Mom always told us to eat our fruits and veggies, but these days some items in the produce aisle can tip the scales when it comes to price. So what determines which produce is cheap, and which costs a hefty load?
"It really comes down to supply and demand," says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa's, a specialty produce distributor. "Many higher-priced items aren't demanded as much, often because they have been recently introduced into the U.S. and the public isn't educated about them yet. If bananas weren't the number-one fruit in America, we wouldn't be paying just 50 cents a pound or less for them."
Shelf life can also play a role in cost. "All fruits are perishable, but produce that goes bad more quickly is often more expensive than hardier types," Schueller adds.
Which produce is the priciest of all? Read on for the top seven according to industry averages, and see if your favorites made the list.
#1: Winter TrufflesPrice per pound:
White Truffles: $2,200 - $6,000
Black Truffles: $1,200 - $2,200
Amount per pound: 4 (based on a 4 oz. truffle)
Warty and irregular in shape, truffles don't look appetizing at first glance, but their intense aroma and strong flavor make them coveted by foodies the world over. "Winter truffles are the most expensive produce items throughout the year," says Schueller, adding that black truffles are in season November through early March, and the pricier white varieties are in season just mid-October through December.
Why are prices so high? The rare fungi are mostly found in the wild, since they are difficult to cultivate outside of their natural habitat. They're also hard to locate in the forests where they grow, requiring specially trained pigs or dogs to sniff out their strong smell.
"In the winter the price of truffles skyrockets when supplies are shorter," notes Schueller, adding that winter truffles can cost nearly triple that of the summer varieties.
While Schueller says the average size of a truffle is 4 oz., it can weigh as little as 1 oz. or as much as 3 pounds — the latter sold at a soaring price attainable only to the privileged few. Are they worth their high price tag? Die-hard enthusiasts say yes, but we'll let you decide for yourself.
#2: Finger LimesPrice per pound: $20
Amount per pound: 40
Introduced to the U.S. only a year ago, finger limes have been called "citrus caviar" because their interior pulp contains tiny, firm juice vesicles that erupt with every bite. The tiny cylindrical fruit, which resembles a banana or cucumber in shape, can range in color from green to purplish or greenish black to rusty red.
"Very few stores in America actually carry them," says Schueller. "But they're very trendy right now — this has been the hot new thing with chefs across America."
Their taste combines lemon and lime with a flavorful bouquet of fresh herbs.
#3: Fresh Porcini MushroomsPrice per pound: $16
Amount per pound: Depends on weight; porcinis can vary from 3 oz. to 10 oz. each
A staple ingredient in Italian cuisine, porcinis are known for their strong, nutty flavor and smooth texture. They grow on the ground in forests and form a symbiotic relationship with the trees around them, which makes the mushroom difficult to cultivate. Porcinis feature a thick stem and large cap that can grow up to 12 inches in diameter. In season March through June, they can be enjoyed atop a bed of fettuccini, cooked with risotto or even grilled.
#4: RambutansPrice per pound: $11 to $12
Amount per pound: 6 to 10
Introduced to the U.S. about eight years ago, rambutans are closely related to lychees with a similar sweet — yet slightly less acidic — flavor. With a hairy red exterior, they're a bit unusual looking, but simply peel away the skin and remove the black seed to discover the juicy flesh. (Be sure to remove the skin just before serving due to high perishability.) Although rambutans' peak season is from May until October, you can find them sold sporadically throughout the year, says Schueller.
#5 Bhut JolokiaPrice per pound: $10 to $12
Amount per pound: 10 to 12
Looking to turn up the heat in your kitchen? Try this scorching chili pepper from India. In fact, it was ranked the hottest chili in the world in 2007 by Guinness World Records after the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University measured it at 1 million Scoville units — the scientific measurement of a chili pepper's hotness. (Jalapeños, by comparison, measure in at just 7,000 to 11,000 Scoville units.) Choose those that are red and glossy — just be sure to wear gloves when cooking to prevent the oils in the chilies from burning your eyes.
#6 Dragon FruitPrice per pound: $8.99
Amount per pound: 1
This exotic cactus fruit is typically only sold in Asian food stores and high-end food retailers, says Schueller. They're grown in Vietnam and domestically out of San Diego, he adds.
Highly perishable and introduced to the U.S. about seven years ago, it has a sweet and mildly acidic flavor, similar in taste to watermelon, cactus pear and kiwi. Its red scaly exterior may seem foreboding, but its interior, which ranges in color from white to pink to magenta with tiny black seeds, is both edible and delicious.
#7: MangosteensPrice per pound: $7 to $8
Amount per pound: 2
Despite their name, "mangosteens actually have nothing to do with the mango," says Schueller. Native to Southeast Asia, the round fruit, whose exterior ranges in color from red to dark purple, contains four to eight triangular wedges of white flesh that have both sweet and sour citrusy undertones. Legend has it Queen Victoria offered a reward to anyone who could bring the fruit to her, which may explain why it's been dubbed "the queen of tropical fruit."
"These are a newer fruit [in the U.S.] — we're the company that introduced them [to the country] just three years ago," Schueller says.
Click here to see the full slideshow of Priciest Grocery Store Produce