Apples for health

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Sweet but with a lemony finish.

Crisp, tangy to the point of tartness.

Spicy and fragrant.

No, I’m not discussing the merits of fine wines. I’m talking apples!

Although we usually talk about apples in the fall — after all, October is National Apple Month — with all the influenza, colds and other nastiness going around, I thought it was time we be reminded of how apples can help keep us healthy.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away" is an old Welsh proverb that most of us are know, but what makes this fruit so special? What health benefits are associated with eating apples?

As one of the most cultivated and consumed fruits in the world, apples are continuously being praised as a "miracle food".

In fact, apples were ranked first in Medical News Today's featured article about the top 10 healthy foods. Researchers at Florida State University said apples are a "miracle fruit." In their study, the investigators found that older women who started a regime of eating apples daily experienced a 23 percent drop in levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and a 4 percent increase in good cholesterol (HDL) after just six months.

Apples are extremely rich in important antioxidants, flavanoids, and dietary fiber.

The phytonutrients and antioxidants in apples may help reduce the risk of developing cancer, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

Domesticated some four thousand years ago in the fruity forests of what is now Kazakhstan, apples became a part of the human diet a long time ago. With flavors shaped by their respective climates — the shorter the growing season the tarter the fruit — apples have been grown across the United States for centuries. But not until the last few decades, starting in the 1980s, have apple breeders offered such a variety and explosion of flavors: Fuji, Gala, Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, SweeTango, and many more. Remember when there were only a few like Red Delicious or Golden Delicious or McIntosh to be found in grocery stores?

But the history and diversity of apples is not the only thing to celebrate. Apples also can be credited with delivering an amazing number of health benefits, such as:

Fighting bad breath. Apples contain pectin, which helps control food odors. Pectin also promotes saliva, which cleanses breath.

Preventing asthma attacks. Asthma sufferers often have low levels of antioxidants. Apples are high in vitamin C and flavonoids (beneficial, water-soluble plant pigments). Both are antioxidant. One study found that vitamin C supplements helped protect against exercise-induced asthma.

Reducing the risk of stroke. A study involving 9,208 men and women showed that those who ate the most apples over a 28-year period had the lowest risk for stroke. Researchers concluded that the results suggest the intake of apples is related to a decreased risk of thrombotic stroke.

Preventing constipation. Fresh apples are high in fiber, which adds bulk to the stool. Apples contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, or roughage.

Combating fatigue. The high vitamin C and antioxidant content in apples counter the free radicals leading to oxidative stress, which has been linked to fatigue.

Reducing the risk of diabetes. The phytonutrients (beneficial substances found in various plants) in apples help regulate blood sugar.These compounds help prevent spikes in blood sugar in a variety of ways: by inhibiting enzymes involved in the breakdown of carbohydrates into simple sugars; by stimulating pancreatic cells to produce insulin; by decreasing the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream.

Compared to other commonly consumed fruits in the U.S, these nutritional powerhouses ranked second for highest antioxidant activity. However, they ranked highest in the proportion of free phenolic compounds — substances not bound to other compounds in the fruit and thus more easily absorbed into the bloodstream. So stock up on a good supply of apples for this season. And don’t cut off the peels. They contain much of apples’ fiber and antioxidant power.

If you're looking for a healthy alternative to fatty or sugary desserts, stewed apples make an excellent option. Easy to prepare, stewed apples work well as a slightly sweet topping or as a dessert by itself, to be eaten with a spoon like a fruit compote. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average adult should half-fill the plate of each meal with fruits and vegetables. If you don't get a sufficient serving of fruit during dinner, a dessert of stewed apples can make up for it.

A Mayo Clinic recipe recommends baked apples, a similar variation on warm, whole apples, as a healthy dessert. Even with the dried fruit and whole grains you can use to fill baked apples, a single serving still has just 179 calories and only 4 grams of fat, with no saturated fats.

The next time you have a hankering for fruit pie, have a dish of stewed apples instead. Instead of maple syrup on your morning waffles, top them with stewed apples.