Superfood: Apples—Quite the Reputation

On apples, love, and health
By Amy Vergin

If you thought you knew all there was to know about apples, you’re wrong. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, one bad apple spoils the bunch—while these clichés are true, they are only half the story.

The mythology

Norse mythology held apples to be magical, giving the gods and the goddesses perpetual youth. In Greek mythology, apples were known as the forbidden fruit. Eris, the Greek goddess of discord, was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. In anger she threw a golden apple into the wedding party, saying that it belonged to the most beautiful one. The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite believed the apple was theirs to have, but they chose Paris of Troy to decide. Aphrodite tempted Paris to choose her by offering him the most beautiful woman on Earth, Helen of Sparta. Naturally Paris chose Aphrodite and claimed Helen, thus sparking the Trojan War.

Aphrodite’s triumph gave the apple mythical significance—ever since, throwing an apple at someone is to declare your love. If that person catches it, they accept.

In the bible, apples are intimately connected to the Adam and Eve story. A conniving serpent got Eve to eat an apple from the tree of life. She shared it with Adam, and sin entered the world.

The most recent apple story is from the early 1800s, when John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman walked barefoot around 100,000 square miles, planting apple trees that would provide food and a livelihood for the settlers of the future. To this day people celebrate his contribution, and it is rumored that one of his original trees survives somewhere in Ohio.

All things apple

Surprisingly, apples are a member of the rose family, along with apricots, plums, cherries, peaches, pears, and raspberries. A crisp, white-fleshed fruit, apples can come with red, yellow, or green skin depending on the variety.

Apples vary in flavor from moderately sweet to tart. Today there are over 7,000 varieties of apples on the market, including many hybrids breeders have created over the years. As of 2010, 65 million tons of apples were grown annually worldwide. China is the leading producer, harvesting almost half of all apples. The US comes in second, with a mere 6.8 percent of global production. Sixty-five million tons of apples may seem like a lot, but in the US alone, the average annual per capita apple consumption is 45 pounds!

The University of Minnesota has been the top contributor of new apple varieties. Since 1930, the Excelsior Experiment Station has been innovation central, producing Haralson, Honeygold, and Honeycrisp apples. New apples are bred by grafting.

Apple trees tend to be extremely susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases as well as insects, which is why a number of commercial orchards use an aggressive program of chemical sprays to make sure the fruit is disease- and insect-free and the yield is abundant. This common practice puts apples on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen List, so it’s smart to buy organic if you can.

GMO apples

The US could host two different types of GMO apples by the end of the year: Arctic Granny Smith and Arctic Golden Delicious. Unlike other GMOs, these apples were created for cosmetic reasons—they want to prevent browning or bruising once the apple is sliced. Scientists have inserted a synthetic gene that contains parts of four natural polyphenol oxidase (PPO) genes. PPO genes create melanin, which is the reason apples brown. Inserting this synthetic gene keeps the apple from browning, as the apple creates less than 10 percent of the natural PPO. Fortunately two agencies are blocking these apples from our markets: the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the FDA. These two varieties have been reviewed since 2010 and, if the go-ahead is given, the Arctic apples will have labeling to inform consumers about what they are eating.

An apple a day keeps diseases away

So what are the health benefits you acquire from eating this magical fruit? For starters, you get a plethora of nutrients instantly from the peel. Apple peels are high in antioxidants and phenolic phytochemicals, a main contributor to fighting chronic diseases. Phenolic phytochemicals can also protect nerve cells from neurotoxicity from oxidative stress.

The phytonutrients—like phenolic acid mentioned above and flavonoids—work double time. Not only do they protect the apple itself against bacteria, viruses, and fungi, they also give the human body antioxidant and anticancer benefits, and help regulate blood sugar. Phytochemicals in apples provide strong antioxidant effects protecting against colon and liver cancer cells, and giving the eater a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Polyphenols influence our digestion and absorption of carbohydrates and ultimately help regulate blood sugar. One of the most important nutritional attributes of apples is their ability to decrease the oxidation of cell membrane fats. Cell membranes are lined with blood vessels that become clogged when oxidation occurs Polyphenols decrease this action—these same antioxidants help lower asthma and lung cancer as well.

Unlimited possibilities

Look for apples that are firm with a rich color. Apples that are yellow or green should have a little bit of blush. Apple season ranges from the end of summer all the way until early winter in the northern hemisphere. Apples available the rest of the year have typically been kept in cold storage or imported from the southern hemisphere. The beauty of the apple is that it can be stored for a long time, usually three to four months. Cold storage helps keep an apple’s nutrients intact: Add cheesecloth or something similar to their storage space to keep moisture in.

Remember the saying “one bad apple spoils the bunch?” It’s true. When an apple becomes bruised, large amounts of ethylene gas are released, greatly decreasing the shelf life of that apple and those around it. If you find a bruised apple, make sure to toss it out right away in order to avoid a rotten batch!

Remember earlier when we said the flavor of the apple can range from sweet to tart? Well this flavor equation can (and should) factor into the way you use that apple. Apples on the tart side are perfect for baking (apple pies, crisps, and so on), while the sweeter ones are delightful raw.

If you need apples for a recipe but want to avoid the natural browning process, put the slices in a bowl of cold water and add a spoonful of lemon juice. If the recipe is to be prepared days later, freeze the slices in order to maintain freshness.

Another great option is to make juice or cider. Just remember that there’s a lot of nutrient loss during this process, so choose the varieties of apple cider that have pulp and a cloudy coloration, meaning more nutrients have been retained.

Whether you choose to add your apples to soups, make homemade popsicles with them, or bake or grill them, apples are a wonderful addition to your daily life. Enjoy their endless uses and their nutritional makeup. You won’t regret it.