Long before our country was known for its “fields of gold,” or considered the “bread basket” of the world, apples fueled American lives. Historical reports say that just about every homesite in Massachusetts during the 1600’s had an apple orchard because the Reverend William Blackstone welcomed the Pilgrims by sharing the fruits of his orchard. Indeed, for some time apples remained an important food such that the legendary John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) sprouted the American frontier along the Ohio river valley by broadcasting his seeds. Because they have a long shelf-life and are generally harvested late in Fall, apples serve as a dependable winter fruit. Malus domestica (apple tree) may have been prone to historical significance because of its adaptability and hardiness, but I believe its most favorable quality is the nutrition it provides the consumer of its fruits. Hence, understanding the nutritional power of America’s original super-fruit can benefit our present day lives.
The taste of an apple is due to its sugar content interacting with our taste buds, but its true sweetness transcends this simple quality, ultimately gratifying every cell in our body. Fructose is the major carbohydrate found in an apple, but as with most nutrients, it’s the manner in which this nutrient is presented to our cells that determines its effects on our health. Not all fructose molecules are created equal in that the molecules we ingest from natural sources (whole fruits) are far more beneficial than those consumed from unnatural sources (high-fructose corn syrup). For example, apples demonstrate an inherently low-glycemic index despite packing approximately 25 grams of carbohydrates per fruit because its sugar content is delivered to us as part of a phytonutrient complex housed in a pectin matrix (soluble fiber). Pectin attracts water and forms a gel which delays passage of nutrients through the stomach to the small bowel, thereby providing more satiety per calorie consumed. Delaying absorption of sugar means there is less of an insulin spike in the blood and improved metabolism. Therefore apple consumption can prevent obesity, but the health benefits don’t end there.
The two most lethal diseases in the United States, heart disease and cancer, result from the consumption of highly processed, manufactured foods which cause excessive inflammation. Fortunately, apple consumption reduces inflammation and improves our health by several independent mechanisms. The soluble plant fibers in an apple tend to pull LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides out of us by interfering with the absorption of dietary fat. Furthermore, the bulking of our stool tends to improve colonic health and reduces our risk of colon polyps, colon cancer and diverticulosis. In effect, eating apples cleanses both our arterial pipes (arteries) and our intestinal pipes (bowel) – we are therefore detoxified of industrial waste and by-products.
Perhaps more intriguing is that the newest chronic disease threat, type 2 diabetes, can also be prevented or ameliorated through consistent apple consumption. Phlorizin, a bioactive compound found abundantly in apples, competitively inhibits kidney glucose transporters and can lower blood sugar levels (if elevated). In fact, pharmaceutical companies are currently using analogs of the phlorizin molecule as the newest innovations to treat diabetic patients. But thinking more holistically about our health, the consumption of apples aligns us to nature, a resonance with great symbiotic potential.
Apples promote the growth of favorable bacteria in our gut and this improves our defenses. Curiously, our intestinal biome guides our immune system, therefore a more favorable microbial ecosystem within us creates a stronger immune system, one that is also more precisely directed so as not to attack our own tissues. Anti-oxidants are also key players in our defense and here we see that the positive effects of an apple begin in our mouth as tannins improve periodontal (gum) health. Diffusing further, vitamin C, polyphenols, flavinoids and quercetin molecules protect our body and brain from oxidative stress, the principle culprit in many diseases of the modern age. Incredibly, apples stabilize cellular metabolism to the extent that they have been shown to improve lung function by diminishing asthma attacks (hypersensitivity and inflammation in the lung).
On a personal note, apples have been the most important carbohydrate source through my health conscious conversion to a Naturvore, not only because they are so nutritious, but also because they are so portable and easy to eat. Fortunately, most grocery stores and farmer’s markets sell several different varieties of apples, each one with a distinctive skin, flavor and crunch, thereby making the consumption of two to five apples per day very palatable. Other fruit do not have such variability. In fact, my record number of apples consumed in a day occurred during an intense free-diving trip in the Florida keys when I ate nine before I could acquire other carbohydrate sources.
I attribute much of my health to whole, natural foods, and this review of one particular fruit explains why. I believe Americans can improve their health by consuming more apples, a powerful fruit with an important history. We should always wash apples before consumption, but they require little protection or care and yet will last for days at room temperature. So, grab a Jonagold, Cameo, Fuji, Pink Lady, Ambrosia, Jazz or Red Delicious and experience some fantastic metabolic moments, those which can be appreciated and remembered both mentally and physically. Fall is the best time to fall for apples.