The Benefits of Apples

© 2007 Leonore H. Dvorkin

Note: This article was originally published in the May 2007 issue of the Denver publication Community News.

picture of apples
Photograph © 2007 Leonore H. Dvorkin

Apples are famously good for us. How often have you heard that "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"? Apples are delightfully crisp and juicy. Many varieties are available year-round. Unlike grapes or ripe bananas, apples stay firm in a backpack or purse, requiring no special protection. An apple makes an ideal after-school snack, requiring no preparation other than a quick wash. Baked into pies or cobblers, apples rank high among comfort foods.

In short, it's hard to find anything negative to say about this justly popular fruit. What may surprise you, as it did me when I was doing the research for this article, is just how many benefits apples offer. The range is truly impressive.

The nutritional standouts in apples are fiber, flavonoids, and fructose. One apple provides up to 5 grams of fiber, more than many cereals. This can help prevent heart disease and constipation. Apples contain virtually no fat. They can help lower harmful LDL cholesterol and raise beneficial HDL cholesterol. Lauren Mathews, a Denver acupuncturist, says she has seen patients' cholesterol levels "plummet" after they added a daily apple and a fish-oil capsule to their diets. Fujis and Red Delicious apples have the most effect on cholesterol.

Extensive research has confirmed that flavonoids, a class of antioxidant that is abundant in apples, help prevent heart disease and stroke. The richest sources of flavonoids are apples, tea, onions, and broccoli. To get the most of a flavonoid called quercetin, which can boost memory, be sure to eat the skin of the apple. A flavonoid called phloridzin, which is found only in apples, may help prevent bone loss associated with menopause.

Antioxidant compounds in apple skin called phenols provide UV-B protection, making your skin more resistant to damage from the sun. Braeburn, Fuji, and Red Delicious apples are all high in phenols.

The fructose in apples gives them their sweetness. Fructose is a simple sugar, but it's broken down slowly. Combined with all the fiber in apples, this helps keep blood sugar levels stable.

Dozens of studies in many countries have shown that apples can reduce the risk of developing asthma, several types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. They can also increase weight loss and lung function. The tannins in apple juice may help prevent urinary tract infections and gum disease.

The common and popular Red Delicious apple may be one of the healthiest foods on earth. It contains more antioxidants than seven other apple varieties. Jonagolds and Golden Delicious apples contain the most quercetin, the memory booster mentioned above. Granny Smith and Red Delicious apples are particularly good for the skin, fortifying both collagen and elastin. (My husband eats a Granny Smith apple every day. David is 63, but has very youthful-looking skin. Now we know one of the reasons why!)

There is nothing wrong with sticking with one or two favorite types of apples, as they are all good for you. But why not experiment, so as to get the full range of possible benefits? For just a few dollars, you can take home samples of half a dozen different varieties. And those are only a few of the 7,000 varieties of apples on the world market today. Be sure to try apples of all colors: red, green, and yellow. You will discover a remarkable range of flavors, texture, and sweetness.

Some cautions to observe: Apple juice has only about 10% of the phytonutrient content of fresh apples, and is higher in sugar. "Cloudy" apple juice is more nutritious than the clear variety. In order to avoid the pesticides that may be in apple skin, buy organic apples if possible. If this is not possible, be sure to wash and rinse the apples thoroughly. To get the most nutrition and fiber from your apples, be sure to eat the skin. Waxes are often applied to apples to protect them during shipping and storage. Carnauba wax, beeswax, and shellac (from the lac insect) are preferable to petroleum-based waxes, which contain solvent residues. If your apples are waxed, wash them thoroughly in warm soapy water, then rinse well before eating.

Using and storing apples: Of course you can eat apples raw. Many people like apple slices with a little peanut butter on them. Add diced apples to fruit salads and green salads. Sliced apples and cheese are a European favorite for dessert. You can also cook apples, and not just in desserts. Gravenstein, Pippin, and Granny Smith apples retain their texture the best during cooking. Try braising a chopped apple with red cabbage. To prevent apple slices from browning, simply put them into a bowl of cold water with a spoonful of lemon juice added. To use apple slices in future recipes, freeze them in plastic bags or containers. Whole apples retain a large percentage of their nutritional value for many months if they are stored in the refrigerator.

Try to eat at least three or four apples per week. Some of the healthiest people I know eat one or two apples every day. Now, after all I've learned, I plan to follow their example. To echo what one enthusiastic reader e-mailed me after she had read my articles on tea: "I'm a convert!"