Researchers want a better strawberry

Plant City is home to one of the biggest winter strawberry crops in the nation, providing more than three-quarters of the country’s strawberries, according to the city’s website. 

With the help of her multidisciplinary research team, Cecilia Nunes, an assistant professor in the department of cell biology, molecular biology and microbiology, hopes to find out if reducing the amount of pesticides used in growing strawberries can prove to be both cost and taste effective for producers and consumers by testing Plant City strawberries.

Nunes has been working with strawberries for a very long time, she even focused on them in her thesis. 

“I was always interested in comparing the organic versus conventional practices in agriculture,” Nunes said. “It is really my area of expertise.” 

Nunes said the inspiration for her research came from a computer program created by her main research partner, Natalia Peres of the University of Florida.

The program Peres designed measures the humidity in the air and gauges weather patterns, which helped growers know when it would be most effective to spray pesticides. Because the weather in Florida is so humid and fluctuates frequently, it often makes growing strawberries difficult. For example, if it were going to rain that day, spraying the strawberries with pesticides would not serve its purpose. 

The program Peres designed was helpful for growers, but researchers were still left wondering what kind of affect the pesticides had on the fruit’s make-up. 

The research project designed to answer this question is multi-layered and begins with coordination of the field treatments with the growers. As soon as the crop is harvested, they are taken directly from the growers and brought to the labs. 

The shelf life experiments then begin, with all of the strawberries being sorted and kept at 2 degrees Celsius (about 36 degrees Fahrenheit) for seven days with 85 percent humidity. The berries are tested every day to determine when their shelf life ends. 

Initially, when the berries arrive, they are evaluated for the quality in terms of appearance: their color, firmness, texture and if they are shriveling or decaying. 

“These berries are then frozen and later analyzed for water loss, moisture content, pH, acidity, soluble solids content, anthocyanins, phenolics, vitamin C and sugars,” Nunes said.

Marvin Abountiolas, Nunes’ graduate assistant, said since there is no standard method for analyzing antioxidant capacity, he has to try and come up with one on his own. 

“My role is to analyze the data and find a new way to measure antioxidant capacity in strawberries and utilize that to get more information on pesticide usage,” he said. 

Abountiolas said the research will benefit the consumer’s health.

“It’s going to show the consumer, first of all, with less pesticide use the quality of the strawberry can still be okay just like the conventional one,” Abountiolas said. “Also, the antioxidant capacity can show people the benefit of the strawberries and see if the antioxidants are affected by the pesticide usage.”

The researchers will also do a consumer panel in order to test the perception of different levels of pesticides to the consumer. Organically grown fruit will also be included in the study. The University of Florida will be doing a blind test with a panel of 100 people to rate the berries.

The research project will conclude in 2015. It was funded by a $172,663 U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crop block grant that will go to the analysis of the multitude of data gathered over a two-year period.