LOS ANGELES — It’s not easy peddling fresh fruit to a nation of junk-food addicts. But David Cain is working to win the stomachs and wallets of U.S. shoppers.
Cain is a California fruit breeder whose latest invention is the Cotton Candy grape. Bite into one to get the unmistakable sensation of eating a puffy, pink ball of spun sugar.
By marrying select traits across thousands of trial grapes, Cain and others have developed patented varieties that pack enough sugar they may as well be Skittles on the vine.
“We’re competing against candy bars and cookies,” said Cain, 62, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who now heads research for International Fruit Genetics in Bakersfield, Calif.
Producers are constantly tinkering, hoping to come up with the next Cuties clementine orange or Honeycrisp apple – distinct products that stand out in the crowded fruit aisle.
“People are looking for more flavor,” said Mark Carroll, senior director for produce and floral at Gelson’s Markets, which will carry the Cotton Candy grape later this month.
Cain’s company specializes in bold flavors and exotic shapes. Among them are Purple Fannie Fingers, which are long and thin and are marketed as Witch Fingers.
Ordinary grapes like the red Flame Seedless can cost as little as 88 cents a pound.
The Cotton Candy could fetch around $6 a pound, though prices would come down if enough growers cultivate the grape.
Not to be confused with GMO engineering, cross-breeding techniques employed by fruit breeders are centuries old.
Adventurous fruit breeders have made California No. 1 in grapes, shipping a record 100 million boxes last year.