Apples naturally develop a coat of wax when they are growing to help protect the fruit and to retain moisture and therefore firmness of the apple. Once picked, the apples are cleaned, removing this natural coat of wax. Often, a food-grade wax is applied to replace the naturally-occurring wax to provide the same benefits, including a nice glossy shine.
In December 2016, Woolworths and Coles both decided to sell more apples with no added wax.
Safety of apple waxes
There are two main types of food-grade wax products that are applied to apples – one based on carnauba wax and the other on shellac. Because of their excellent properties in making food look shiny, carnauba and shellac are also used in other food products, including chocolate and confectionery.
Shellac comes from a secretion of the lac bug – a beetle that is found in Thailand and India. Shellac is not actually part of the beetle itself – so you’re not eating beetles when you eat shellac – it’s a secretion from the beetle that the females use to protect her eggs. Food-grade shellac produces a really shiny finish on apples. Around 85 per cent of the apple waxes used in Australia are shellac-based.
Carnauba wax comes from the palm tree Copernicia prunifera that is only grown in Brazil – it is a completely different species to the palm tree used to make palm oil. Carnauba wax is derived from the dried leaves and while not as shiny as shellac it is more stable in a wider variety of humidity and temperature conditions. Around 15 per cent of the apple waxes used in Australia are carnauba-based.
Both carnauba wax and shellac are approved as food additives in Australia by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). They can be recognised on ingredient labels on other products as glazing agents 903 (carnauba) and 904 (shellac).
Both products are also approved all over the world including in the United States of America, Europe and the United Kingdom. In a 2012 review of the safety of carnauba wax, the European Food Safety Authority stated that: “…the use of carnauba wax as a food additive with the currently authorised uses [including the waxing of apples] would not be of safety concern.”
All these products contain the food-grade wax carnauba (Glazing agent 903) and/or shellac (Glazing agent 904) – the same waxes used on apples.
Applying wax to apples
After the apples are harvested they are taken to the packing shed where they are cleaned to remove debris such as leaves. Australian apple packing sheds comply with all relevant food safety and hygiene standards to ensure consumers can confidently enjoy the safest fresh produce possible – cleaning fruit is part of these standards. During the cleaning process the naturally-occurring wax on apples is removed and a thin layer of replacement wax is applied to the surface of the clean apple by either dipping, brushing or spraying the fruit with the required wax. The resulting layer of wax is almost undetectable to the human eye and only one or two drops of wax are used to cover the entire apple. Most apples in Australia are waxed, but unwaxed apples can also be found.
Benefits of waxing apples
The primary benefit of applying wax to apples is that it makes the apples look shiny. Australian consumer and retailer feedback suggests shiny apples are preferred and therefore growers have committed to delivering this premium product. Also, some research shows that waxing apples helps to keep apples crunchier and firmer for longer by retaining moisture inside the apple and preventing the apple going dry and shrivelling up. This helps increase the shelf-life of the apples and adds to other factors that contribute to consumers having a good experience when they eat their apple – such as the variety and taste of the apple.
Questions and answers
Is the wax on apples dangerous?
No. The types of wax used on apples in Australia contain wax from shellac and carnauba that are approved for consumption by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand as food additives. Both waxes are widely used in other food products, including chocolate and confectionery.
Does that mean palm oil is used on apples?
No. The palm tree that carnauba wax is derived from is called Copernicia prunifera. It is native to Brazil and only grown there.
The palm tree most commonly used to make palm oil is a very different plant called Elaeis guineensis, which is widely grown across certain parts of Asia.
There are about 2,600 different species of palm tree.
Where can I buy unwaxed apples?
In December 2016, Woolworths and Coles both stated that in 2017 they would be selling more apples with no added wax. This will make buying unwaxed apples a lot easier if you purchase your apples at these major retailers. Some smaller fruit and vegetable retailers and store holders at farmers’ markets also sell unwaxed apples.
How can I wash the wax off my apples?
You can wash the wax off apples by very gently rubbing them under lukewarm water with a soft brush. Don’t use hot water because it will ruin your apple and don’t use detergent. But remember, there is no reason to remove the wax from your apples because all the waxes used on Australian apples are food grade – so totally edible.
What other fresh produce is waxed?
In Australia, some Corella pears may also have a similar wax applied to them as apples. Also, stonefruit – including peaches, nectarines and plums – have a different food-grade wax applied to them. A variety of other fruit that is peeled before eating is also waxed including bananas, mangoes, passionfruit, avocados and pineapples. Citrus also has a wax applied and while citrus are usually peeled before eating, the peel can be eaten or zested and grated and used in cooking.
How can I tell if an apple is waxed?
If the apple looks really shiny then it has probably had wax applied – most apples in Australia are waxed. If the apple looks duller in appearance then it may not be waxed. However, some apple growers are getting a nice shine on their apples just by brushing them and without using additional wax. So, the best way to determine if an apple is waxed or unwaxed is to look at any product signage that may be promoting the apples as unwaxed or organic (organic apples are not waxed) or ask the retailer.
Should I peel my apples?
No. We don’t recommend anyone peels their apples because there are loads of valuable nutrients that are only present in the skin of apples. If you peel your apples you miss out on all this goodness. The wax on apples is safe so you can eat them peel and all. Or, if you don’t want to eat the wax, you can wash it off or buy unwaxed apples.
Why don’t you just sell unwaxed apples?
With both major retailers, Woolworths and Coles, selling more apples without any added wax from 2017, it will be much easier for consumers to buy unwaxed apples. Historically, waxed apples became more popular in Australia largely because they looked a lot nicer compared to unwaxed apples and retailers had previously reported that consumers prefer shiny fruit over dull fruit when choosing apples. An unwaxed apple may look duller, but it should taste just as good and it will contain all the nutrients that a waxed apple has.
How do you get the wax onto the apples?
After the apples are harvested they are taken to the packing shed where they are cleaned to remove debris such as leaves. During the cleaning process the natural wax coating is removed and a thin layer of replacement wax is applied to the surface of the clean apple by either dipping, brushing or spraying the fruit with the required wax. The resulting layer of wax is almost undetectable to the human eye and only a few drops of wax are used to cover the entire apple.
Why can I see a white coating on my apple?
Apple waxes based on shellac produce the shiniest apples, but under certain temperature and humidity conditions start to change and may turn white. So the white coating on the apple may be the shellac based wax, but even when it changes colour the wax is still edible.
Isn’t shellac used to polish wood? What are the other uses of these waxes?
There are many different types of shellac because it is a very versatile and useful wax. Different types of both carnauba and shellac are used for other food applications – such as to make confectionery shiny. Shellac is also used for non-food purposes such as to shine wood, for example, it’s used in the process of french polishing. While carnauba wax can be found in cosmetic products like lipsticks and is used as a coating for pharmaceutical tablets.
I am vegan, can I eat waxed apples?
Carnauba wax is a plant-based wax but shellac is a secretion from the lac bug. In the natural course of the female lac bug’s life she secretes the most shellac at the end of her life to protect her eggs. During the collection of the shellac both the dead and any remaining living beetles along with the shellac may be collected before being separated during processing, but the beetles don’t survive this process. The actual beetles or any part of the animal themselves, are not part of the final shellac product. It is really up to individual vegans to decide if the consumption of shellac should form part of their diet or not but hopefully this information will help vegans make an informed decision.
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(Citing references used in this article)
- The European Food Safety Authority states that carnauba wax used as a food additive with currently authorised uses (including waxing apples) is not a safety concern… read more.
- One of the major components of naturally-occurring apple wax on apples is ursolic acid that may have anti-cancer properties… read more.
- Shellac is only produced by the female lac bag who secretes it to protect her eggs before she dies… read more.
- The wax coating on apples can reduce moisture losses by 20 to 30 per cent, enough to delay shrivelling for a significant time… read more.
- Many types of fruit produce their own type of natural wax, but they will look more or less shiny depending on how their particular wax refracts light… read more.
- Both shellac and carnauba based waxes help apples to stay firmer and retain water compared to unwaxed apples… read more.