Will an apple a day really keep the doctor away?
Many of us grew up with such pithy adages — and took them at face value. We didn’t necessarily believe that they were true in a strictly literal sense but we got the basic message: Eating apples and perhaps, other fresh fruit, too, was good for our health
But what are the actual benefits of eating apples — if not daily, at least regularly?
Researchers at the University of Michigan’s School of Nursing actually put that question to a scientific test several years ago. They surveyed some 9,000 students and tested the health practices of students that ate at least one apple daily and those that ate them only sporadically.
And to their surprise, the researchers found no statistically significant difference in the regularity of the two groups’ visits to a doctor.
Daily apple eating wasn’t as powerful an influence on a person’s health as some health advocates had suspected – or hoped.
It was a simple test and arguably a flawed one. For one thing researchers failed to control for other aspects of the two student groups’ diets that might affect the state of their nutritional health.
And perhaps more tellingly, they didn’t ask about pre-existing health conditions, which might well compel some students to visit the doctor regardless of their apple-eating habits.
In fact, some scientific studies do exist that point to major health benefits to be derived from apples. But there’s reason to be skeptical. Almost all of these studies were funded through grants from the U.S. Apple Association and Apple Products Research and Education Council.
For example, a 2006 study published in the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine found that quercetin — one of the antioxidants found abundantly in apples — was also one of two compounds that helped to reduce cellular death that is caused by oxidation and inflammation of neurons.
A second study published in the Journal of Food Science in 2008 suggested that eating apples may benefit for your neurological health. The researchers found that including apples in your daily diet protects neuron cells against oxidative stress-induced neurotoxicity and may play an important role in reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Long-term apple-eating may also prevent certain kinds of strokes, according to a 2000 survey with 9,000 patients conducted over a 28-year period. Other studies have found a reduced risk of breast cancer and diabetes and significant reductions in cholesterol levels as a result of regular apple-eating.
Do all apples have the same positive health effects? Probably not, according to a 2014 study that compared how the bioactive compounds of seven different varieties of apples – Granny Smith, Braeburn, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Red Delicious – affected the level of gut bacteria, and by implication, the risk of obesity
Granny Smiths, it turned out, had the most long-term fat-reducing potential . (One caveat: the study was not conducted among humans — but with obese mice in a laboratory setting).
While most scientists are likely to agree that eating apples is a good thing, there is far less agreement on whether apple juice contains real health benefits.
For years, the dominant view outside the apple industry was that apple juice was a good source of Vitamin C but lacked many other health benefits associated with apples, including the dietary fiber derived from an apple’s skin.
But now there is a concern that many commercially-sold apple juices could contain too much arsenic, a known carcinogen.
In 2011, the “Dr. Oz” show presented the results of independent lab tests of samples of apple juice produced overseas. One-third of the samples contained levels of arsenic higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows in drinking water, the program revealed.
However, almost immediately, the apple industry attacked the finding. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a public statement called the information presented on the Oz show “misleading” and “irresponsible.”
After conducting its own tests on the same apple juice lots, the FDA claimed it found arsenic levels well within safe margins (in fact, almost zero).
More recent analyses of apple juice have also pointed to several potential downsides, including high levels of sugar and the potential for weight gain and tooth decay. Studies have also suggested that the vitamin benefits from most apple juices are minimal, and the presence of pesticides could pose harm to young children over time.
Consuming organic apple juices may reduce some of these risks, but overall, apple juices compared to whole apples – or even apple sauce – are less filling and nutritious than commonly thought.
How do apples stack up against other fruits? It depends. Apples contain more fiber than oranges, but oranges contain far more vitamins (especially vitamin C) and minerals.
So, now that cold season is upon us, you may want to change your fruit mantra to include an “orange a day.”
But don’t forget your flu shot.