Real Food Encyclopedia | Pineapples

Pineapples are thought to have originated in the Amazon rainforest, where they were enjoyed by Indigenous peoples, likely in an area bordering Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. The Tupi people of Brazil called it nana or anana, which means “excellent fruit.” Smitten by this new culinary delight, Columbus brought pineapples back to Spain to present to Queen Isabella. It marked the beginning of a long period of pineapple infatuation that spread throughout Europe.

The Brits, particularly enthusiastic to get their hands on the prized fruit, were responsible for dubbing it the “pineapple,” a 17th century word believed to be inspired by the fruit’s resemblance to a pinecone. (The use of the word “apple” was used generically for any kind of fruit.)

American colonists imported pineapples from the Caribbean and considered it a symbol of hospitality, a tradition borrowed from the Carib people. To this day, the pineapple is a cultural symbol in the American south, particularly in Charleston, South Carolina, where they appear both inside and outside the home. When hung over the front door, a pineapple was a sign that the man of the house was at home from sea and welcoming visitors.

By the late 1700s, the pineapple arrived on Hawaiian shores, likely due to the efforts of Captain James Cook. Locals referred to it as halakahiki, or “foreign fruit.” It would be another hundred years before this foreign fruit would become synonymous with Hawaii. In 1899, James Dole, newly graduated from Harvard, came to Hawai’i and began growing pineapple. A cousin of Sanford Dole, the first governor of the territory of Hawaii, James Dole started the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1901. By 1911, 95 percent of all Hawaiian pineapples were canned and shipped to the mainland. By 1921, pineapple had taken over as Hawai’i’s leading crop and industry. In 1922, Dole bought the island of Lanai’i solely for pineapple production.

Until the 1960s, Hawai’i produced three-fourths of the world’s pineapple harvest. By 2002, its global share was just 10 percent; within the past few years, the market share has shrunk to less than one percent. In 1993, Dole closed its Honolulu cannery. In 2008, Del Monte harvested its last Hawaiian pineapple crop, leaving just Haili’imaile Pineapple Co. (under the Maui Gold brand) and Dole to represent Hawai’i-grown pineapple. It’s unclear just how much pineapple Dole is producing these days, as its Oahu plantation has become a major tourist destination with amusement park attractions.

Fun Facts about Pineapples:

  • In the Philippines and Malaysia, there is a long tradition of using the fiber from pineapple leaves to turn into sewing thread and string to make clothing, fishing nets and furniture.
  • By the 1960s, pineapple upside-down cake had become an iconic American dessert. In its 1960 edition of “Dessert Cookbook,” Better Homes and Gardens refers to pineapple upside-down cake as “tops on everybody’s list.” The recipe calls for “1 No. 2 can pineapple tidbits or crushed pineapple” with a heaping handful of maraschino cherries.


What to Look for When Buying Pineapples

In addition to its signature tuft of spiky leaves and alligator-like skin, the pineapples you’re likely to find at the supermarket will sport a coat of green, with splashes of reddish, yellow, orange and ivory, depending on the variety. The flesh comes in various shades of yellow, from pale popcorn to egg yolk.

For ripeness, inspect the base of the fruit and take a big whiff. Its perfume should be sweet, not fermented. Take a pass on fruit with moldy spots or signs of its impending arrival. When pressed with your thumb, a ready-to-eat pineapple should give a little. Some pineapple lovers tug on a leaf from the crown and argue that if it yields easily, the fruit is ready for the table. Others say not so fast. Regardless of where you stand, leaves should be pert and green, not dried out and brown.

Sustainability of Pineapples

In the last decade, pineapple production has skyrocketed in Costa Rica, making it that country’s number two export after coffee. Between 2000 and 2010, acreage for pineapple farms in Costa Rica increased by 300 percent. In its mad pursuit of capturing the European and American markets, Costa Rican pineapple plantations have chosen industrial scale farming methods, resulting in monocultures, like soybeans or corn here in the US. The sudden shift to intensive farming has raised many environmental concerns, including soil erosion, deforestation and pesticide residues. In 2010, “The Guardian” investigated these concerns, as well as the conditions of plantation workers, many of whom are migrant workers from Nicaragua.

In 2011, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) launched an initiative to investigate both environmental impact and workers rights conditions on Costa Rica pineapple plantations and they are currently working to turn things around there.

Pesticides and Pineapples

In 2013, the Costa Rican government acknowledged that traces of Bromacil, a weed killer used on pineapple crops (and a possible human carcinogen), has leached into groundwater and is showing up in neighboring water supplies. The public discovery prompted a decree to restrict its use.

Although you can find organic Hawaiian-grown pineapple, much of it is processed into cans.  In Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Produce, pineapple has year over year earned a spot on its “Clean Fifteen” list, meaning it has very low levels of pesticide residue. (which doesn’t mean pineapples don’t have other environmental problems, as described above).

Pineapple Seasonality

Although available year-round, pineapples from the Western Hemisphere are at their peak from March through June. You may notice that supermarket produce sections are better stocked at this time and offer sales.

Pineapples and Geography

Unless you live in Hawai’i, southern Florida or Puerto Rico, there’s no such thing as local pineapple for most American pineapple lovers. Hawai’i dominated world pineapple production for most of the 20th century, but has since been dwarfed by Costa Rica, particularly for the US market. Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines and Costa Rica have become the world’s pineapple producers, representing about half of the global market share.

Eating Pineapples

Storing Pineapples

Many pineapple lovers prefer to keep it at room temperature until ready to carve, but there’s no harm in keeping it chilled, either. On the one hand, a pineapple on the kitchen counter will perfume the room; on the other hand, it will decompose much more quickly than if stored in the refrigerator.

Once peeled and trimmed, fresh pineapple must be stored in the refrigerator where it will keep for three to five days in an airtight container.

Cooking with Pineapples

Pro Tips: 

  • It’s easy to be put off by its spiky crown and armor of scaly and prickly skin, but with a sharp, wide-edged knife, you can peel, trim and break down a pineapple in minutes.
  • Don’t throw out the skins: Underneath the scratchy surface, there’s enough pineapple-y goodness to make juicevinegar or a fermented beer-like brew. In Mexico, that brew is called tepache and in South Africa, it’s known as imfulafula.

Raw pineapple isn’t just for brunch buffet fruit salad anymore; it loves to play with savory ingredients, including herbs, chile peppers and garlic (ooh, and try it with a little fish sauce and lime, too).

Cooked pineapple delivers a very different flavor profile. Its acidity mellows significantly and the natural sugars really get a chance to shine. In addition to the earlier mentioned pineapple upside-down cake, cooked pineapple has figured into a few other iconic American dishes of the 20th century: Hawaiian pizza (which likely originated in Canada rather than Hawaii) and “baked ham” with pineapple glaze. In the 1935 edition of “My Better Homes & Gardens Lifetime Cookbook,” the recipe calls for “Pineapple juice (from 1 to 2 cupfuls added to the water in which the ham is cooked) gives the meat a new deliciousness. This rich liquor is reserved for basting the ham while it is baking.”

South of the border, the quintessential pork-and-pine marriage can be found in tacos al pastor, stuffed with shredded pork cooked on a rotisserie spit, seasoned with achiote paste and grilled pineapple. The fruit figures into a salsa which is served on top of the meat.

Preserving Pineapples

Pineapple makes a terrific refrigerator pickle.

Pineapple Nutrition

One cup of raw pineapple offers more than the daily recommended amount of Vitamin C (105 percent). It’s also rich in manganese and Vitamin B1, all of which offer antioxidant protection and immune support. A good source of fiber and folate, pineapple is also a unique source of bromelain, a protein-digesting (and tenderizing) enzyme with potential anti-inflammatory benefits. Bromelain has been studied for its link to treating muscle aches and other sports injuries, intestinal distress and pain relief for shingles. One cup of peeled pineapple chunks contains about 82 calories.