Are Apples Really That Good For You, And What's The Healthiest Type?
The fruit selection at your local grocery store is most likely limited to just one kind of banana (Cavendish, by the way), a few varieties of grapes and a couple of choices for oranges. But check out the apple section and you’ll find an orchard’s worth of options.
Should you choose red or green? Soft or crunchy? Heirloom or something you’ve never heard of? Organic, conventional or GMO apples that resist browning?
Here’s one reason you have so many choices: There are 7,500 apple varieties grown in the world, with 2,500 grown in the United States, according to Tracy Grondine, vice president of communications for the U.S. Apple Association, an industry group.
We’ve all heard that apples are good for us ― an apple a day keeps the doctor away, right? But maybe it’s time for a fact-check. Is the fruit sugar in apples bad for us? Is one variety healthier than another? And – once and for all – what happens when you actually do compare apples and oranges?
Are apples really that good for you?
Absolutely, positively, apples are a good food choice. “Many of the compounds in apples have an anti-inflammatory effect,” Allan Kornberg, a pediatrician and medical director of the U.S. office of the Physicians Association for Nutrition, told HuffPost. “I live in the Boston area, and as we say here, ‘that’s wicked important.’ Consuming those compounds has a proven and positive effect on long-term health, because they help reduce inflammation. And a majority of diseases in the Western world — heart disease, cancer, stroke and type 2 diabetes — are related to poor diet, and to some extent are diseases of inflammation. Whole food, plant-based centric diets, including foods like apples, are protective.
“Even in the short-term, studies show that the kind of compounds found in apples can have a quick and positive effect on circulation, causing blood pressure to lower within as short as half an hour after consuming them,” Kornberg said.
Apples contain antioxidants, and registered dietitian Anna Lutz explained why that matters: “Antioxidants are a type of phytonutrient that slows or prevents damage to cells from free radicals, which naturally occur from our bodies functioning and interacting with our environment,” she said. In addition to containing the antioxidants vitamin C, catechin, phloridzin and chlorogenic acid, apples are rich in the antioxidant quercetin.
“Quercetin is helpful in regulating blood sugar and improving our bodies’ ability to use insulin,” registered dietician nutritionist Karen Ansel said. And forget your fancy apple-peeling technique. “For the most quercetin bang, eat your apple with the skin on, since apple skin has up to six times as much quercetin as the flesh.”
“Apples also are high in fiber, with four grams of fiber per piece of fruit, which is as much as a serving of oatmeal,” Ansel said. “That filling fiber may be why apples have been shown to help with weight loss.”
Registered dietician Barbara Ruhs added: “One apple has 10% of the daily value recommended for fiber, and that’s also helpful in lowering cholesterol, regulating the digestive system and preventing cancer.”
Comparing apples and oranges
Both fruits offer plenty of nutritional benefits. “Apples have a little more fiber, but oranges deliver loads of vitamin C,” Ansel said. “If I had to choose, I’d go with apples because they’re easier to eat — no peeling or drippy juice — so you’re more likely to grab one.”
For Ruhs, it depends on what time of year you’re asking the question: “Fresh-picked apples win the taste battle in autumn,” she said. “But winter is peak citrus season, so that’s when I’d choose something like blood oranges.” So? Both are pretty good, and if you ate one of each type of fruit every day, you’d be doing yourself a solid.
Do we have to watch our sugar intake when we eat apples?
There’s a fad among low-sugar dietary purists to confine their apple consumption to bright green Granny Smith varieties only. What’s up with that? Not much, according to the experts we spoke to. Even if one fruit is somewhat higher in sugar, it’s just fine: “Sugars from fruits aren’t bad for us,” Kornberg said. “Eat a whole apple and you’ll experience positive metabolic effects. Just avoid apple juice, which will contribute to a spike in insulin.”
“A Granny Smith apple has about 16 grams of sugar,” Ansel said. “A typical apple has 19 grams of sugar. Three additional grams of naturally occurring fruit sugar truly is not that big a deal. I’d much rather see people decrease their sugar intake by eating fewer highly processed foods rather than worrying about a few grams of sugar between varieties of apples.”
Admitting she was offering a “classic dietitian response,” registered dietician nutritionist Amanda Frankeny explained: “The nutritional content of apples do vary slightly among all the different types, but they’re all a great source of powerful nutrients.”
“When it comes to choosing an apple to eat, choose the one that excites your tastebuds for eating it out of hand, or one that works well with the recipe you’re making,” registered dietician nutritionist Amy Gorin advised.
Organic vs. conventional
While the agricultural and environmental benefits of organic farming are well established, we asked if buying an organic apple means that it’s necessarily more nutritious.
“Generally speaking, any plant that is fed compost receives a broad spectrum of plant chemicals, while fertilizers have been devised to contain the things necessary to make plants grow quickly and produce fruit,” natural foods chef Robin Asbell said. “I’d rather have the full spectrum, even if the plant grows more slowly. Avoiding pesticides is just a smart thing to do, and I’ll pay a little more for the [organic] apple.”
Non-organic apples consistently rank high in the Environmental Working Group’s annual “dirty dozen” list of produce containing high amounts of pesticides.
Some nutritionists are more concerned with getting us to eat more fruit and vegetables, no matter how they’re grown. “It’s really easy to get hung up on organic produce,” Ansel said. “But the truth of the matter is very few of us eat enough of any kind of produce. So the most important thing is to eat more produce and not to stress about whether or not it’s organic — and that goes for apples, too.
“If you’re partial to organic, that definitely works, but conventional produce is still incredibly good for you and, more importantly, more accessible, since many people aren’t in a position to pay up for organic.”
An often-overlooked factor in nutritional value is how long the apple you’re choosing has been sitting in a storage unit before showing up on your grocer’s shelf. “After three months of storage, apples lose a significant amount of the micronutrient polyphenols,” Gorin said. “It’s hard to know how long the apples you’re buying in a grocery store have been stored, but typically apples from farmers’ markets and CSA boxes will be fresher.”
Whatever type of apple you’re buying, the first thing to do when you bring them home is to give them a scrub. “I always recommend using a dedicated scrub brush with cold water to give apples a gentle wash when you get them home,” registered dietician nutritionist Vicki Shanta Retelny told HuffPost. “The skin of apples contains important fiber and nutrients, so wash them the best you can and eat them skin-on.”
How to eat more apples
“With the many disruptions to the food supply chain that have occurred this year, it’s good to know that apples are available year-round, and that they can last up to eight weeks in your refrigerator,” Grondine said. “During times of year when other fruits may not be available, you can buy a big bag of apples, refrigerate them and have them on hand.”
Apples also can be a culinary “secret ingredient” to add fiber and nutrients to your favorite dishes. “It can be fun to stop thinking of apples just as dessert, and start adding them to savory dishes,” Asbell said. “ A slice of apple on a sandwich can add the juiciness that you would look for in a tomato slice, especially after tomatoes are out of season.”
Frankeny makes use of an abundance of apples by fermenting them in sugar and water for apple cider vinegar. She also offered this snack tip: “Make your own baked apple chips by placing thinly sliced apples on a parchment lined sheet, sprinkling with cinnamon, then baking at 200 degrees F for one hour, then flipping them and baking about 90 minutes on the other side. Turn off the oven and let them sit inside until they’re very crisp.”
Other suggestions from Asbell: “Cube Granny Smiths into the pan when roasting root vegetables, and they will turn savory. Use crisp apples as a floating garnish for creamy soups. Make apple salsa or chutney, and enjoy the crunch. Use apple and onion slices in a gratin with herbs like rosemary and thyme.”
Finally, Asbell pointed out that it’s never too late for an apple that’s past its prime: “If you found an apple in the back of the crisper that’s getting soft, toss it into a simmering stock to add a hint of sweetness.”