Amazon’s Whole Foods buyout cramped Walmart’s style, and one way the world’s largest and richest company is fighting the insurgent e-retailer is by having scientists work in a secret, Willy Wonka-style food lab. It’s called the Culinary and Innovation Center, and the point is inventing “exclusive” foods you can’t buy anywhere except Walmart — whether it’s through genetic tweaks, weird flavor combinations, or just some clever repackaging.
NPR’s “Planet Money” was allowed to tour the lab, and what reporter Julia DeWitt found on the produce side were cantaloupes that stay sweet year-round, grapes that taste like cotton candy, tomatoes that can weather long-distance travel, and yellow-skinned watermelons that have an “unbelievable” sweet flavor. DeWitt says Walmart’s goal on the last item was actually to create better-tasting watermelons, but the lab turned the skin yellow by “accident.” They decided that the unique color actually gives the fruit “a competitive edge.”
The lab has also invented birthday-cake-flavored oatmeal, but the showpiece thus far seems to be Tropickles — fittingly, pickles that taste like tropical punch. You can sample the weird concoctions in stores right now.