How Are Fruits and Vegetables Processed?

People sorting food

Advancements in international logistics and better education on healthy eating have led to an increased demand for a variety of fruits and vegetables grown all over the world. Another factor driving consumption is the availability of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables that are cleaned, processed, pre-packaged and stocked in virtually every grocery store.

Processed fruits and vegetables help consumers strike a balance between nutrition and convenience, and they are valuable products to grocery retailers because of their higher price point. The processing requirements that go into supplying cut fruits and vegetables are not to be underestimated. With rigorous demands on cleaning, preparing and preserving, as well as the need for efficiently cutting and trimming foods with the right tools, there is more to fruit and vegetable processing than the consumer may realize.

Vegetable and Fruit Processing Considerations

Fresh cut fruits and vegetables, also known as processed fresh fruits and vegetables, are pre-packaged food items available for direct consumption by the end consumer. Processing also includes the canning and jarring of different food items. Processed fruits and veggies stored in cans and jars provide a healthy way to extend the food’s shelf life while still preserving its nutrition.

In other words, processed fruits and vegetables are already prepared and ready to eat — washed, sliced, cut, peeled, trimmed or otherwise prepared in a way that makes it convenient for consumers. Popular examples of processed fruits and vegetables include bags of cut baby carrots, pre-washed and chopped lettuce or salad kits, containers of fresh sliced pineapple, jarred mandarin oranges, canned corn and variety trays of fruits and vegetables.

To offer the best quality products to the consumer, processed fruits and vegetables still need to maintain the same level of flavor that consumers would expect if they purchased the food whole and prepared it themselves. In addition to maintaining good flavor, consumers also expect high nutritional content from their processed fruits and vegetables. For convenience, consumers need their processed fruits and vegetables to have long-lasting freshness to reduce food waste.

All these requirements present unique challenges and opportunities to food processors to prepare their fruits and vegetables in a way that’s safe and offers their customers convenience, flavor, nutrition and freshness. The main challenge in vegetable and fruit processing is that as soon as an item is altered from its natural state, such as cut or peeled, it’s at risk of spoiling. There are two primary types of spoilage that fruit and vegetable processors must try to avoid or minimize — physiological and microbial spoilage:

Physiological Spoilage

As soon as a fruit, vegetable or other plant is cut, its protective outer skin breaks and its tissues suffer physical damage that disrupts the cellular and metabolic activity of the plant.

An intact fruit compartmentalizes its inner macronutrients and enzymes, keeping them separate to ensure the regulation of metabolic activity. When these nutrients no longer stay separate due to a cut in the cell membranes, the metabolic rhythm is disrupted, leading to faster aging. This is one of the reasons why cut fruits and vegetables don’t last as long as whole ones. The other reason is due to the food being susceptible to microbial invasion.

Microbial spoilage

mold on an orange

After the plant’s outer layer has been breached, the inner tissue becomes exposed to microorganisms, which are normally repelled by the plant’s skin. Microorganisms are attracted to the exposed nutrients, particularly the plant’s sugar. The microbes use the sugars to multiply, quickly resulting in colonization of microbial activity.

The types of microbes that grow on fruits and vegetables depend on the type of food in question. Certain types of fruits and vegetables are particularly susceptible to mold and fungus growth. Mold spores and fungus cells thrive in environments with low pH. This means highly acidic fruits, like strawberries and pineapples, are more likely to go moldy and or be infiltrated by yeasts and fungi.

Neutral or high pH vegetables create a perfect environment for potentially deadly bacteria, which is why it’s possible to develop severe food poisoning from spoiled vegetables. This difference in pH is why vegetables are processed slightly differently than fruits by controlling for certain environmental factors unique to vegetable spoilage. With these considerations in mind, processors are focused on the goals of minimizing microbial growth and promoting lasting freshness when processing fruits and vegetables.

How Are Fruits and Vegetables Processed?

Consumers tend to take for granted the processes and precautions that have gone into their fruit cup or vegetable platter. However, fruit and vegetable processing is highly procedural. It’s dependent on timing, protocols and the right skills and tools for the job — all to ensure the customer has access to the freshest, safest food at their local grocery store.

Fruit and vegetable processors begin with the fundamental step of ensuring the safety and cleanliness of the food products and the processing environment. The cleaning and preparation steps are followed by precise trimming, cutting, chopping or peeling, depending on the type of food in question. For this, processors require the correct blades or knives for the job. Finally, the cut fruits and vegetables must be properly preserved so they survive their journey to grocery retailers and also last in the consumer’s fridge.

1. Cleaning

Because of the potential for harmful pathogens to contaminate seemingly safe food, regulatory bodies have implemented strict guidelines for the processing of prepared foods, including cut fruits and vegetables. After harvesting, fruits and vegetables must be washed and cleaned thoroughly to eliminate dirt and pesticide residue in preparation for processing. Ensuring food items are sanitized and as microbe-free as possible is vital to maintaining food safety for the consumer. Many processors opt to use non-toxic washing and sanitizing products and methods during these steps.

To begin the cleaning process, harvested fruits and vegetables are immediately placed into processing water — a disinfected solution where foods are handled for washing, cooling, waxing or for further transport. The processing water needs to be safe and sanitary and should be used solely for this purpose to avoid cross-contamination. Though there is an initial washing and cleaning step, sanitary practices must be maintained throughout the entire food handling process.

2. Cutting

Industrial circular blades

Varying fruits and vegetables are processed differently. For example, corn kernels are sheared off the cob, while baby carrots are trimmed and peeled. Strawberries are trimmed and chopped, while melons are sliced or cubed. Depending on how the fruit or vegetable is prepared, processors require unique cutting solutions. Here are some examples of the different types of knives and blades processors use for cutting, slicing, peeling or trimming fruits and vegetables:

Band knives: Powered by a cutting machine, band knives are designed for precision cutting of delicate fruits and vegetables. Band cutting helps to preserve the fruit or vegetable’s structure while ensuring a smooth slice.

Circular blades: Similar to how a circular wood saw works, a circular blade is an electrically powered industrial machine blade designed for speed, efficiency and precision when slicing or cutting through fruits and vegetables.

Cut off knives: As guillotine-style blades, cut off knives deliver force to achieve a clean, smooth cut through hard vegetables and fruit rinds. 

Straight knives: Straight knives can dice, chop and slice fruits and vegetables. Straight knives are especially useful in cubing and dicing harder vegetables like potatoes and squash or fruits like melons and apples.

Tray knives: Tray knives are formed to the processor’s unique specifications so they can cut fruits and vegetables into unique shapes to fit into trays.

Food processors typically use a selection of different knives with the appropriate qualities to process their fruits and vegetables, including custom-made blades that serve a unique purpose in their process.

3. Storing

The final step in the processing of fruits and vegetables is to preserve and store the food in a way that will prevent pathogen growth, maintain freshness and ensure food safety. When storing prepared fruits and vegetables, food processors must consider the following factors that determine how well food is preserved:

Storage temperature: Storing prepared fruits and vegetables in a facility set to the appropriate temperature is essential for staving off microbial growth. Cut fruits and vegetables must be kept in a cool environment throughout processing, and the same is true when they’re stored after processing. A general rule is to keep processed fruits and vegetables at 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

Atmospheric conditions: Food processors also modify the atmospheric conditions of the storage facility to ensure adequate concentrations of oxygen. Unlike temperature control, which prevents microbial growth, atmospheric modification delays the physiological spoilage of the fruit or vegetable products. Different researchers have found that between 3% and 5% oxygen combined with 5% to 10% carbon dioxide creates the ideal atmospheric environment for fresh fruits and vegetables. Goods should also be kept at high relative humidity.

Cross-contamination: A final concern for processors is the prevention of cross-contamination during storage. Because the plant’s natural barriers against pathogens have been removed during slicing and cutting, processors must ensure a sanitary storage environment. The risk of cross-contamination increases the more plants undergo different processing steps. Streamlining the cleaning, cutting and storage steps as much as possible minimizes opportunities for additional contamination.

High storage standards are essential for preserving processed fruits and vegetables. An adequate storage environment can help prevent bacterial and microbial growth and extend the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables — increasing their value and preventing food waste.

What Makes a Good Knife for Fruit and Vegetable Processing?

Assorted produce and industrial knife

A significant factor that determines the quality and lasting freshness of cut fruits and vegetables is the type of knife or blade used. Knives and blades used for fruit and vegetable processing need to be hygienic and easy to disinfect. Fruit and vegetable processors also need knives and blades that will deliver the smoothest, cleanest cuts without harming the food. Processors need a good return on their investment, so knives should be long-lasting and durable.

1. Hygienic

Since the reduction of contamination is a core objective of the fruit and vegetable processing industry, it’s important that all tools that contact the foods be hygienic. This means that knives and blades should be made from materials that can undergo sanitization repeatedly and come out disinfected and contaminant-free every time.

York Saw & Knife manufactures blades that are designed for the processing of fruits, vegetables and other foods. Our blades are made of hygienic materials such as stainless steel and solid carbide — both of which are standard use in medical-tool manufacturing, meaning their sanitary properties are excellent.

2. Precise

Preventing product loss is imperative for fruit and vegetable processors to maintain a profitable enterprise. Selecting the most precise, high-quality blade ensures accurate cutting, slicing, shredding or chopping. With the right blade, you can significantly minimize the damage done to fruits and vegetables during the cutting process. With precise blades, processors can speed up their processes, resulting in an all-around more efficient operation.

York Saw & Knife customers can choose from a range of industrial blade options to meet cutting requirements. For example, our circular blades come in both toothed and toothless options, providing more precision for the type of food you’re processing. With a range of edge and vari-depth options to choose from, you can ensure the most suitable knife for the job, whether you’re cutting delicate berries or hearty potatoes.

3. Durable

With the amount of use blades undergo in fruit and vegetable processing facilities, it’s vital the products be durable and uphold their quality for as long as possible. This ensures standardized quality and also protects your bottom-line investments.

Quality assurance is a core value in the York Saw & Knife engineering and manufacturing process. Using premium materials and technological processes, our American-made blades are designed to last. By manufacturing our industrial blades from a precise material composition, we can ensure our knives will undergo far less degradation over time, preserving the performance of our products.

Choose York Saw & Knife for Fruit and Vegetable Blades

Fruit and vegetable processors need high-quality, durable and precise knives and blades capable of delivering smooth and efficient cuts repeatedly. York Saw & Knife’s line of fruit processing and vegetable processing blades are high-performing, premium-quality knives designed to increase efficiency and minimize product loss, helping you to achieve your production goals.

Whether you need a standard blade such as a circular knife or you need a custom, durable and premium blade built for your unique application, York Saw & Knife engineers can design and deliver exceptional, American-made cutting solutions. Call 717-276-0338 or fill out an online form to contact the sales engineering team at York Saw & Knife today to discuss your vegetable and fruit processing blade needs.

Circular blades and fruits and vegetables