Why do apples turn brown? Find out in this experiment! Plus, see how chemistry can keep your apples (or pears) fresh even after they have been cut.

Experiment Checklist

What You Need:

  • An apple or pear
  • Sharp knife
  • Lemon juice
  • Small bowl (big enough to fit half the apple or pear)
  • Clock/timer
  • Paper plates
  • Pen and paper
  • Adult help

What You Do:

1.  Use your pen and paper to make two labels, one reading “control” and the other reading “lemon.”

2.  Pour lemon juice so it completely covers the bottom of the bowl.







3.  With adult help, cut the apple in half from top to bottom.

4.  Take one apple half and place it cut­side down into the bowl of lemon juice. Leave it for two minutes. The other apple half without lemon juice is your ‘control’ sample that lets you see what normally happens to a cut apple.

5.  Observe the color of both apple halves, then place them white ­part­ up on the plates, with the corresponding labels nearby.

6.  Observe the apples again at 10-­minute increments, up to 30 minutes. Note any color changes and/or differences in appearance.

7.  Look at the apples again periodically throughout the day. What do you find?

What Happened:

When an apple is cut open, an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase is released from the cells of the apple and reacts with the oxygen in the air. This reaction causes the fruit to turn brown, similar to rust forming on metal. Almost all plants contain polyphenol oxidase, and it is believed plants use this enzyme as part of a defense mechanism. When a plant is damaged, the browning of the affected area is thought to discourage animals and insects from eating the plant any further. It also might help the plant heal because the browning creates an antibacterial effect, preventing germs from destroying the plant even more.

Why does lemon juice preserve apples? Lemon juice helps keep the apple from browning, because it is full of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and it has a low (acidic) pH level. Ascorbic acid works because oxygen will react with it before it will react with the polyphenol oxidase. However, once the ascorbic acid gets used up, the oxygen will start reacting with the enzyme and browning will occur. Lemon juice’s low pH level also helps prevent browning. Polyphenol oxidase works best when the pH level is between 5.0 and 7.0. However, below a pH level of 3.0, the enzyme becomes inactivated. The pH of lemon juice is in the 2.0 range, making it very effective against browning.

Besides lemon juice, lime juice and cranberry juice also have a pH below 3.0. Concord grape juice and grapefruit juice also have a low pH (not quite as low as the others), but will help delay the browning process. You may want to try several of these juices and find a tasty to way to serve sliced apples and pears in the process!

To learn more about acids, bases, and pH, check out our science lesson.