We’re quite used to writing these articles on ingredients and vegetation whose cultivation has a history hundreds of years long. However, today we’re looking at something whose timeline is an altogether grander affair: apples, whose trees are one of the earliest – if not the earliest – plants to be cultivated by mankind.
Apples have a fantastic range of nutritional advantages to go hand in hand with this distinguished pedigree, as I’ll go into in more detail below, giving truth to the old adage:
‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’
What are apples?
We have been growing apple trees for thousands of years throughout Asia and Europe and they are thought to be the earliest tree to be cultivated by humans. They were first grown in Turkey and their fruit has been changed and perfected throughout thousands of years of selection, resulting in the varied types available to us at market today.
The apple has been granted special mystical and religious significance in many cultures. They are often associated with the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, taken by Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. They also appear frequently in Greek and northern European mythology.
During the 17th century, apples were brought to North America by early European colonists, where they have thrived so much that they have even made it into a national dish in the US – nothing’s more American than apple pie, right?
Around 70 million tons of apples are produced globally every year, with China growing nearly half of this total output. They are followed by the US in second place, with Turkey, Italy, Poland and India making significant contributions.
Types of apple
As mentioned above, we have been selectively cultivating apples for thousands of years. In this time, we’ve come up with quite a few different types. Of these, however, there are some clear favourites, and some of these have made it onto my list of 7 top apple varieties:
Grown almost ubiquitously throughout the world, the red delicious is the most popular and yet perhaps the least liked of all the apple varieties produced commercially.
Cultivated for longer shelf life and reliable good looks, the flavour has been reduced to almost nothing. Its thick skin and crumbly flesh give you a reliable yet singular, slightly sweet, impotent taste.
Though not as pretty as the red delicious, the McIntosh delivers taste. It has soft skin and flesh and gives a sweetly acidic, layered flavour. They are great raw, less so baked (they tend to collapse in the oven.)
My personal favourite. It’s a close cousin of the golden delicious (see below) with thin, pinkish skin and a golden, crisp and juicy flesh that is quite sweet. Perfect raw or juiced.
This is another very commonly found apple variety and is a good all-purpose choice. Its flavour is mildly sweet, the flesh is juicy, and it works raw, juiced and baked.
This bright green, squat variety is perhaps the most well-known of all apple types. It delivers a bitterly tart flavour with a crisp, juicy flesh that sweetens with time.
You can eat them raw, though their intense taste may be off-putting. A more common approach is to bake them in pies, eat them in salads or combine them with nut butters to mediate the sharpness.
Another classic choice. Nobody knows for sure how this variety came about, and stories abound about how the Braeburn was discovered, not cultivated, in New Zealand. They are thin skinned with a balanced taste offering sweet, tart notes. They are best eaten raw, though work well in baking.
No, not the female cast in Grease: the classic, crunchy apple variety that gives you a tart taste that nevertheless finishes sweet. They are a cross between Golden Delicious and Lady Williams apples and come with a polished skin and firm flesh. They are versatile and can be used however you like.
Before we jump into the heavily detailed nutritional profile and various uses to which apples can be put, let’s start with a few quick facts to better acquaint ourselves with these humble little fruits.
- There are more than 8,000 varieties of apples in existence – the largest of any fruit – owing in part to their long history of cultivation throughout Central Asia and Europe. They are still one of the most widely grown trees today.
- By any other name… Alongside pears and plums, apples are actually a part of the rose family.
- Apple trees take four to five years to produce their first fruit, though as their life expectancy is close to 100 years, each one will still yield plenty. By the time the fruit is ready to be picked each year, the buds for the following year’s crop are already in place.
- An apple tree can be expected to grow to up to 15 feet in height in cultivation, and up to about a whopping 40 feet in the wild.
- Though they are well-known for their role in the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, apples are in fact never mentioned in the Book of Genesis. The role of the ‘forbidden fruit’ has just been popularly attached to them – so much so that the lump most often found in men’s throats are called ‘Adam’s apples’ as they look like a chunk of the fruit got lodged there when Adam was eating it!
- Apples have a range of health benefits, as we’ll go through shortly. Amongst those benefits…they can help to improve your memory. They contain high levels of boron, which increases mental alertness and stimulates neural activity.
As with many other fruits, apples boast a high fiber content, alongside vitamin C and various antioxidants. Given their low calorie content and the fact that they are mostly made up of water, they are also known for being very filling, making them a perfect snack for those wanting to watch their caloric intake. (1)
One small apple contains only 52 calories, with most of the energy coming from carbohydrates.
Carbohydrate content in apples
Apples are predominantly formed from water and carbohydrates. Of the latter, nearly a fifth is comprised of fiber – providing around 17% of the body’s recommended intake – whilst much of the rest of the carbohydrate content is accounted for by simple sugars like fructose, glucose and sucralose.
However, despite this high carb and sugar content, apples sit relatively low on the glycaemic index, coming in between 29 and 44 depending on the variety. This is in part due to their high fiber content which helps to slow the body’s digestion of the sugars.
The glycaemic index measures the effect different foods have on the rise in the body’s blood sugar levels after consumption: generally, lower values are healthier and more sought after.
Vitamins and minerals
Whilst apples do contain a variety of vitamins and minerals, they are generally in quite small doses. The exception to this is vitamin C, of which apples are usually a great source. Also called ascorbic acid, vitamin C is an antioxidant common in fruit. It is an essential nutrient that has many important functions. (2)
Other than this, the main mineral found in apples is potassium. If you’ve read our Banana 101 you will know just how important potassium is in our diets: amongst other benefits, it can have a very positive effect on heart health. (3)
Apples owe many of the health benefits listed below on a series of antioxidant plant compounds. The main ones are:
- Quercetin, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-cancer and anti-depressant effects in animal studies;
- Catechin, which has been shown to improve brain and muscle function in animal studies;
- Chlorogenic acid, which has been shown to lower blood sugar and cause weight loss in some studies.
The health benefits of apples
Now we get to it, the nitty gritty good stuff. Here’s my list of the top health benefits to be had from eating apples.
Apples’ antioxidants will help to ward off cancer
As mentioned above, apples are great sources of antioxidants, as well as delivering significant amounts of flavonoids. In the US alone, nearly a quarter of the phenolic antioxidants that people consume from fruits are from apples. Amongst all types of fruit, only cranberries have a higher total concentration of phenolic compounds. (4)
Because of these compounds – including the quercetin, catechin, and chlorogenic acid mentioned above – apples protect against free radicals, but they also do so much more. They have anti-proliferative effects, and beneficial effects on cell-signalling.
Anti-inflammatory foods like apples have been linked with prostate cancer prevention due to their quercetin content. Other studies suggest that certain phytochemicals in apples’ skin can help to inhibit colonic cancer cell reproduction. (5)
Apples can help to protect against inflammation
Colorful fruits are generally rich in phytochemicals, including the phenolics, flavonoids and carotenoids already mentioned. These have all been linked to a reduced risk for many diseases that are currently widespread in modern Western society, but which are often preventable. (6)
The reason for this is quite simple. Phytonutrients help to keep your arteries clear, they prevent high levels of oxidative stress from occurring, and they lower your body’s inflammatory responses.
Because of these effects, they have been associated with benefits to cognitive ageing, bone health, pulmonary function, diabetes, weight management and gastrointestinal protection.
Apples help to fight heart disease
We’ve mentioned in previous articles how high fiber diets can help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, not least of all heart disease. Alongside this, pectin, the type of fiber found in apples, is beneficial for naturally lowering cholesterol levels.
Pectin is a soluble fiber variety that binds to fatty substances in the digestive tract. This includes cholesterol, of course.
Studies have suggested that interactions between fibers and polyphenols in apples play an important role in improving markers of heart health. There is also evidence that links consumption of antioxidant rich fruits with prevention of hypertension, strokes, pulmonary disease and diverticulosis.
Apples help to defend against symptoms of asthma
Apples are considered a natural remedy for asthma, continuing their association with pulmonary health.
A 2003 study involving 1,600 Australian adults linked both apple and pear consumption with a decreased risk of both asthma and bronchial hypersensitivity, whilst other fruits and vegetables showed a very weak association with the same benefits. (7)
Apples’ fiber content works wonders
Apples’ fiber content – around 4 grams apiece, comprised of pectins – makes them a sure fire way to hit your RDI (25-30g daily.) Alongside the cholesterol fighting benefits of these pectins, such a high fiber content brings a great feeling of satiation as it expands in the intestine, making you feel fuller when you’ve eaten. (8)
It’s also good for detoxification, binding to fat and helping to cleanse the blood and digestive tract. Pectin also plays a key role in regulating sugar usage.
Following a high fiber diet has also been linked with improvement with regards digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome, as well as various cancers of the digestive system. It also provides constipation relief, with pectin considered a natural laxative.
Apples are a great source of vitamin C…
You can expect to garner around 14% of your daily vitamin C requirement by eating one medium sized apple.
Vitamin C brings many benefits: it’s a powerful antioxidant that helps to fight damage from free radicals, protecting the body’s DNA and cells from mutation. This also handily provides anti-aging effects as it promotes skin cell renewal.
It’s also important for brain, immune, skin and eye health, as well as for maintaining a healthy metabolism and resistance to infection.
…and of boron
Apples are one of the best known sources of dietary boron. Boron is important for building strong bones, helping to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, as well as helping to develop sex hormones, supporting brain function and aiding in lean muscle mass building. (9)
Are there differences between red and green apples other than color?
The differences are quite minimal when you compare the nutritional values found in green apples to red ones, across several varieties. The main benefits of eating apples is arguably in their fiber and vitamin C contents, and both colors provide the same amount of each.
However, there are a couple of minor differences. Likely because of their coloration, red apples tend to be about 50% higher in beta carotene than their green cousins, whilst green apples tend to be lower in calories by around 10%.
Variations in nutrient and phytochemical content can be as much due to factors like where the apples are grown, when they are harvested, how fresh they are, and how they are stored as the color of their skin.
Should you peel apples or leave the skin on?
You will lose some of the nutrients if you don’t leave the skin on. When you peel them, you will be losing just over a quarter of the apple’s fiber content, which, as mentioned above, is one of the main health reasons for including apples in your diet.
Aside from these nutrients, there are numerous other health advantages to be had from eating the peel. The peel will contain compounds called triterpenoids that help in both cancer cell destruction and in preventing the formation of new cancerous cells.
The antioxidants in the apple’s peel also has health benefits for your heart, as they prevent the oxidation of polyunsaturated fat, which would otherwise increase your risk of heart disease.
Apple seeds and cyanide
Apple seeds contain amygdalin, a plant compound found in high amounts in the seeds of all fruits in the rose family – so also apricots, peaches, cherries and, famously with regards cyanide, almonds. It is part of the seed’s natural defence system and is harmless when intact.
However, when the fruit’s seeds are damaged, by chewing, digestion and so forth, amygdalin degrades. It turns into cyanide. Obviously, cyanide is highly poisonous and can even be deadly in great enough concentrations.
We’ve all seen spy flicks in which the captured bad guy chews down on a cyanide capsule and dies in seconds. Cyanide interferes with the oxygen supply to the body’s cells, killing quickly at a sufficient dose.
So, try not to eat the seeds (though they have pretty low doses of amygdalin, so a few won’t lead to toxicity.) (10)
Why do apples turn brown when they have been sliced?
Apples are rich in iron, which reacts with oxygen alongside the enzyme polyphenol when you cut into one and expose it to air. This causes iron oxide to form.
Basically, your apple is turning rusty. Quite literally.
Don’t worry, though. It might not look appealing, but the browned flesh is perfectly edible. The iron oxide is harmless.
How do you keep your apples from browning?
Before I go through this list, there’s a top tip I would like to share with you. Use a really sharp knife when you’re cutting your apples. The sharper the blade, the less cellular damage is caused as the cut is clean.
If you use a dull or serrated knife your apple will brown more. Similarly, apple corers aren’t the best as they don’t give a clean cut.
This said, let’s look at a few handy ways to stop your apples from browning:
Top tips to stop your apples from browning
- Slice your apples in water, either in a large bowl or full sink. This stops them from making contact with air, so the oxidation process cannot begin.
- Brush your apple slices with lemon or lime juice – or any fruit juice or soda with decent amounts of citric acid. Ginger ale can work quite well, as can lemonade. This will slow the enzymatic reaction and can lead to some nice flavour combinations.
- Ascorbic acid will stop them from browning, too. Quite often you’ll find ascorbic acid used as a preservative in canned fruits for this very reason. Ascorbic acid is vitamin C and you can get it in powdered form from most health food retailers. Simply sprinkle a pinch over your apple slices- you will even get a little extra vitamin C content this way, so it’s a win win, really.
- Soak your apple slices in a little salted water. Use a solution of ½ teaspoon per litre of water and keep your slices in there for 3-5 minutes.
- Or you could always do what I do – let them go a little brown but love them anyway! The choice is yours.
Why are apples coated with wax?
Apples produce their own wax which coats their skin and helps to reduce moisture loss. It also keeps the apple fresher for longer.
However, farmed apples are usually washed to remove dirt and leaf litter. During this process, some of the natural wax is also washed away, reducing the apple’s natural, vibrant shine.
Of course, growers and sellers want their products to look as appealing as possible, so they apply a coat of synthetic wax to replace the lost natural stuff. This is usually some form of shellac, petroleum jelly, beeswax (so, obviously, non-vegan) or carnauba wax and will of course be edible. The synthetic wax seals in moisture and extends the fruit’s life, as would its natural coating: they look and often taste fresh.
However, all that is ‘edible’ is not good for you: there’s a great difference between edible and healthy.
The wax will often have a detrimental effect on the apple’s quality. One of these is called anaerobic respiration, whereby the wax acts as a barrier to oxygen. This will often turn your apple’s flesh mushy and take away the taste. And, of course, the synthetic wax can always be used to disguise this, so you think you’re getting a fresh, shiny, perfect apple.
Aside from this, the various waxes used can have a harmful effect on your body. They are not as easily digestible as the natural wax and so can upset your digestive system quite badly.
Apple buyer’s guide
Let’s start this off with a few top tips on selecting the perfect apple:
Check how firm the apples are
Pick one of the apples up and gently press the skin. If it’s soft or discolored, and if you leave an indent, avoid it: you want apples that are firm. At the same time, take a look at the apple. Some markings are fine and natural. However, noticeable bruises are another sign that the apple is a little off and should be passed over.
Also, look out for color. Though this isn’t the most reliable test of an apple’s quality, it can be of some use. For red apples, look for the green in the background to be mostly covered in dusky, pink or orange hues. This will mean that they’ve had plenty of sunlight and will be of better quality.
Know your stuff
Hopefully, this article has been helpful. We’ve gone through a few varieties, but it’s always good to look at as many as you can so you can pick out what you want and what meets your needs in the apple department. Learn how the varieties you want should look and feel, so you’ll know when the ones in your local shops are deviating from this.
Use your nose
Though you may look a little odd in the local shops, try giving your apples a sniff before buying them. Though the fragrance will vary from type to type, with some apples having a stronger aroma than others, all higher quality, fresh apples should smell, well, apple-y. The nicer the smell, the better the crop, generally.
Apples don’t really go out of season, especially in this modern era. You will always be able to buy them, no matter what time of year.
However, there will be a little seasonal variety to look out for. Though the big names like Galas and Golden Delicious will be available near enough constantly, if you’re looking for a rarer or more specialised variety of apple there may be better times to look than others. It’s always best to check with a local grocer if you need anything special.
There is a direct correlation between the temperature at which you store your apples and the rate at which they lose freshness. It’s always best to keep them somewhere cool like your fridge or pantry, and to leave them in the bag they came in. They will retain a lot more flavour and juiciness this way.
That being said, apples have a decent amount more longevity than most fruits – they don’t perish anywhere near as fast. Many types will last a month or more if you buy them fresh and keep them cool.
Should you buy organic?
Apples are one of the worst foodstuffs for pesticide contamination. Of course, not everything has to be organic, and where it doesn’t matter, you might be best served saving the extra money to put it where it does matter. But apples are well worth buying organic.
Apples rank towards the top of the dirty dozen list for being such a highly contaminated crop, alongside tomatoes, celery and leafy greens. (11)
I would always recommend going organic with your apples.
Now that we know a little more about this fabulous fruit, let’s explore a few ways to make the most of them:
Savoury vegan apple pancakes with thyme
Using apples in savoury dishes like these savoury pancakes gives you a depth of flavour, enhanced by the apple’s natural sweetness, that will keep bringing you back for more. This recipes’ mixture of thyme and chilies brings a spicy hit that adds tremendous things to those lower notes.
Latkes are well known for their creamy insides coated by the crunch of their outer layer, and this recipe will give you this ideal consistency, with grated potatoes that mix with the apple’s sugar to crisp up nicely.
Vegan apple crisp
Best served with vegan cream or vanilla ice cream, this vegan apple crisp recipe is the perfect sweet treat. It’s lovely made with cooking apples or sweeter, eating apples, and will give you and anyone you make this for the ultimate in indulgent comfort food.
Chunky apple cinnamon muffins
If you’re looking to use chunkier pieces of whole, good quality apple in your dessert, these vegan cinnamon muffins will be perfect for you. Spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, they are warming and sweet with a playful richness. Given how easy they are to make, it would be almost sinful not to try…
Vegan apple pie
I mean, because, really… you’ve got to have apple pie in this list. Who doesn’t love apple pie? This vegan recipe is great for anybody looking for a revamped, renewed take on the classic.
Savoury apple and onion galettes
Once more proving that there is more to apples that just sweet desserts, these galettes will make a great smaller dinner or will wow guests as a dinner party starter. From the Norman ‘gale’ meaning flat cake, in French cuisine galettes are a type of flat, quick and easy crusty cakes with a savoury filling.
This savoury vegan apple recipe is up there with the best of them.
Can dogs eat apples?
They can and mine does, though there are a few things you should know before you go for it too much.
The many reasons that apples can be healthy for humans are what can make them healthy, low calorie treats for your dog – the vitamins, minerals and fiber will all be appreciated by your pooch’s body.
Eating apples can improve your dog’s immune system, be good for their skin, reduce the risk of bone diseases – especially later life bone diseases – and can even aid in reducing the risk of certain cancers, the same as with us.
However, they’re not right for every dog. Dogs can be diabetic, in which case sugary treats like apples may not be appropriate. Or your dog may simply digest the apple poorly (you’ll know about it if this is an issue… trust me…) in which case you’ll know to skip the apples and move onto something else.
Apple cores should also be avoided, due to their cyanide risks, the same as for humans.
Make sure to dice the apple small as dogs tend to wolf food down (pun intended) and a larger chunk may be a choking hazard.
Other than this, give it a try: if they react well, you’re onto a winner. Portion sizes vary with the breed and size of your dog, so it may be worth consulting with your vet if you have any worries over this.
Can you grow apples at home?
Of course, and it can be quite easy and very rewarding.
The main thing you’ll need to do to succeed is pick an appropriate spot, as apple trees can be quite fussy about this. They always perform their best in full sun with moist, well drained soil. An apple tree can do well in other types of soil, but be sure to plant them in a place where there is little standing water.
When you’ve found the right home for it, dig a hole that’s about twice as wide and as deep as the plot your tree comes in, as you would with any other shrub or tree. Remove the tree from its pot, treating it carefully, and loosen its root ball, spreading the roots to face outward. Place it in the hole, fill in the rest with the soil you dug out, and then water well.
Now you’re good to go. Yield and flowering will depend on the variety of apple you’ve planted, so check with the nursery you’re buying from for more details on this.
Apples can be planted any time throughout the year other than the winter time.
Benefits to planting your apple tree
Of course, one of the main benefits to having your own apple tree or trees is that you will get a hopefully continuous yield of fresh, locally grown apples.
Fruit trees grow well in urban and suburban areas, so if you live in the city they are an ideal splash of green to bring into your environment. You may find yourself becoming more attached to the cyclical growing process and the needs of the environment from which city dwellers are so often divorced.
You will definitely be helping to provide cleaner air, swapping out some of the CO2 in your garden for good clean oxygen.
That’s it for my Apple 101. I hope that this article has covered everything you need to know about apples, the benefits and ways of incorporating them into your diet, and how to grow them – with perhaps the longest history of any cultivated tree included for good measure.
Their status as a healthy staple in both modern and traditional diets is well earned: their highly antioxidant nature, their vitamin and fiber content and the ease and low cost with which they are produced making them perfect for any pantry.
Apples are also a delicious addition to your diet, with many beautiful recipes from the annals of history and the kitchens of contemporary minds bringing out the best in them- though often it’s just as nice to eat them as they are without fuss.
I’ve included some of my favourite recipes in this article, but you will always be able to adapt your own and look elsewhere for more inspiration. However you decide to incorporate apples into your diet, why don’t you let us know what works best for you?
Don’t forget to share your thoughts and recipes in the comment section below.
About The Author:
James Dixon lives, works, and trains in Glasgow, Scotland.
He is an active freelance health and fitness writer, fully qualified personal trainer and veggie athlete. He holds several black belts and is currently training in both strength/barbell athletics and kickboxing. He has had an interest in animal welfare all his life, having been raised vegetarian, and has trained numerous athletes on plant based diets to great effect in recent years. Writing on vegetarian and vegan lifestyles and training is a passion for him.
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