July 26, 2019

Strawberries: A Sweet Treat

The Tec Team's visit to a local farm for strawberry picking during the Strawberry Harvest Festival allowed them to learn about the history, health benefits, and flavor characteristics of strawberries, as well as the different varieties and cultivars, emphasizing the importance of freshness and room temperature for optimal taste.

The Tec Team recently went strawberry picking at a local farm, as part of the Strawberry Harvest Festival, to learn more about one of summer’s most popular fruits. We got there early in the day, to try and avoid the midday heat of an open field. After a scenic and bumpy tractor ride, we arrived at the fields, greeted by rows and rows of strawberry plants. After an hour spent searching for the reddest, ripest fruits to be found, we headed back with a box of juicy strawberries ready to be enjoyed. Before leaving, however, we made sure to try the strawberry shortcake and a sweet strawberry roll, which were both delicious.

Enjoyed throughout history, the ancient Romans believed that strawberries had medicinal properties, and ancient Greeks associated them with Venus, the goddess of love. Today, strawberries are still so loved that there is an even a museum dedicated to them in Belgium! A versatile fruit, they are used in a wide variety of dishes, from salads and jams to ice cream and cakes. In addition to their benefits in flavor, strawberries are good for our health. They are an excellent source of Vitamin C, and contain antioxidants, which may help reduce inflammation and improve heart health. Interestingly, the “seeds” on the outside of strawberries are not in fact seeds at all! They are called “achenes”, each of which is an individual fruit with its own seed on the inside.

There are two main types of strawberries: wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) and garden strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa), both belonging to the family Rosaceae, which also includes pears and peaches. The garden variety of strawberries, which is seen in stores and farms, are a hybrid species between strawberry plants from North America and Chile, first cultivated in France in the 1700s. The wild and garden varieties differ in many aspects; wild strawberries are smaller and much sweeter, but do not have as long of a shelf-life. Over time, garden strawberries have been selected for different characteristics, such as color and taste, which results in different cultivars of the fruit, or cultivated varieties. There are three main types of cultivars: June bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral, each with their own characteristics and duration of crops. Within these classifications are hundreds of different varieties of strawberries. At the farm we visited, they were growing sweet Charlie strawberries, a type of June bearer.

Interestingly, while strawberries, pears, and peaches are in the same botanical family, they have very different flavor profiles. Pears have a characteristic flavor molecule, ethyl decadienoate, also known as pear ester, and peaches have higher levels of lactones and sulfur containing molecules. The characteristic taste of a strawberry is largely determined by the balance of sweetness and acidity; as they ripen, their sugar content increases, and acidity decreases. This ripening process is controlled by the hormone auxin, which degrades cell walls and leads to a juicy strawberry. Flavor is also greatly affected by the smell, and strawberries have more than 100 compounds that contribute to their aroma. The basic sensory impressions of strawberries are fruity, green, lactone, buttery, and caramel notes.

One of the most common molecules contributing to these notes are esters. These are also important in other fruits, such as bananas and apples. One of the most important ingredient in a strawberry flavor is furaneol, commonly known as strawberry furanone, is 2,5-Dimethyl-4-hydroxy-3(2H)-furanone. These are found naturally in strawberries, and lend to their distinctive odor. One of the most distinct differences between freshly picked strawberries and ones found in the grocery store, is the level of this furaneol. The freshly picked strawberries had a much higher furaneol character than their store bought cousins. All of these characteristics, from color to fragrance, help contribute to the delicious taste of the strawberries we enjoy today. If you have the chance to pick them on your own, we definitely recommend it! The fresher they are, the better they taste. Strawberries are also sweeter at room temperature, so if you’re going to eat them soon, leave them out of the refrigerator for an even better taste.

Further Reading:

  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/list-of-plants-in-the-family-Rosaceae-2001612
  • https://www.foodrepublic.com/2013/05/20/14-things-you-didnt-know-about-strawberries/
  • https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/strawberry/strawberry-plant-types.htm
  • https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods/strawberries
  • https://www.hobbyfarms.com/wild-vs-garden-strawberries-which-one-should-i-grow/
  • https://ipm.missouri.edu/meg/2012/5/Strawberry-A-Brief-History/
  • https://pregelamerica.com/pmag/articles/strawberry-and-wild-strawberry/
  • https://strawberryplants.org/sweet-charlie-strawberry-plants/