It is apple season in the United States right now. This year’s crop is at its height of freshness, and this is the best time to find these juicy orbs. Better yet, it is one of the few fruits that can be grown locally or purchased from regional farms like Snake River Orchard in Rigby, Idaho.
Apples are not extremely high in vitamin C, like kiwis or colorful bell peppers. And they are not particularly rich in vitamin A. That honor goes to orange and dark green produce, like spinach, carrots and sweet potatoes.
Yet, Medical News Today ranks apples top of the list in an article about the 10 healthiest foods. In fact, they have been praised as a “miracle food.” Let us look at the nutrition facts to explain the reason for that notable placing in the produce lineup.
Apples are rich in antioxidants, which are substances that can prevent or slow cell damage. Sometimes called “free radical scavengers,” these healthy chemicals can reduce risk of cancer, diabetes, dementia and heart disease.
These beautiful fruits contain many strong antioxidants, including quercetin, catechin, phloridzin and chlorogenic acid. According to the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, apples have the second-highest quantity of antioxidant activity following cranberries. Apples also contain a good amount of fiber, providing about 20% of daily needs in a serving. That probably explains the association between eating apples and a decreased risk for cancers, including of the breast, colon and uterus.
In 2008 the Journal of Food Science reported that apples could benefit brain health. The researchers concluded that eating them daily protects the neuron cells, preventing environmental neurotoxicity and reducing risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
A large longitudinal study, also looking at brain health, observed 9,000 study subjects over 28 years. They found that people who ate the most apples had the lowest risk for stroke.
And in other interesting research looking at risk for Parkinson’s disease, eating more fruit servings, including apples, resulted in a lower incidence of the disease.
The reason apples are good for the brain may also be the reason they are healthy for the heart. Lowering blood cholesterol, decreasing risk for diabetes and influencing gut bacteria to reduce obesity risk are just a few of the ways these yummy fruits protect this vital organ.
Florida State University calls apples a “miracle fruit” due to its research on using them to lower blood cholesterol. The researchers found that eating apples daily for just six months led to a 24% drop in bad LDL cholesterol, while raising good HDL cholesterol 4%.
That is similar to expected results from a moderate dose of statin drugs, the usual medicine prescription for high cholesterol. Of course, apples have no known risk for side effects, not something that could be said for pharmaceutical solutions. The same researchers found that apples reduced C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation in the body known to cause disease. And to top it off, study subjects lost 3 to 4 pounds simply by eating a couple of these fresh fruit snacks daily.
Why did subjects lose weight, without changing any other dietary factors? Apples provide satiety, or a feeling of fullness, thanks to their low glycemic index, that causes a slow steady rise in blood sugar. And fiber in a whole food seems to cause a feeling of eating satisfaction. In a study published in the journal Appetite, research from Pennsylvania State University found that when subjects ate apple slices about 15 minutes before their lunch, they consumed about 200 fewer calories per meal and felt more satisfied with their meal than those who did not eat the apples.
The fiber in apples is mostly pectin, a soluble type found in the cell walls of plants. Pectin is a prebiotic, an important phytochemical that feeds the probiotics in the human digestive tract. Pectin not only helps grow good gut bacteria but also seems to help inhibit bad bacteria, such as Clostridium and Bacteriodes. Those are the types of infection that can cause serious illness in older adults and children.
This same type of fiber is known to improve blood sugar. In a small study of patients with Type 2 diabetes, 20 grams of apple pectin daily lowered overall blood sugar numbers.
It is best to buy organic apples if possible, since apples are listed on the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” produce items most likely to contain high levels of pesticides. However, the majority of the chemicals can be washed off by soaking apples in a baking soda and water solution, or white vinegar and water bath for about 15 minutes, then rinsing with water. Be sure to eat the skin, since most of the health benefits are in or just under the peel.
Interestingly, crab apples are the variety listed highest in antioxidants, with Ida Reds, and (my favorite) Honeycrisp coming in second and third. Although fresh is best, dried apples, like locally sourced Naughty Fruit brand, which provides apples with the peel still attached, have also been shown to provide health benefits.
Bottom line: The humble apple appears to be truly a miracle of modern lifestyle medicine. And October is the time to buy, eat and cook these amazingly delicious sweet, juicy fruits.