Are they still keeping the doctor away?
Everyone loves apples! Learn why this fruit is so healthy, how to pick the perfect apple, and what differentiates each variety.
We’ve always loved apples. They’re such a convenient snack, prepackaged in an edible and nutritious natural wrapper, that they’ve been a mainstay of lunchboxes for centuries.
Good—and good for us
A great source of both soluble and insoluble fibre, apples offer a range of phytonutrients, including flavonoids such as quercetin, found in the apple’s skin, as well as carotenoids, isoflavonoids, and phenolic acids. Anthocyanins infuse the skins of red apples with anti-inflammatory properties (and like most other coloured fruits and vegetables, the deeper the colour the better).
The apple’s powerful antioxidants have been found to be protective against cardiovascular disease, asthma, strokes, and Alzheimer’s disease as well as lung, colon, and breast cancers. New studies suggest they may help with diabetes, weight management, liver disease, age-related cognitive decline, bone health, pulmonary function, and gastrointestinal protection.
But there are cautions
The routine application of herbicides and fungicides places conventionally grown apples at the top of the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Rinsing and peeling apples reduces the presence of some pesticides—but you’ll peel away all of the apple’s quercetin, anthocyanins, and antioxidant power along with the phenol- and fibre-rich skin. This makes organic apples your best choice.
Many of our commodity fruits have become sweeter and sometimes less nutritious over the past half century. Apple breeding has traditionally focused on sweetness, uniformity, non-browning and disease resistance, with nutritional content trailing far behind, though that is starting to change.
Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side (Little, Brown, 2013), has extensively researched the phytonutrient profile of apples and their nutritionally dense ancestors. “Wild fruits contain more glucose and less sucrose,” she says, “and sucrose raises our blood sugar more than glucose does. Sucrose tastes sweeter, so we selected for fruits that have more sucrose and less glucose long before we had any idea what those things were.”
This can be problematic for some. Although popular wisdom holds that apples are nature’s toothbrush, a World Health Organization-funded study found higher instances of dental caries (decay) in people who consume a great deal of fruit. (Fruitarians might be wise to brush between apples.)
Some irritable bowel syndrome sufferers are sensitive to carbohydrates known as FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-di-monosaccharides and polyols). Many such people cannot digest the high fructose (relative to glucose) that apples contain.
Although the phytonutrients and fibre in apples may help blood sugar control, it’s a complicated issue. Sugar has been shown to explain the worldwide rise in diabetes, so think twice if you plan to peel your apples or take them only in juice form, since you won’t have the fibre and phytonutrients to mitigate the hyperglycemic action of sugar.
But it’s not all about sugar
Robinson urges us not to look at sugar content in isolation: “The antioxidant contents of many fruits peak when the fruits are ultimately just perfectly ripe. And that’s when they have the most sugar,” she points out.
The phytonutrient content of different varieties is also hugely important. She cites a study, published in 2011, that attempted to test the “apple a day” theory on overweight men with blood lipid problems, using Golden Delicious apples—a variety very high in sugar and very low in phytonutrients—which actually raised the men’s triglycerides and LDL. Choosing a more nutritious variety—such as Fuji or McIntosh—would probably have shown drastically different results.
Over the years, we’ve had the apple choices in our supermarkets narrowed from the hundreds currently grown to around a dozen popular varieties on the shelves. New varieties are being developed all the time—old favourites crossed with new and “chance seedlings” such as Ambrosia becoming popular for qualities such as not browning when sliced.
Supermarkets favour unblemished, long-keeping fruits, and apple growers have obliged. This means that consumers who want more nutritious varieties sometimes have few choices. But there are questions you can ask to find the best on offer, and some tricks to understanding what makes a good choice.
It’s difficult to make hard and fast rules. Apples are maddeningly unique, like all natural foods. The sweetness and nutritional value of an apple are determined by its variety, ripeness, colour, and even growing position on the tree. (Dark red ones, grown in direct sunlight, are best.) The health and mineral content of the soil it’s been grown in and the freshness of the apple are also important.
Get to know growers
You can’t always know all that information when you shop in a supermarket, but you can give yourself an edge by choosing the best varieties with the deepest colour. You can also visit orchards, farmers’ markets, and apple festivals to learn the best local varieties and what’s in season. Ask your local apple grower about red-fleshed apples, which have anthocyanins throughout.
Eat the peel
Be sure to include peels in your cooking and eating: don’t miss out on the apple’s most abundant nutrients. Try strategies such as mincing or puréeing the peels with liquid ingredients when assembling cooked dishes.
Robinson, who grows eight apple varieties in her own garden, is excited about the future of fruit research. Many fascinating new discoveries are being made about the effects of Malus domestica’s phytonutrients on human health, how they are affected by cooking, and how they are absorbed and used by the body. “This is going to be a revolution in nutrition!” she says.
Apple types and sweetness versus nutritional value
|Variety||Nutritional value (including peel*)||% Sugars (Brix)||Uses|
|McIntosh||high||10.5%||eat fresh, cooking (purées)|
|Granny Smith||high||11.5%||eat fresh, cooking (keeps shape)|
|Red Delicious||high||14%||eat fresh|
|Jonagold||med/high||14%||eat fresh, cooking, juice, hard cider|
|Pink Lady||med||14%||eat fresh|
|Braeburn||low||11%||eat fresh, cooking|
|Cox Orange||low||13.5%||eat fresh, hard cider|
|Golden Delicious||low||16.5%||eat fresh, cooking (keeps shape)|
* Deep-coloured peels tend to hold the highest phytonutrients.