How did a California grower manage to create a grape that tastes just like cotton candy? His secret: patience and the centuries-old practice of cross-pollination.
It took Jim Beagle several years of growing — and more than 100,000 plants — to breed a grape that tastes and even smells like the fluffy spun-sugar treat.
He accomplished this by cross-pollinating wild grape species. Cross-pollination involves transferring the pollen from one plant to the flower of a similar but different plant — such as two types of grapes — to combine the characteristics of both into a third type. The result is called a hybrid.
Cross-pollination, which has existed for several thousand years, can make plants grow faster, larger, and more disease-resistant. Fruits have been cross-pollinated into popular hybrids, such as the peacharine (peach + nectarine), the pluot (plum + apricot), and the tangelo (tangerine + pomelo). Other fruits, such as apples, have been cross-pollinated to give them a range of flavors, from tart to sweet.
Many plant breeders prefer to alter fruit flavors this way rather than using artificial flavors or genetic modification. Grape flavors don’t stop at cotton candy; hybrids can be made to taste like other fruits, such as strawberry, raspberry, lemon, vanilla, pineapple, or mango.
While Beagle’s grapes may taste like candy, they’re still a fruit, so they’re not half as sugary as the real thing. A small bunch of cotton candy grapes (a 100-gram serving) contains about 18 grams of sugar. By comparison, a typical 60-gram serving of cotton candy is almost all sugar.
People who have tried the cotton candy grapes say their sweetness lingers on the tongue, with very little of the tartness found in normal grapes. The new grapes also have a slight vanilla taste, which is a key flavor in cotton candy.