The World of Luxury Fruit: Does a $156 Melon Taste Sweeter?


A $396 pineapple comes tucked into an ornate red box which unfurls like origami and is punched with breathing holes. A $156 melon, swaddled in foam netting, grew alone on a vine from which every other fruit was pruned, with the aim of making it extra sweet.

Luxury fruits, which have a long history in parts of Asia, are gaining popularity in the United States, as new varieties are being grown and imported, including those developed over several years by companies aiming to market unique-looking and unique-tasting produce. The $396 pineapple — trademarked as the Rubyglow for its red skin, and extremely limited — recently sold out in the United States within a matter of weeks.

Some of the fruits have long been given as gifts, especially in Japan and Korea. That trend is catching on in the United States, as is the taste for flawless berries and melons that travelers may have tried overseas, produce experts said. And as the luxury goods industry has grown, so too has the interest in luxury fruit, said Soyeon Shim, a scholar of consumer and financial behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The market has become much more global,” she said. Ms. Shim added, “you can buy anything you want.”

Eve Turow-Paul, an author and expert in global food trends, described luxury fruits as being among the “couture food experiences” through which people attempted to make value statements. “Over the last 10 years especially, global food culture has become homogenized,” she said. “How do you continue to one-up other people in this kind of food environment?”

In recent decades, unique produce — including the $156 melon, known as a Crown Melon; specialty grapes from South Korea prized for their large size and crisp texture; white strawberries from Japan; and mangosteens, a tropical fruit with soft white flesh — has been imported to the United States, said Robert Schueller, a spokesman for Melissa’s Produce, which describes itself as the largest distributor of specialty fruits and vegetables in the country.

The company’s attempts to introduce unfamiliar fruits to the American palate, however, have not always been successful, he added. The star apple, a deep purple fruit native to the Caribbean and Central America; the oca, a yam popular in New Zealand; and a square watermelon — which though it “cut like toast,” lacked a superior flavor — all failed to take off, Mr. Schueller said. (Melissa’s is now working with a grower in Costa Rica to develop a watermelon that is both box-shaped and sweet.)

For the vast majority of Americans, however, luxury fruits remain out of reach: The average household spends about $1,080 on groceries a month, according to a recent analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And even for those who can afford it, can a pineapple ever be worth the cost of a dishwasher?

“There’s no reason to ever spend $400 for one fruit,” said David Karp, a fruit researcher at the University of California, Riverside.

Mr. Karp, who is known for hunting down rare produce, said that while he had not yet sampled the Rubyglow, there was nothing in the pineapple’s patent to suggest it was far superior to common varieties. But in some cases, it was worth spending a more modest premium on the most delicious, seasonal produce, he added. “You can get mind-blowingly great fruit,” Mr. Karp said, “for $10 or $20 a pound.”

Here are some of the fanciest fruits available in the United States:

The pineapple, a tropical fruit native to South America, historically has been a luxury product in the United States and Europe, symbolizing imperialism, power and opulence. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that a plantation in Hawaii made the fruit more widely accessible across North America.

In recent years, a handful of unique, higher-priced pineapples have been introduced to the United States, including the Elefante Green Gold pineapple, which is native to Ghana and has white flesh, an edible core, low acidity and is shipped in a box because of its tendency to topple over. It costs about $26. The Pinkglow pineapple, grown in Costa Rica, was genetically engineered by Fresh Del Monte for its candy-pink flesh and low acidity. It was introduced in 2019 for about $50 and now costs up to $29, depending on its size.

This year, after 16 years of development, Del Monte, which distributes produce globally, introduced the Rubyglow pineapple, which has a red outer shell and sweet yellow flesh, to China and the United States. The high price is in part because only a few thousand of the fruit were grown this year, but the company has said that the price is likely to drop as production increases. Neither the Pinkglow nor the Rubyglow, both sold by Melissa’s Produce, come with their crowns, which can be used to grow more pineapples.

The Crown Melon, fragrant and sweet, is a specialty muskmelon from Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan, which has a warm, sunny climate. Each vine is pruned to grow just a single fruit, concentrating the melon’s flavor.

In Japan, the melon — which has a netted rind, lime green flesh and is analyzed for sugar content before being sold — is traditionally given as a gift. Each comes inside a box with its T-shaped stem, as a reminder of the growing process. The melon was only recently approved for import into the United States, and can cost up to $156 per fruit.

Though many U.S. buyers are already familiar with the melon, it is gaining broader popularity, said Ayako Yuki, a spokeswoman for Ikigai Fruits, which imports the fruit and other luxury Japanese produce into the United States. Social media influencers have also helped introduce luxury produce to a global market, she added. “They’re really curious to try out the first bite,” Ms. Yuki said.

A pound of nonorganic strawberries usually costs just a few dollars. A single luxury berry can cost that much, or even more — up to about $29 each.

Ikigai, the luxury fruit importer, sells a variety of red, pink and white strawberries imported from Japan in boxes ranging from $89 to $780. A typical package costs about $128 and contains 30 large strawberries, the company said. The berries — grown in greenhouses and picked when they are perfectly ripe and sweet — are sometimes swaddled individually to protect them from bumps and bruises.

In 2018, Oishii, a U.S.-based company, began selling Japanese-style strawberries grown at its indoor vertical farm in New Jersey. The berries, which became TikTok famous, initially sold for about $100 a pound (about $5 per strawberry) but now cost about a fifth of that, said Hiroki Koga, the chief executive of Oishii. “Our mission is not to sell luxury fruits,” he added, noting that the berries were simply proof of concept that the best-tasting produce could be grown on vertical farms.

Other U.S.-grown strawberries, though still premium, can come with a less shocking price tag than imported berries. Harry’s Berries, organic strawberries grown in Oxnard, Calif., currently cost between about $15 and $20 a pound, and at their best, are also very sweet, produce experts said.

The mango, a tropical fruit native to Asia, was introduced to Florida in the 1800s. But to this day, growing, harvest and import practices mean that the mangoes most common in the United States can often be too firm, stringy or tart.

In recent decades, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved imports from other countries, including from India and Colombia. Some premium mangoes are also grown in Florida and California, though these are not always available in other states. “Some people think that a mango is a mango,” said Mr. Schueller, of Melissa’s Produce. “They do not all taste the same.”

The Pink Elephant mango, from Vietnam and sold by Melissa’s, is among the newest of the imported varieties, Mr. Schueller said. A single fruit, weighing up to two pounds, can cost up to about $25. Another variety, the Miyazaki Mango, also known as the “Egg of the Sun” and imported from Japan by another retailer, is listed at $95 for one fruit.

“On the surface, this seems truly unsustainable,” Ms. Turow-Paul, the food trend expert, said of the import of luxury fruits to the United States, noting that part of what made some of the fruits so costly was the distance they had traveled.

But she said she hoped that U.S.-grown fruits could garner the same excitement. “There’s all sorts of wacky; delicious; beautiful things that grow that we just don’t celebrate,” Ms. Turow-Paul said.

She added, “people are open to eating new and novel things.”





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