas while they ripen, especially if they have been damaged. This gas is a very active plant hormone. If you mix fruits and veggies that either emit or are sensitive to ethylene gas, much of your fresh produce will age and decay faster than normal. This will seriously impact your monthly grocery bill, which is high enough already.

The refrigerator acts as a trap for the ethylene gas given off by the generating varieties, allowing it to build up to damaging levels. Although it's not hazardous to humans, the ethylene gas leads to the early aging and rotting of your produce. While the cold in the fridge does slow down the emission of gas from most produce, it can speed it up for others.

Most sensitive to ethylene gas are the leafy vegetables, even if the gas is present in very low quantities. Lettuce begins to decay quickly when exposed to ethylene gas at low temperatures—even in your refrigerator. Put spinach or kale in the same crisper bin as peaches or apples and the greens will turn yellow and limp in just a few days.

Other foods that are sensitive to ethylene gas, such as fresh peas and bananas, will spoil quickly if they are stored in the same areas as avocados, melons, and apples, which are prolific ethylene producers.

Temperature: Refrigerator or Counter Top Storage?

The fridge is not the best place for many food items. For example, a potato will convert its starch to sugar if stored too cold; an eggplant develops brown spots if stored in the refrigerator. Bananas will develop black skin and do not gain desired sweetness. Sweet potatoes will taste funny and develop a hard core when cooked after being refrigerated. Watermelons lose their flavor and deep red color if they are stored for longer than three days in the refrigerator. These, and others, do better if stored in the pantry or on the kitchen counter. Some others that should not be stored in the refrigerator include dry onions, garlic, grapefruit, lemons, limes, winter squashes, oranges, mangoes, and jicama. They do best stored at room temperature.

Cold-sensitive fruits and vegetables lose flavor and moisture when stored, unripe, in the refrigerator. Keep them on the counter or in an area without direct sunlight. Once they are fully ripe, they can be put back into the fridge without serious consequences. However, return them to room temperature for maximum flavor when you're ready to eat them.

For a more comprehensive list of fruits and vegetables' preferred storage temperatures, click here to read a breakdown of post-harvest storage information. The list is in PDF format. You can also learn more about proper storage of fruits and veggies at the University of California Postharvest Technology RIC website.

Refrigerated fruits and vegetables should be kept in perforated plastic bags in the produce drawers of the refrigerator. You can either purchase perforated plastic bags or easily make your own. Poke small holes with a sharp object in unperforated plastic bags (about 20 holes per medium-size bag). Separate fruits from vegetables (use one drawer for each group) to minimize the damaging effects of ethylene.

Segregate your fresh produce in the fridge and be prepared to eat it quickly (in a few days, in most cases) to retain freshness. By doing this, you'll drastically cut down on fresh produce waste and will save up to hundreds of dollars per year. That's how much food American families discard each year, per the results of an extensive study conducted by the University of Arizona and the United States Department of Agriculture.

The results of their year-long study, made public in 2002, found that families in the US tossed out a whopping average of 470 pounds of food per year—about 14 percent of all food brought into the home—at an annual cost of $600. Adjusting for inflation, in 2008 and 2009, that total is nearly $700 in food thrown away per family, per year. Of that grand total of waste, one-quarter of it was fresh produce being discarded. Nationally, we dump $43 billion worth of food every year.

While people do indeed waste food, a hefty portion of that waste is accidental, brought about by not knowing how to properly store and use produce. Ethylene gas prematurely aging produce is a prime contributor to food waste.

Use the table lists given below so that you can keep specific fruits and veggies apart and help cut costs in your family's food budget by making your fresh produce last longer.


Fruits and Veggies That Create Ethylene Gas:

apples grapes passion fruit
apricots green onions/scallions peaches
avocados honeydews/watermelons pears
ripening bananas ripe kiwi fruit peppers
blueberries mangoes persimmons
cantaloupe melons pineapple
citrus fruit (not grapefruit) mushrooms plantains
cranberries nectarines plums/prunes
figs okra quinces
guavas papayas tomatoes


Fruits and Veggies That Are Damaged by Ethylene Gas:

asparagus endive peppers
broccoli escarole potatoes
Brussels sprouts florist greens potted plants
cabbage green beans romaine lettuce
carrots kale spinach
cauliflower kiwi fruit squash
chard leafy greens sweet potatoes
cucumbers lettuce watercress
cut flowers parsley yams
eggplant peas  


Note: Ethylene is the most produced organic compound in the world; global production of ethylene exceeded 75 million metric tonnes per year in 2005.


Asparagus and other fruits and vegetables are quite sensitive to ethylene gas and will decay faster if exposed to it | Photo credit: Susy Morris, Flickr, Creative Commons




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Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, "Vegetable of the Month: Tomato" (
Ethylene Gas Guardian website, (
Pakupaku website, (
University of California Postharvest Technology RIC website (
Vegetarian Times website, "Spoiled Rotten," (
Wikipedia website, (