Apples 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” has been a widely-used adage in the west for the past half-century. The apple is the most popular and commonly-consumed fruit in the English-speaking world and has been used in a variety of sweet and savory dishes alike. This popularity is likely due to the hardiness and independence of the tree: the apple tree can be cultivated all over the world, even in the relatively poor climate of the UK. The Apple has been a significant symbol in European-Christian culture for thousands of years, making its way across the Atlantic with European immigrants as a cultural and culinary icon.

Calories and Macronutrients

The average apple weighs approximately 242g and contains around 126 calories [1] – a small number of calories compared to snack foods such as chocolate or chips. For the sake of weight loss, an apple could be a great choice for reducing the number of calories we eat: the apple itself is relatively large for the calories that it contains, meaning that it will reduce hunger more effectively than more calorie-dense foods.

The macronutrients are precisely what we would expect of a fruit: it is relatively high in sugar at 10g per 100g consumed and a moderate amount of fiber (approximately 2.5g). This makes it a great replacement for “junk food” snacks but it should still be limited within the diet: one apple a day may keep the doctor away but several is likely to cause issues with both the dentist and the doctor. The high sugar content means we should be careful with Apples and ensure that we eat them with fibrous or fatty foods that slow the digestion of sugars [2]. Common choices are almonds and other nuts, as these are high in unsaturated fats, contain various micronutrients and generally compliment the sweet, starchy taste of the apple.

Apples are generally eaten raw and with the skin on – this is the best way to eat them for the sake of dietary fiber. The skin provides an incredible source of insoluble fiber: this kind of fiber cannot be digested by the body and improves both digestive and metabolic health in the long-term [3]. This will also improve the quality and regularity of bowel movements. Apples, like most other fruits, are primarily carbohydrates: the fat and protein content of apples are both trace-only (less than 0.5g) which explains their low calorie content.

Micronutrients and Health

The micronutrient profile of apples is also rather underwhelming: they are not particularly high in any of the essential vitamins or minerals that we need to function as humans. Whereas other fruits such as oranges are very high in Vitamin C, an average apple contains around 12% of the recommended daily dose of this vitamin. This is a good start, but compared to the relative sugar content of a whole apple (around 22-24g, at least half of the recommended daily intake), the vitamin profile is relatively weak. We would need to eat around 8-9 apples a day to reach our Vitamin C requirements, which would also result in a sugar intake just shy of 200g – an awfully unhealthy amount.

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Apples are not unhealthy, however – they contain a variety of anti-oxidant properties which make them more effective and desirable for maintaining proper health (especially among those who perform strenuous endurance exercise) [4]. However, anti-oxidant properties are seen in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, not just apples, so it is hard to make a case for choosing an apple rather than a portion of blueberries or cranberries, for example.

The main value of the apple consists in its phytochemicals: small compounds which have profound effects on different aspects of the body and are only recently beginning to be understood. Initial studies suggest that the flavonoids contained in apples have positive effects on the reduction of cancer and prevent some chronic diseases [5]. This must be prefaced with the fact that these chemicals have been less extensively researched than vitamins and minerals (the traditional micronutrients) and are likely to have smaller effects. When we look at the vitamin profile compared to the phytonutrients, it is clear that the apple is still not the best choice for health.

Potential Risks and Allergies

The apple is a source of health risks for certain populations: those who are allergic to Birch pollen can have adverse reactions to certain types of apples. Proteins in these apples mimic birch pollen in the body and can spur allergies to a variety of other fruits based on this reaction. This generally involves a great deal of discomfort, itching and swelling of the throat, or severe anaphylactic shock depending on the severity of the allergy. Clearly, if you are allergic to Birch pollen, apples will not be keeping the doctor away at all. Cooking the fruit will denature this protein and reduce the chances of adverse reactions, but caution is still necessary.

It is also important to avoid eating the seeds or pips of the Apple: these contain Amygdalin – a chemical composed of cyanide and carbohydrates. This compound is converted into cyanide in the body – whilst the seeds contain very low doses of this compound, it may be sufficient to cause stomach pains and discomfort among those with a fragile constitution. Combined with the sugar content of apples, it seems that excessive consumption of apples and their pips would not be a wise choice.

Practical Uses

As a staple in the Western diet for centuries and even millennia, the apple has been adapted to a wide variety of nutritional and culinary uses. Apples appear in crumbles, pies, stews, sauces, juices, cakes, butter and as accompaniments to meat dishes. This means that there are a variety of ways that we can gain the nutritional benefits of the apple – we would not suggest a conventional crumble or pie (usually these involve enormous amounts of sugar). However, including apples in a medley of other fruits – ideally those high in fibre and micronutrients – may be an easy way to get the benefits without worrying about the sugar content or relatively-low nutrient density of the apple.

The apple is one of the most recognizable fruits in the world due to its cultural and culinary popularity. Whilst it may be an effective method of staving off hunger, keeping calories low and positively affecting the oxidation process, the vitamin profile is far inferior to a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Apples can have positive health benefits when we look at average consumption across a large population, but the effects of phytonutrients require further scientific research to establish the efficacy of the doses found in Apples. Overall, the apple is a handy snack and would be far superior to a variety of “snack foods”, but cannot compare to fruits such as Cranberries, Blackberries, Blueberries or even its close-competitor, the orange.

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References

[1] USDA national nutrient database for standard reference [URL = https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/2200]
[2] Anderson and Chen (1979): ‘Plant fiber. Carbohydrate and lipid metabolism’. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 32(2), pp.342-363
[3] Anderson et al (2009): ‘Health benefits of dietary fiber’. Nutrition reviews, 67(4), pp.188-205
[4] Finke and Holbrook (2000): ‘Oxidants, antioxidants and ageing’. Nature, 408, pp.239-247
[5] Boyer and Hai Liu (2004): ‘Apple phytochemicals and their health benefits’. Nutrition journal, 3(5)

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